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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. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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