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GARY | On a gloomy day in November, Gary's director of redevelopment and a University of Chicago student drove around the city's West Side chronicling the conditions of properties.

Armed with smart phones, Joseph Van Dyk and Jocelyn Hare stopped in the 600 block of King Street and graded the properties on a scale of A to F.

Hare, a post-graduate urban fellow at the University of Chicago Harris School, said she looks for exterior details such as a shoveled sidewalk or a new garbage can to determine if the house is occupied or not.

The information is being formulated into a database of the city's abandoned properties. As of last month, Van Dyk, Gary's director of redevelopment, said more than 80 percent of the city was surveyed, and it was determined there were 8,000 abandoned properties spread throughout the city.

In October, Gary's abandoned properties were spotlighted after Darren Vann led officials to the bodies of six women in four vacant houses. Vann, 43, of Gary, allegedly confessed to killing the women along with a woman who was found dead in a Hammond motel. 

He is facing murder charges in the strangling deaths of Afrikka Hardy, 19, and Anith Jones, 35, of Merrillville, according to court records. He has not been charged in the other deaths. 

The other women who were found in the homes are Teaira Batey, 28, of Gary, and Kristine Williams, 36, of Gary. Officials are still working to identify three women.

The city plans to demolish the houses when law enforcement officials are done with their criminal investigation, Van Dyk said.  

The city has worked with University of Chicago students and volunteers to survey the entire city using LocalData. The app was developed for Detroit in 2012 by fellows from the Code for America project, and it was later tweaked to fit Gary's needs.

Before the survey started, Van Dyk said the sanitary district was the only city department that had limited information about abandoned structures.

The city can use the survey to determine which houses to demolish and the cost to do so. Van Dyk said the data will also guide the city on where to invest money for developments or city projects like repaving roads.

On average, it costs $8,000 to $10,000 to demolish a two-story house, Van Dyk said. Some of the abandoned structures in Gary are larger apartment buildings or churches.

Gary has received millions in funding to demolish abandoned properties from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the U.S. Department of Treasury's Hardest Hit Fund and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Van Dyk said it's important to strategically figure out which houses to demolish. For example, he said if there is a house that becomes abandoned, the chances of the surrounding properties falling into blight increases dramatically.

“Blight is contagious,” he said. “By eliminating one or two buildings, we stabilize that neighborhood.”

Gary demolished more than 100 abandoned buildings this year and estimated demolishing about 400 buildings next year, according to a news release from the city.

Blight not limited to Gary

Other nearby Lake County cities are also working to address blight.

In East Chicago, Mayor Anthony Copeland said officials created a three-phase demolition plan to address the 760 abandoned properties in the city. 

The current phase of the plan includes demolishing 271 properties, most of which are located in the city's Calumet neighborhood. 

“You are removing the blight,” he said. “You are removing the safety concerns and, aesthetically, it just looks better.”

The city secured about $7 million in funds for the demolition project, with $4 million coming from the Indiana Regional Development Authority, Copeland said. The rest of the money comes from state and federal funds.

Copeland said before the three-phase plan was created, the city had a reactive approach to abandoned properties. The city would tear down properties once the structure started to crumble. 

Once the properties are demolished, the space could be left as green space or turned into retail shops.

“The eye will accept green before it will accept looking at something dilapidated,” Copeland said.

Hammond Chief of Inspections, James Callahan, did not have an estimate of how many abandoned properties were in his city. He said he works with the fire and police departments to address abandoned properties.

He said the city also works with buyers interested in rehabbing a house on the city's demolition list to make the property livable again. 

Callahan cited a house near City Hall that had fallen into blight. A new owner has been working to remodel the house from the inside to the property's landscaping outside. 

"That's our goal, to have someone come in and invest money," Callahan said. "To me, a success story is not knocking down the house."

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