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Gary Using Data to Fight Blight

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By: Hilary Powell

February 22, 2015 — Jocelyn Hare is from Chicago, but she’s got Gary,Indiana pride at a time when fewer people call the area home.

At its peak in 1960, Gary had 160,000 people and the population’s been declining since then to under 80,000 right now,” Hare says on a drive through the city one afternoon. She’s spent nearly two years cruising Steel City streets, charting building blight for a parcel survey as a fellow for the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

“If you have a town where you don’t have very many economic opportunities, and you have tons and tons of abandoned buildings, and you have folks that maybe can’t afford a place or something, it makes sense that you’re going to have squatters,” she says of the city’s notoriously sparse landscape.

“It was so decayed inside [one building] that there was a tree growing from a stack of books. That always stuck with me,” Hare says.

Abandonment: A by-product of this rust belt city’s better days. Because of volunteers like Hare, residents can now see how big the blight problem is on a website: garymaps.com. They were are graded on a scale from A-F. The website allows users to enter a property address and find out its rating. Hare and other volunteers pinpointed the problem structures using an app on cell phones and mobile devices.

Twelve thousand crumbling homes dot the city according to a new survey conducted by Gary City Hall and the Harris School. That’s one in five buildings vacant and some 40 percent in disrepair.

“People move out, homes get deteriorated essentially as soon as a home gets emptied, if it’s not properly secured here, somebody’s going to go home and strip it,” she says. “When things start looking bad people don’t want to invest in the neighborhood, people don’t want to buy homes in the neighborhood, and it’s really hard to turn around.”

Perhaps the most startling statistic: Officials say many dilapidated homes are inhabited.

“It’s of great concern to us and that is the number of houses that are in really bad shape that are inhabited,” Gary mayor Karen Freeman Wilson says. “It just cuts to the core of the challenges that we have in our community around poverty, around housing. What they’re actually doing right now is forming a task force to look and check on those folks given the weather conditions here.”

Officials say the survey will help them better target their resources, including 6.6 million federal dollars awarded from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund, but the funds only go so far.

“When you’re talking this magnitude you’re talking about probably anywhere from 35 to 40 million dollars,” Freeman Wilson says of the expected costs of demolition. “We have 6 million of that. And so, there has to be a plan for re-purposing. “

Hare says there’s progress a pilot program set for this spring using Hardest Hit funds will deconstruct homes while rebuilding lives.

“The population we’d be working with is ex-offenders,” she says. “So train them on how to take apart the houses. So theoretically it’s a self-funding model that would employ people and would also get rid of blight.”

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