South Bend Goal to Address 1,000 Vacant Properties in 1,000 Days
On February 28, SouthBendTribune.com published an article entitled 1,000 Properties in 1,000 Days.
‘1,000 properties in 1,000 days’
Rehabbing part of mayor’s report on vacant housing.
SOUTH BEND — The mayor’s office Wednesday released a report detailing the extent of vacant and abandoned housing in the city and recommending possible solutions to the problem, including targeted demolition of the most dilapidated structures.
Also recommended is the formation of a government-run land bank to acquire, manage and dispose of such properties in a manner that improves the city’s neighborhoods.
“It’s a terrifically rich body of data and set of recommendations, both showing the dimensions of the problem of vacant and abandoned housing as well as pointing the way toward a number of solutions,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said of the report.
He added, “It’s not enough, of course, to have the facts on the ground. This is a touchstone, and now it’s up to all of us to take action.”
The mayor spoke from inside the empty dining room of a former vacant and abandoned home in the 900 block of Cottage Grove Avenue, northwest of downtown. He was joined by city and county officials and members of the Vacant and Abandoned Housing Task Force, which produced the exhaustive, 78-page report in coordination with the city.
Buttigieg described the home as an example of what can be done to address the issue of vacant and abandoned housing when the city, county and community work together. The Near Northwest Neighborhood Inc. acquired the home from the county. It then rehabbed it with assistance from the city, which helped the not-for-profit secure a Community Development Block Grant.
“The house we are in was vacant and abandoned for about six years, and look at it now,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a terrific property. It’s on the market, and I think it’s going to have a family moving in as soon as people see what this house has to offer.”
In conjunction with the report, the mayor announced an effort to address 1,000 vacant and abandoned homes in the city in 1,000 days. That just about coincides with the end of the mayor’s term in office, which expires at the end of 2015.
“In order to do something great,” the mayor said, quoting the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, “you need two things: a plan and not quite enough time. And that’s where we’re at right now by setting this ambitious goal as a community of addressing 1,000 properties in 1,000 days.”
The goal is to rehab or demolish the homes, he said. He said the decision would be based on information about the health of the city’s neighborhoods that is contained in the report and on information particular to the property itself, including its condition, the owner’s financial situation and the market conditions in the surrounding neighborhood.
Task force co-chair James Kelly, a clinical professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said, “We need information about property owners, about the conditions of the property itself and, most importantly, about the market conditions in the neighborhoods around these properties, so that we can target our resources, our limited resources … to move forward on vacant and abandoned properties.”
In addition to addressing 1,000 vacant and abandoned homes in the next three years, the mayor announced that the city would move to demolish 50 unsafe homes right away. The homes are located in the most distressed areas of the city, including on the northwest side, centered west of Chapin Street and Lincoln Way West, and southeast of downtown, around Riley High School.
The city intends to solicit bids for the work next week, the mayor said.
“Just to be clear, we can’t demolish our way out of this problem,” he said. “We need to repair and rebuild all the houses we can, but also swiftly demolish those houses we can’t so they’re no longer creating crime and property value problems.”
At the mayor’s request, the Common Council agreed to appropriate an additional $500,000 out of the general fund this year to demolish some of the estimated 1,275 abandoned homes in the city. The cost to demolish one home is estimated at about $6,000 on average.
The report details how the city should go about assessing whether a vacant and abandoned structure should be demolished. To begin with, the home must meet the definition of an unsafe structure under the state’s Unsafe Building Law. Secondly, it must not be a candidate for rehab in the near future.
The report also recommends that an abandoned home not be considered for immediate demolition unless there is a plan in place to reuse the property once the home is gone.
Asked if the city has a plan for the 50 homes it intends to tear down in the coming months, Buttigieg said, “You can’t guarantee that every single one of those we’ve got the final answer. But one of the things that the report recommends, and that we’re going to do, is that when deciding where to target limited dollars, part of how we’re going to make that decision is a house is going to move up the list for action … if there is a plan in place for what to do with that lot afterwards.”
He added, “Candidly, a lot of them will not see a new house built on that site in the near future, but there may be opportunities to partner with neighbors, and we need to find ways as a local government to make it easier if a neighbor wants to turn one of those into a side lot.”
In terms of addressing vacant and abandoned houses, the report recommends the city begin by enforcing building codes.
To that end, the mayor on Wednesday announced the appointment of Shubhada Kambli to replace Catherine Toppel as the director of Code Enforcement. A graduate of Tufts University who has worked on energy issues at all levels of government, Kambli will oversee the implementation of the report, the mayor said.
“We need a single point of contact, single accountability for this issue … and our new director of code enforcement brings a wealth of skill and insight and strategic vision, both for the department itself and for the way the department is going to fit into this initiative, that I think is going to be a terrific step forward for our city,” he said of the decision to bring Kambli, who also holds a master’s degree in urbanism, landscape and ecology from Harvard University, on board.
Of Toppel, the mayor said, “I have tremendous respect and admiration for what Catherine Toppel has contributed to the city, and she’ll be continuing to serve as a senior adviser lending her expertise to the department.” He said she would do so on a contract basis and not as a full-time city employee.
The report recommends Code Enforcement narrow its focus when it comes to ordering property owners to make repairs. It recommends the department focus on property owners who can afford to make the repairs and on homes in neighborhoods in which the market is strong enough to support rehab loans.
Outside of Code Enforcement, the report recommends the city use receivership, a legal process by which title to a property is given to a court-appointed officer, or receiver, on a temporary basis, and land banking to address the problem.
A land bank is a governmental authority that acquires vacant and abandoned property and maintains it until it can be sold. Among other things, land banks make it possible for local governments to acquire contiguous lots in order to make large parcels of land available for development.
“Because not every abandoned house will either be fixed up right away or be demolished right away, we need a plan to bring these properties back to productive use … and the critical step in making vacant property and abandoned property available for productive use is land banking,” Kelly, the task force co-chair, said. “Land banking is a mode by which the government can take temporary ownership of the houses and make them available to nonprofit and for-profit developers,” he said, “so that they can be rehabbed or put back to greener use and make a brighter future for those neighborhoods.
Legislation passed in 2006 allows local development departments in Indiana to form land banks. However, the law does not provide for a funding source for the banks. In addition, under current law, it is difficult for land banks to acquire vacant and abandoned property via the county the tax sale process.
A special land bank committee introduced draft legislation this year that would allow land banks to operate outside government control, provide funding sources for the banks and reform the tax sale process, but the legislation was assigned to a summer study committee.
In order for the city to fully implement the recommendations in the report, its important the state act on some sort of land bank reform soon, Kelly said.
“For the long term, the land banking is extremely important,” he said. “And towards that end, we need legislation that allows for a tax sale process to have these tax-delinquent properties moved into a government-controlled land bank that will make them available for productive use.
He added, “If we think we can demolish our way out of this problem, we’re very much mistaken. We need to be able to put these properties back to productive use, and land banking is the tool we use to make that move over the long term.”
The mayor said he is working with county officials on ways to reform the tax sale process under the current law. “They’ve committed to work with the city on opportunities like finding a common definition for vacant and abandoned properties that allows us to fast-track those homes that are tied up in the tax sale process into the city’s hands, so we can do something about them,” he said.
Andy Kostielney, president of the county Board of Commissioners, agreed with mayor that it should be easier to acquire abandoned property. “I think we need to streamline the process by which property becomes available,” he said. However, “we need to be very mindful of not taking property out of people’s hands,” he said.
Asked about that concern, Kelly said, “The only kinds of moves of private property to government hands are tax-delinquent properties. These are properties for which the owner has decided that they will not pay the taxes that are due and owed to the county. So there is no discussion of eminent domain as a way of bringing properties into the land bank.”
Local residents also can help address the problem, the mayor said.
“The report also details a number of ways that citizens can take things into their own hands and be supportive,” he said, “everything from specific, direct things like mowing a neighbor’s lawn or taking action under the (state’s) Good Samaritan Law to protect and secure a neighboring property, all the way to gathering with other neighbors and actually acquiring a property.”
The mayor noted that a vacant and abandoned housing page has been added to the city’s website, www.southbendin.gov. The page provides information about the vacant and abandoned housing report, including a link to a copy of the document, and tools for residents to report code violations.
Later in the day Wednesday, task force members, including the mayor, presented the report to the public at Washington High School. The presentation consisted of a short PowerPoint presentation. It was followed by an extended question-and-answer period.
The response was mixed.
Second District Common Council member Henry Davis Jr., whose district includes a large number of vacant and abandoned homes, wondered about the wisdom of tearing down so many houses in the city. Davis introduced a resolution this week asking the administration to stop demolishing homes until a plan can be put into place to redevelop the resulting vacant property. It was tabled indefinitely, 8-1.
“We can’t rip down the houses, whether good, bad or indifferent (without a) plan in place,” Davis said. Buttigieg responded that residents want vacant and abandoned homes to be demolished.
“Just about every resident that has come to a Mayor’s Night Out event, particularly from the 2nd District, to talk about vacant and abandoned homes has asked me to expedite the demolition process,” he said. He added that it would be unfair to the people living next to such homes to stop tearing them down. They are magnets for crime and bring down surrounding property values.
“We would all love to see the population return to a point where we don’t have too many houses, but that’s currently not the case,” he said. The city’s population has decreased by about 30,000 residents between 1960 and 2010, according to the report. At the same time, it has almost doubled in size in terms of land area, from about 24 square miles to about 42 square miles.
Another person, Joseph Shabaz, accused the city of attempting to gentrify certain neighborhoods. He said land banks have been used to move lower-income people out of certain neighborhoods and “change the neighborhood completely.”
The mayor noted that only abandoned homes would be acquired by the land bank, so no one would be displaced. “So residents living nearby, I hope, we’ll see their prosperity grow,” he said.
After listening to the mayor’s response, Shabaz stood up and angrily left. He could be heard muttering “You should be ashamed of yourself” on the way out.
Others wondered whether the city planned to make public money available to low-income residents to buy and maintain homes. Banks will not loan less than about $35,000 to $45,000 to people, Steve Weldy with Weichert Realtor said, making it difficult to purchase an abandoned home for anything other than cash.
“We are working on an initiative aimed at financial inclusion,” the mayor said, “at prompting banks to come up with financial products that are available to low-income residents.”
Though not everyone was pleased with the report or its recommendations, “it paints a really good picture of the current situation,” task force and 1st District Common Council member Tim Scott said.
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On February 28, SouthBendTribune.com published an article entitled 1,000 Properties in 1,000 Days.