GARY | The most immediate visible sign of some of the behind-the-scenes work going on to handle the city's blight will be the increased number of homes being taken down in the city.
In the long term, residents will hopefully see a more focused approach to stabilizing neighborhoods and perhaps more open space that can be used to aid in stormwater runoff, improved air quality and recreation.
The city is about one-third of the way through a technical assistance program administered by the Center for Community Progress designed to aid Gary in fighting blight in the city. A report by the organization is expected to be issued by early August.
Joseph van Dyk, the city's redevelopment director, said Gary officials are pleased with the progress they have made so far under the technical assistance program helping to coordinate efforts among various departments in the city, county and elsewhere.
He was especially happy with the cooperation and eagerness to participate in the program that he has seen from various agencies. The city, for instance, is working with the county and a private company in creating a database that will allow it to better direct resources when dealing with vacant properties.
A land parcel survey done in conjunction with the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy estimated the city has more than 12,000 blighted structures. Dealing with a problem of that magnitude can be daunting.
Tarik Abdelazim, the point man for the Center for Community Progress when it comes to the city, said "Gary has some of the most difficult challenges we have seen in a community."
Last year, Gary received $6.6 million through the Hardest Hit Fund Blight Elimination Program that was initially expected to allow the city to tear down a minimum of 379 of these blighted structures. Van Dyk, however, now believes as many as 800 to 900 buildings can be removed with the money.
A list of residential properties slated for demolition was to be posted at the city's website, www.gary.in.us. A public hearing will take place on the program at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Gary Redevelopment Commission, Suite S200, 839 Broadway.
The city was able to maximize the impact from the program money by demolishing blighted buildings that were close together and those that were cheaper to tear down, such as wood frame homes instead of brick structures with basements. Van Dyk estimated about 400 of the demolitions should be completed by the end of the year.
Van Dyk noted though that the city's primary objective is to do demolitions in areas where they will have the most impact in stabilizing a neighborhood or aiding in redevelopment.
Abdelazim said the city could take over the thousands of available properties that are routinely put up for tax sale by the county, but then it would be faced with the issue of how to maintain them.
Van Dyk also said the city ultimately wants these properties "in use. We don't want to be the big landlord. Having them in the city's name isn't a use in and of itself."
On Thursday, Van Dyk, Abdelazim and other officials from the city and county meet with Notre Dame professor James Kelly, who has published several articles dealing with community control of land resources, to discuss some of the challenges faced by the city. Some of the issues have to do with better use of city personnel — such as code enforcement officers.
For instance, Abdelazim said officials found code enforcement workers were wasting their time in citing properties that had no owners or properties already slated for demolition.
Van Dyk said if there are abandoned homes with no known owner, it makes no sense for code enforcement to keep citing the properties or putting liens on them, which will just make it harder for them to be sold. In some cases, he said the original owner of the property may have died and left no heirs or the heirs are not interested in taking over the property.
It was determined workers' time could be better spent enforcing regulations in neighborhoods where their actions could have a real impact.
Abdelazim, though, also noted the fruitlessness of imposing $15,000 worth of citations on an owner in a neighborhood where properties might only be selling for $20,000. Such large fines may only cause the owner to walk away and leave the city with another abandoned property. Instead, Abdelazim said some type of program that can provide rehabilitation money to make improvements might be appropriate.
"You have to strategically deploy your code enforcement officers," Abdelazim said.