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Demolitions of abandoned homes in Gary

Andrew Alexander, of Gary, watches an abandoned home get demolished in February on the 1200 block of Taft Street in Gary.

Jonathan Miano, file, The Times

If you’re getting antsy to see derelict buildings come down in Gary, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you.

So are Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and others in her administration. She talked about this issue at length last week with The Times Editorial Board.

The city is making progress, but there’s a long way to go. With the help of money from the federal Hardest Hit Fund, the city is knocking down hundreds of vacant buildings. But when the backlog is in the thousands, those hundreds of homes are a mere dent in the problem.

A two-year census of properties in the city identified 6,900 as vacant and abandoned.

So what’s holding up progress? There’s more than one answer.

More money would help, of course, but that’s not all the city needs.

With the General Service Department’s existing equipment, the city can knock down a single-story building with no basement. Other work requires a better-equipped contractor.

Keep in mind, too, that as the city has downsized its payroll, workers take on additional responsibilities. But there’s a limit to what any one person can accomplish in a day’s time.

Fewer than half the properties in the city are considered “fully performing,” meaning the property-tax collection rate is abysmal.

Those abandoned properties are an albatross around Gary’s neck.

The city is looking at other options, including public-private partnerships that would encourage developers to develop tracts of land after clearing out the derelict properties there.

“If you get in on the ground floor, then we believe you can get some significant returns down the road,” Freeman-Wilson said.

She’s hoping for an agreement by Sept. 1.

That’s a sensible solution if the terms of the contracts can be worked out to everyone’s advantage.

“Developers are just really hesitant to come into the city,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Money isn’t all that is holding up progress. The slow process of clearing up titles to the properties before structures can be razed acts as a brake on redevelopment.

There could be a long string of liens placed on the property — including by the Gary Sanitary District — in hopes of getting some of the bill paid when the property eventually sells.

But that’s a dicey proposition.

“One in five properties are on a tax sale every single year,” said Joseph Van Dyke, executive director of the city’s redevelopment and planning department. “These were abandoned with no practical plan to handle them.”

“The tax-sale process does not work,” Van Dyke said.

A new law that became effective July 1, Senate Enrolled Act 310, aims to help clear up the tax sale issue, but the clouded titles remain a stumbling block.

There might be a legislative solution, however.

Similar municipalities in other states automatically gain clear titles when they acquire properties through tax sales. This happens when it’s land no one else wants.

Freeman-Wilson wants a new state law that distinguishes between simply vacant and abandoned, and that gives municipalities clear title to properties acquired through the tax-sale process.

There are some failed land banks that might scare off legislators — the scandal-plagued and now defunct Gary Urban Enterprise Area is an example — but safeguards can be put in place.

Without clear title to properties being achieved sooner, the blight will linger longer.

Politics/History Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer’s.

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Senior Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.