Lakeshore Report

Hardest Hit Fund To Have Big Impact in Gary

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Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellsperman recently announced the state’s plan to award more than $15 million in grants for demolishing abandoned homes and eliminating blight, with the largest portion being awarded to the city of Gary. This week city officials shared their plan for the funds and explained just how far the money could go in a city with thousands of abandoned properties.

For Sister Peg Spindler, seeing the former Holy Trinity School building on 13th Avenue in Gary  demolished will be a bittersweet moment. She spent 15 years teaching there before the doors closed in 1994. Sister Peg now serves as executive director of the Sojourner Truth House, a community resource center next door to the shuttered school.

Spindler says, “We’ve been doing great work in the city, trying to, one family, one woman at a time, trying to get people off the street and stably housed, and become productive citizens of this community.”

Now, Sister Peg is helping bring down the abandoned building so that her organization can expand.

“A couple years ago, as we thought about this building,” she says, “we did some bids and the lowest bid we got was like $70,000 to tear these two buildings down, and that’s a chunk of change for us to raise while we’re trying to keep our own ministry operating.”

The group is receiving help from the city to remove the building, as part of a grant from the Hardest Hit Fund.

Spindler  says “That’ll be a huge help, a huge step towards our dream here.”

The Hardest Hit Fund is a federal program designed to help communities in 18 states stabilize neighborhoods which were affected by the recession and housing crisis.

Gary Mayor Freeman-Wilson said the city is honored and humbled to have received $6.6 million in grants.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Richard Leverett, added that the state has set aside the money for not only the demolition of homes, but also acquisition of those homes and the title search process, as well as funds for up to three years of maintenance on those lots.

The money will be used to demolish 379 homes, and possibly more if bids come in under estimate. The city plans to begin with 20 properties sometime next month.

Leverett says, “This also frees up our regular allocation. Typically in a year we do around 200 housing and residential demolitions across the city, and we don’t have to use that funds any more for this because all these properties are queued up this way.”

Officials say a focus on hiring local workers for the projects means the grant will also bring jobs to the city.

Brenda Scott-Henry, director of Gary’s Department of Environmental and Green Urbanism, says the city will work with contractors to establish crews that go in and take out things that are salvageable and find reuses for them.

Leverett  adds that the crews make sense from a “green” standpoint, but its mostly about putting more people on staff.

“So instead of just taking two people and a piece of equipment and tearing down a house,” says Leverett, “you’re paying more people to go in and find material and training them and giving them job experience.”

With abandoned properties numbering between 10,000 and 15,000 in Gary, choosing just 379 to demolish was no easy task. The city decided to focus its efforts on larger properties and ones near occupied homes.

Director of Gary’s Department of Redevelopment, Joseph Van Dyk, says the intention is to prevent further blight. “We all know that blight is very contagious,” says Van Dyk. “To the extent you can eliminate one or two blighted properties on an otherwise healthy stable block, it eliminates a pretty powerful disincentive to maintain your property.”

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson says, “We’re targeting those neighborhoods that if you take away one or two homes then you’ve got a stable neighborhood, you’re raising the property value for those folks who are still there.”

Leverett says because of the size of the grant, it makes sense for the city to apply for the largest houses, and for the smaller things that can be taken down for $2000 – $3000 to be handled by the city.

We know that we have to roll up our sleeves and, you know, with any opportunity that means more work,” commented Freeman-Wilson, “but we embrace that work that is to come and believe that it will have a tremendously positive impact here in the city of Gary.”

Sister Spindler agrees. “We’re proud to be able to be some kind of a little tiny catalyst in the whole renovation or revitalization of the city. Like I said, we’ve been doing it one family, one woman at a time, now maybe we have a chance to contribute to one block at a time.”

City officials say they hope to begin accepting bids for the initial demolition work within 45 days.


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