Public InterestFran Quigley

Florence Alexander, the director of the Citizens Multi-Service Center, stands in front of a home in the 1700 block of North Central Avenue. She gestures toward the north, then to the south and across the street. In every direction, she points to homes that are vacant and boarded up. Ken Gunn is one of two dozen Kennedy-King Park area youth trained to inspect for lead, rodents and mold in his neighborhood's homes.

Directly behind Alexander is a home with doors and windows covered with white-washed plywood. The home has been boarded up since 1997. Last week, a colleague of Alexander's called the real estate agent whose sign is on the outside wall, asking to see the interior. "No problem," was the reply. "Just get a crowbar and take off the back door."

These sites are not uncommon here. The Citizens Healthy Homes Initiative, a coalition of Concerned Clergy, Citizens Multi-Service Center and Improving Kids' Environment, conducted a survey of buildings in this Kennedy-King Park neighborhood and found that almost 10 percent are vacant, with the first-floor doors and windows boarded up.

It is hard to overstate the negative effects of abandoned housing on a community. Long-vacant homes blight the neighborhood, lower property values and offer havens for drug and other criminal activity. Children are often tempted to explore the empty houses, where they risk injury and exposure to health hazards like lead paint, along with mold and rodent droppings that exacerbate asthma. And for a community like Indianapolis that has a critical shortage of affordable homes, every one of these buildings represents valuable housing taken out of the market.

Mayor Bart Peterson announced a "war" on abandoned housing during his State of the City address in February. "No one in this great 21st century city should have a dilapidated, boarded-up eyesore as a next-door neighbor," the mayor said.

The activists that make up the Citizens Healthy Homes Initiative paid close attention. "We applaud the mayor's statement," says Tom Neltner of Improving Kids' Environment, standing by Alexander in front of the boarded-up home. "Now we need to see action on homes like these."

The Kennedy-King Park neighbors fear that the owners of these abandoned homes are waiting for the kind of gentrification that has already occurred in nearby near-Northside neighborhoods. If developers can successfully market the area to upscale homebuyers, these properties will become valuable for sale to someone who may tear down the home and rebuild. That is the last thing the Kennedy-King Park neighbors want to see happen.

In a May 5 letter to the Marion County Health Department, the Citizens Healthy Homes group stressed that point. "Our goal is not to have the buildings demolished. Demolition would only undermine efforts to overcome the lack of safe and affordable housing in the Kennedy-King Park neighborhood."

"We want the city to be aggressive"

The Marion County Health Department says they have pending health code enforcement actions on 18 of the 41 Kennedy-King Park homes identified as abandoned, and expects to have inspections of the remaining homes completed by the end of June.

But the Citizens Healthy Homes group says those actions aren't enough. "We don't want the city of Indianapolis and the county Health Department to wait for the owners, especially absentee landlords, to do something about fixing up the place," Neltner says. "Local officials have the ability to ask that these properties be placed in receivership. We want the city and the Health Department to be aggressive and go in, clean up the lead paint and other hazards and fix up the properties themselves."

The receivership option for local governments has existed for some time, but has rarely been pursued. Instead, the county Health Department seeks to obtain and enforce orders to have the owner clean up and repair the property, and often boards up or demolishes deteriorated buildings. According to the Health Department, in 2002 the city boarded 2,043 buildings and demolished 223 more. There is no comparable program for rehabilitating homes.

But a new state law, authored by Rep. John Day (D-Indianapolis) and scheduled to take effect later this year, is designed to make it easier for both local government and community groups to fix up an abandoned building and recoup the costs from the owners.

Bruce Baird, who manages Mayor Peterson's new abandoned homes initiative, says the city is considering the option of placing abandoned homes in receivership and has even performed one such procedure as a test case. "We are interested in it and it is potentially a tool, but it is not right for every situation," Baird says. "The legal procedure is complicated, and a receiver has to have pretty deep pockets to afford the repairs to bring the property back into compliance."

The Kennedy-King Park residents don't yet have the deep pockets to rehabilitate the abandoned houses themselves, but they are willing to help the city come up with a plan to get it done. Nineteen-year-old Ken Gunn, one of two dozen area youth who have been trained to inspect homes for lead, cockroaches, rodents and mold, says fixing up the homes is best for everyone. "Why leave these empty, or tear one of these down and build a new one, when these houses can be lived in by one of the people who really need a place to stay?" he asks.


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