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Buyout plan may reduce neighborhood blight

Count the ways that a long-vacant, deteriorating home harms its neighborhood.

• It can be a fire hazard and pose structural dangers to anyone who goes near it – children, especially.

• It attracts criminals and provides cover for drug use, sexual assaults and other crimes.

• It brings down property values of the homes around it. If neighborhood property values drop, the cost of keeping other homes well maintained may exceed their value. Responsible residents who care about their homes may find themselves “under water” along with those who have let their property deteriorate.

• It’s an eyesore.

There are a variety of local strategies for battling housing blight, ranging from city code enforcement and legal action against individual properties to rehabs and new construction by churches, Habitat for Humanity and the public-private partnerships of Renaissance Pointe.

But a program unveiled this week offers a new approach and new resources.

The $4.7 million blight-elimination plan announced at the Fort Wayne’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Services Inc. board meeting Thursday has a pot of federal money to get deteriorating homes razed and replaced by something better.

Some 194 houses – “the worst of the worst,” according to Heather Presley-Cowen, deputy director of the city’s Community Development department – have been targeted for demolition.

Most of the homes are near major corridors on the east or south sides. They have structural problems, or lead or asbestos, or they lack proper heating or electricity. Fixing them – assuming their owners were motivated to do that – would cost more than the homes are worth.

The city will contact owners of the dilapidated properties and offer them $6,000 to $10,000 to simply walk away. That doesn’t sound like much for a house, even for one in a neighborhood where the average home price is $30,000 or less. But, as Presley-Cowen says, “Obviously, if they’re in that bad a condition, they’re not worth as much.” 

The home’s owners can turn down the program’s offers. But that won’t be a problem. No one knows exactly how many abandoned and deteriorating homes there are, but Presley-Cowen says the city has a list of at least 1,000 that can qualify for the program. In fact, if Fort Wayne can continue to qualify for the state-administered federal funds, HANDS hopes to announce a second round of houses targeted for demolition in October. 

A key goal of the state’s Blight Elimination Program is to ensure that there are plans for better use of the lots left when the houses are razed.

Possible new uses, Presley-Cowen said, fall into three categories. Neighbors can take over and care for the lot. A church or neighborhood association can develop the lot as a miniature park. Or a new home can be constructed.

Realistically, Presley-Cowen said, only a small percentage of the lots will get new homes, at least right away. “But turning it into a ‘pocket park’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she said. It’s possible that, just as the recession created more abandoned homes, property values might rise again and make building new housing on some lots more practical in a few years.

Fort Wayne Councilman Tom Smith, a member of the HANDS board, said the new plan may be “the best program ever.” He noted that the plan, by using federal funds, allows the city to use its money to attack the housing problem through other programs.

The next step for the Blight Elimination Program, Smith said, is to target more vacant homes that are away from the major corridors. “It’s my hope that we can get more into the heart of the neighborhoods.” 

Fort Wayne is one of four Indiana localities that has rolled out the new program, along with South Bend, Lake County and Indianapolis Smaller cities, including Auburn, may qualify for the plan later. According to the program’s website, Indiana has the highest percentage of abandoned, foreclosed homes in the country.

“I think Fort Wayne has excellent strategies in place to succeed,” said Rayanna Binder, who directs the statewide effort. If she’s right, the city’s neighborhoods will be safer, more attractive and ultimately more sustainable.

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