GARY | On a recent July Monday morning, Lauren Schara was awakened by a crane demolishing the house next to hers.
She couldn't be happier.
“Everyone in the neighborhood was outside cheering,” said Schara, whose house had been robbed twice since mid-June by crooks who camped out in the heap that once was a home in Gary's Miller Beach section.
Schara has been staying with her mother a few houses down since the second robbery.
“Even the police said they probably took a couple trips,” said Schara, 26. “My stuff's gone, I know that. I just want to feel safe enough to go home.”
The abandoned house at 333 S. Howard St. had been an eyesore for more than a decade, but getting it torn down has been a lengthy process in cash-strapped Gary. It's been two years since a windstorm caused the south wall to bow out, leaning over neighbor Phyllis Raines' property.
On June 16, just a day after the first robbery at Schara's, what Raines had feared for two years finally happened — the wall fell on her as she gardened.
“That's what fell on me — the whole side of the house. It just fell on me. It cut my hand,” said Raines, 64, who is known as “Cookie” to her neighbors. “Dangerous and an eyesore are two different things.”
It still would take more than six weeks after the wall fell on Raines for the city to tear down the dangerous, abandoned building.
One down, more than 3,000 to go.
Abandon all homes ye who enter here
Gary demolition coordinator Cedric Kuykendall said the city has more than 3,000 abandoned properties. That's just the ones Gary knows about. Kuykendall expects there are a lot more that haven't been reported or noticed yet.
“There are so many vacant and abandoned buildings in the city of Gary that we do not have the money to tear these buildings down,” he said.
When Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson took office earlier this year, she asked Kuykendall how much it would cost to tear down all the abandoned buildings slated for demolition, he said.
Based on the 157 buildings Gary tore down last year with $2.2 million of federal neighborhood stabilization money, Kuykendall told the new mayor it would take $50 million.
He's since changed his mind.
“I would say $100 million now,” he said.
It cost $5,575 to demolish the small home at 333 S. Howard, which was a cheap demolition due to its size and the fact it was in such bad shape it qualified as an emergency. A normal demolition on an average single-family home costs about $7,000 to $10,000, Kuykendall said.
In an emergency demolition, the city can skip the costly and time-consuming step of finding the owners and giving them a chance to fix up the property. The paperwork and title searches cost the city $4,000 for the 23 properties they submitted June 28.
Plus, the demolition permit is good only for two years. If Gary can't find the money to tear down the building within that time — which it often can't — city officials must start the whole process over again.
“It's very costly,” Kuykendall said. “It's a lot of red tape dealing with demolition. As broke as the city is, we're trying to find funding.”
Long time going
The address of 333 S. Howard isn't just a name on a list for Schara. It's where the criminals who forced open her kitchen window and, a month later, pried open her back door hid out. It's the building that fell on her friend and the place where people dump garbage and where empty liquor bottles appear over the night.
“It's just one thing after another,” Schara said in mid-July. “We just want it gone.”
Kuykendall was one of the people who responded when the wall fell on Raines in June.
“We cut that wood up and put that back onto the property that was to be demolished,” he said.
In an emergency demolition, the city has to get NIPSCO to make sure gas and electricity have been shut off and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to ensure the house isn't historically protected.
“That process takes anywhere from 45 to 90 days due to the high volume of properties we submit,” Kuykendall said.
Here, there is confusion. Kuykendall said the house at 333 S. Howard was on a list of 49 emergency demolitions he faxed to NIPSCO on Oct. 25. He provided an electronic copy of the fax to The Times.
However, NIPSCO said it had never heard of the house. Still, it started a file on it based on questions from The Times.
“This address was not on any of the lists that we had previously received (from Gary),” Nick Meyers, of NIPSCO, said in late July.
Either way, no work was needed on NIPSCO's part, Meyers said. Electricity had been shut off at an unknown date. Gas was shut off in 1995.
And 17 years, two robberies and one falling wall later, the heap is gone, a small victory in a city that likely could use a few more.