Discovery of bodies pushes communities to declare war on abandoned buildings
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.
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.
This 120-year-old building in Hobart was ordered razed after falling into disrepair.