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Many efforts arise to address abandoned property, few go forward

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State Sen. Jim Merritt wanted to help an eastside Indianapolis church gain possession of some long-abandoned, derelict houses, tear them down and establish a neighborhood park.

But it turned out there wasn’t much the law allowed the church to do. When Merritt started investigating, he found few avenues existed for neighbors to proactively improve neighborhoods beset by the intractable problems presented by abandoned and neglected properties.

“No one really knew what to do,” said Merritt, R-Indianapolis.

merritt-jim-15col.jpg Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, stands behind vacant houses on North Grant Avenue near East Washington Street in Indianapolis that nearby Tuxedo Park Baptist Church hoped to acquire and demolish for a park. He’s introduced a bill that could help address abandoned properties. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

That situation gave rise to Merritt’s Senate Bill 433, one of five proposals introduced in the General Assembly this session to address abandoned property. Merritt’s bill is the only one to advance, though, as bills on the topic from both chambers took a variety of approaches.

Merritt’s bill would give counties tools to transfer properties that have languished through tax sales without a buyer to neighbors, nonprofit organization or others who show a capacity for repairing or maintaining a property.

“It really gives tools to communities that have homes that are not wanted,” Merritt said. “We’re just trying to make sure they can do this in a quality way.”

Marion County has an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 vacant houses, Merritt said, and abandoned property is a drain statewide. “I think all 92 counties have situations where this piece of legislation will come into effect and will help,” he said.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, has firsthand experience with the difficulties of eyesore properties. Smith is chairman of the nonprofit African American Achievers Inc., which owns the Glen Theater. Volunteers have repeatedly had to tend to an adjacent property that continually is neglected and overgrown with weeds.

Seeing a larger problem, Smith put forth House Bill 1183. Among its provisions, a person who maintains, repairs or cleans up a neighboring abandoned structure after providing notice to the owner may place a lien on the property for the fair market value of the work not exceeding $10,000.

“What happens in a place like Gary is the city doesn’t (maintain properties), a lack of attention is given to properties adjoining yours, and it takes away from the value of your building,” Smith said. “If you’re trying to take care of your property, it kind of hurts to have something next to you that’s abandoned or neglected.”

abandonedSmith’s bill never had a committee hearing, but neither did other bills dealing with abandoned properties. One stalled measure would have allowed units of government to extinguish mortgage liens on certain abandoned property. Another would have created a state lending program for the purchase and renovation of abandoned residences.

Those proposals represent acknowledgement of a problem that Smith believes should lead to the Legislature using a study committee to look into how to deal with abandoned property. “I think we ought to be about the business of looking for answers, and I don’t think we are,” he said.

Eugene Lausch is an informally retired attorney with more than 40 years of experience with the city of Indianapolis. He helped draft code-enforcement statutes in the 1970s when, at the dawn of Unigov, he headed the Division of Code Enforcement in the Department of Metropolitan Development.

“There’s always been this healthy tension between coming up with innovative, cutting-edge ways of dealing with this problem and balancing that against the constitutional constraints on the range of action that can be taken by government,” Lausch said. He said there’s tension, too, between those who argue for demolition of abandoned homes and those who urge preservation of housing stock.

Business also has a stake in how far lawmakers go. Attorney Tom Havens is government affairs director for the Indiana Builders Association, which supports Merritt’s bill. He said the IBA looks at proposals that extend the reach of government into private property on a case-by-case basis.

“The biggest thing we’re concerned about is that the free market still has a chance to purchase these properties first,” Havens said. Merritt’s bill would do that by establishing a public hearing process as a requirement of transferring property.

“Whatever we can do to make areas better is good for us, good for everybody, I think,” Havens said. “The more people you can get involved in this conversation, the better.”

Merritt said there are other proposals he’d like to consider, such as shortening the redemption period in which an owner can reclaim property after a tax sale. Currently, a property owner has a year to pay off a tax sale lien, but Merritt thinks perhaps six months is sufficient.

“I think there are limits on what the best state law can do in this area,” Lausch said. “You can make the argument that abandoned buildings are signs of an unhealthy community, and that there are a range of things communities can be doing and should be doing to make communities healthy, and when that happens, you won’t have an abandoned building problem. It is a real, and difficult, problem.”•

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  1. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  2. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  3. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

  4. My dear Smith, I was beginning to fear, from your absense, that some Obrien of the Nanny State had you in Room 101. So glad to see you back and speaking truth to power, old chum.

  5. here is one from Reason magazine. these are not my words, but they are legitimate concerns. http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/03/fearmongering-at-the-splc quote: "The Southern Poverty Law Center, which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds, has issued a new "intelligence report" announcing that "an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) -- a 244% jump." To illustrate how dangerous these groups are, the Center cites some recent arrests of right-wing figures for planning or carrying out violent attacks. But it doesn't demonstrate that any of the arrestees were a part of the Patriot milieu, and indeed it includes some cases involving racist skinheads, who are another movement entirely. As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible." --- I wonder if all the republicans that belong to the ISBA would like to know who and why this outfit was called upon to receive such accolades. I remember when they were off calling Trent Lott a bigot too. Preposterous that this man was brought to an overwhelmingly republican state to speak. This is a nakedly partisan institution and it was a seriously bad choice.

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