GARY | The Steel City has an estimated 10,000 vacant homes, but the porch lights will soon come back on in a few of them.
For the price of a value menu burger, five first-time homeowners are buying houses in Gary that had been foreclosed on, lost to delinquent taxes or left behind.
Retired paratrooper Milton Willis and customer service representative Silvia Wiggins Willis are among the first beneficiaries of the Gary's Dollar Home Program, which was rolled out earlier this year. She is a lifelong Gary resident who graduated from Roosevelt High School and now works for Sears, while he works security part-time after spending 23 years in the Army, in roles that included machine gun instructor and chaplain's assistant.
After proving they were financially ready to own their first home, they got a brick house in the University Park neighborhood by Indiana University Northwest with a room where she can entertain company and a basement where he can work out.
The married couple now rents in the Miller neighborhood but hopes to move into their new home by spring, after completing an estimated $30,000 in renovations. They are exactly the type of people that Gary wants to keep in the city, said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
"We want people who are in this for the long haul, who are part of the community and will help rejuvenate it with us," she said.
Gary is using the Dollar Home Program – first popularized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1980s and 1990s – to address the glut of abandoned properties and also stem the tide of population decline. The city has lost 20,000 residents in the last decade, according to U.S. Census data.
"We launched it earlier this year because we believed it was one of the ways we could bring more residents back to the city," Freeman-Wilson said. "We launched it in somewhat of a pilot form or a smaller fashion than we have done in the past so we could look at it, look at our results and work the kinks out."
After getting hundreds of inquiries from as far away as Australia and Lithuania, Gary selected 12 participants for the first round. Five individuals or couples received $1 houses during a drawing earlier this month, and a total of seven participants decided to wait until the next drawing in summer 2014, said community development director Arlene Colvin.
Closings should take place in February, and all recipients will have to go through an eight-hour course on home ownership, Colvin said.
Freeman-Wilson, who still owns a HUD Dollar Home she received 20 years ago, said she hopes to expand the program after finding a nonprofit group to run it. The goal is to eventually sell 50 to 100 homes a year to people who agree to fix them up to code in six months and live in them for at least five years.
In the future, she is considering opening up the program to people who have not lived in the city for at least six months. News that people could buy a house in Gary for less than the price of a Big Mac garnered international interest, and Freeman-Wilson said the city potentially could benefit from attracting new residents from afar.
Gary bought some of the homes through Lake County tax sales, and also got donated properties from Wells Fargo. The city initially focused on stabilizing the University Park neighborhood by the IUN campus, but is looking at expanding the program into other areas of the city because of the 10,000 vacant houses, Freeman-Wilson said.
Most of the homes will require renovation. The house Milton and Silvia Willis will move into on Fillmore Street needs new drywall, floors and plumbing. It's also completely empty, and needs all new appliances.
They are looking forward to taking on the repairs.
"We are just so very excited," she said. "We want to live in this city. We plan to do all that we can to help our city and to help our mayor and to revitalize the city."
Gary plans to open the Dollar Home Program to new applicants sometime next year, possibly as soon as May or June, Freeman-Wilson said.