Dis­cov­ery of bod­ies pushes com­mu­ni­ties to de­clare war on aban­doned build­ings

Post-Tribune - - Local - BY CA­ROLE CARL­SON ccarl­son@post-trib.com/302-0949

In Oc­to­ber, the grue­some dis­cov­ery of six mur­dered women in empty, de­cay­ing houses in Gary touched a brit­tle nerve in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

In some cases, ci­ties have dis­carded pas­sive ap­proaches and are be­com­ing more ag­gres­sive with va­cant houses.

With as many as 8,000 aban­doned homes, the is­sue of Gary’s aban­doned hous­ing be­came fod­der for na­tional sto­ries as ac­cused killer Dar­ren Vann, 43, of Gary, led au­thor­i­ties to six bod­ies over a 5-mile stretch of city neigh­bor­hoods.

Images of a killer stash­ing bod­ies in di­lap­i­dated, fore­bod­ing struc­tures de­liv­ered shock waves into area com­mu­ni­ties.

“Se­rial killers, thank God, are rare,” said Alan Mal­loch, se­nior fel­low with the Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Progress in Wash­ing­ton. “Va­cant, aban­doned prop­er­ties don’t cause com­mu­nity prob­lems but they’re like an am­pli­fier. They take what­ever is wrong with the a com­mu­nity and make it that much worse.”

Mal­loch, who teaches in the grad­u­ate city plan­ning pro­gram at Pratt In­sti­tute in New York, is the au­thor of “Bring­ing Build­ings Back: From Aban­doned Prop­er­ties to Com­mu­nity As­sets.”

Images of city blocks dot­ted with va­cant, ne­glected houses take a toll on the com­mu­nity psy­che.

“It’s clear when you start to see va­cant prop­er­ties, they re­duce con­fi­dence and re­duce the feel­ing it’s a safe place to live. If you’re look­ing to buy a house and you drive down a street and see boarded up prop­er­ties, it be­comes a sig­nal to keep driv­ing.”

Mal­loch agreed the strate­gic de­mo­li­tion be­ing pur­sued by Gary is likely the right course.

“What you re­ally have to do is be very ruth­less and fig­ure out how to come up with money to de­mol­ish most of them. You can’t be sen­ti­men­tal about a boarded-up house,” Mal­loch said.

Gary Mayor Karen Free­manWil­son said the Vann case trig­gered a more cen­tral­ized ef­fort in deal­ing with aban­doned homes.

She said the city asked the Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Progress of­fice

in Flint, Michi­gan, for help with a com­pre­hen­sive plan that pulls to­gether zon­ing, code en­force­ment ef­forts, and de­mo­li­tion grant money.

Free­man-Wilson said she hopes the Gen­eral Assem­bly cre­ates leg­is­la­tion mak­ing it eas­ier to de­mol­ish run­down build­ings with­out hav­ing to pay for costly ap­praisals and ti­tle work that some­times costs more than the city re­ceives back for the prop­erty. For ex­am­ple, the city’s Re­de­vel­op­ment Depart­ment sold an empty lot on Tyler Street on Dec. 17 for just $300.

“It makes sense if you’re get­ting rid of a $1 mil­lion piece of prop­erty, but that’s not our case,” she said.

The Re­de­vel­op­ment Depart­ment is con­sid­er­ing hold­ing auc­tions on some 6,000 va­cant prop­er­ties it owns to bol­ster con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity in the city.

In Ho­bart, Mayor Brian Snedecor said the Vann case ramped up pub­lic aware­ness about the dan­gers of aban­doned build­ings.

Re­cently, Ho­bart’s Board of Works voted to raze a di­lap­i­dated, his­toric 120-year-old build­ing after the owner failed to make re­pairs. City of­fi­cials had re­ceived sev­eral com­plaints from res­i­dents about the build­ing be­ing an un­safe nui­sance.

“The Board of Works has taken a fairly ag­gres­sive po­si­tion on th­ese prop­er­ties that have fallen into dis­re­pair,” said Snedecor who said ev­ery city has its share of crum­bling homes.

He said Ho­bart ex­panded its code en­force­ment to po­lice ne­glected struc­tures.

“We cer­tainly want to work with peo­ple, but at the same time we have an obli­ga­tion to ad­dress it when there are pub­lic safety is­sues and they have a neg­a­tive im­pact on ad­ja­cent prop­er­ties.”

Mean­while, Mer­ril­lville has ini­ti­ated an Aban­doned House Blight Com­mit­tee to tackle the is­sue. It hopes to find fund­ing sources to re­pair homes, if own­ers can’t af­ford them.

The town is also putting to­gether a list of aban­doned and va­cant houses and those con­sid­ered un­sal­vage­able.

| JIM KARCZEWSKI

Christo­pher Jones at­taches chip­board to the garage of a house in the 1800 block of 19th Street in Gary where a body was found in Oc­to­ber.

| JOE PUCHEK

This 120-year-old build­ing in Ho­bart was or­dered razed after fall­ing into dis­re­pair.

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