Indianapolis' Abandoned Home Strategy Questioned

Safety Issues Uncovered At City's Top Priorities

As the city of Indianapolis prepares to demolish thousands of abandoned homes by the end of 2012, the Call 6 Investigators report that previous pledges to tackle the same problems have fallen by the wayside.

RTV6 found safety issues at some of the abandoned homes labeled a top priority by Mayor Greg Ballard two years ago, Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.

Abandoned houses are frequently eyesores, crime magnets and pose a public health and safety hazard. In 2009, Ballard held a news conference to announce his top 25 list of problem properties that posed a direct threat to public safety.

"This is really about revitalizing entire neighborhoods," Ballard said on July 14, 2009.

In summer 2011, Indianapolis leaders echoed those statements when they revealed plans to demolish 2,000 properties by the end of 2012.

"We know these nuisances in our city affect safety," said Ballard at a news conference in August.

The city plans to use proceeds from the sale of the water utility to Citizens Energy to pay for the demolition.

Call 6 set out to find out what happened to the top 25 priorities listed two years ago. As part of Kenney’s four-month investigation, she visited all 25 properties and found three have been fixed up, 13 have been demolished and nine are still boarded up. Some are marked by broken windows, trash and high weeds.

At 1141 N. Tremont St., one of the properties on the 2009 top 25 list and also a property owned by the city, RTV6 found the back door wide open and asked Reggie Walton, the city’s assistant administrator for abandoned and unsafe properties, to go inside.

Walton and Kenney found vandals had taken everything from the light fixtures to the bathtub, along with signs that someone had tried to start a fire.

"That does concern me," said Walton.

"They may have used this as a makeshift stove," said Walton, pointing to a toilet in the abandoned home.

When vandals get into an abandoned home, it can put the entire community in danger. Two firefighters were injured while battling a fire in three vacant homes on Indianapolis' east side earlier this summer.

Walton said the abandoned properties are supposed to be inspected each month and that the city’s mowing contractors usually let them know when properties are unsecured. Walton said crews would return to board the entrances of the house on Tremont.

When RTV6 checked the home again on Oct. 27, doors and windows had been secured.

Kenney sat down with Ballard and asked him if he felt the top 25 homes on the list from two years ago had been adequately addressed.

"Yes, absolutely," he said. "You can always take one example, but you can’t extrapolate that into everything. I mean, come on. You know you can’t do that."

Lorraine Vavul, president of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis, and others are questioning the city's abandoned home priorities.

"Let’s knock down the worst of the worst, the homes that really can’t be saved, those top 25, let’s take them down, and then let's regroup," she said.

Vavul specifically questioned why a historic home in Meridian Park is on the city’s 2,000-item demolition list, but some potentially dangerous homes, such as the home on Tremont, are not scheduled for demolition.

"The process to me seems very nontransparent," Vavul said. "If it were transparent, we’d understand how these houses get on the list, how they get off the list."

The city said it tore down 275 houses in 2008, 350 in 2009 and 675 in 2010. Current estimates put the number of abandoned houses at 9,000 to 10,000, but the Call 6 Investigators found the city has not determined the exact number of abandoned homes in Indianapolis.

Much of the data listed on the Department of Metropolitan Development's website is from 2003, when Ball State university students surveyed 7,913 vacant homes.

RTV6 also found outdated information on the site. When it was unveiled in July 2008, the Indy Land Bank website was touted as a way for citizens, nonprofits, and developers to purchase abandoned homes for a low price.

But the Call 6 Investigators found the same 45 properties listed for six months, and the contact person listed on the Indy Land Bank’s home page left five months ago for another job.

"To me, that is one of the first places I would start if it were my decision of what to do," Vavul said.

The Indy Land Bank Facebook page, which lists abandoned homes for sale, hasn’t been updated since March.

"The website needs to be updated, sure," said Ballard. "But not every office has their own IT (information technology)."

The mayor said an exact count of abandoned homes does not need to be performed.

"There’s always an estimate," said Ballard. "But who’s going to go out and count? That’s a lot of effort on a lot of people's parts, and frankly, that number changes daily."

The city uses data such as boarding orders, police runs, high weeds and grass calls, undeliverable mail and utility disconnects to approximate the number of abandoned houses.

As the city prepares to bulldoze roughly 2,000 abandoned homes, 6News found it has no written plan for what to do with all the empty lots.

"I don’t think the city is in the rebuilding process," said Ballard. "I think that’s for the private sector. Community development corporations and other organizations should be doing that sort of thing, and we’re more than happy to help them with that."

Groups such as the Near-Eastside Community Organization are concerned about what they consider the city’s lack of planning for after the demolitions.

"When a neighborhood gets too many vacant lots, it looks like a burned-out neighborhood," said Rick VanDyke, of NESCO. "If we demolish too many without having any real redevelopment plan at all, is it going to be something that helps or not?"

Homeowner Michelle Wedge, a resident of Indianapolis' south side, would like the burned-out, abandoned home next door to be on the city's demolition list.

The Marion County Health Department issued a demolition order, but the home’s new owner is fighting it.

"I have to worry about my kids," said Wedge. "It needs to be demolished. They've not made it a priority as far as I’m concerned."

Officials said the top 25 list is fluid and that as owners fix the homes or they are demolished, more homes are added to the list.

Tearing down an abandoned home is often a long process that involves inspection and approval from an administrative law judge. It typically takes about six months from the time someone calls to complain about an abandoned home to the demolition.

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