Indianapolis gaining ground in fight against urban blight

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Abandoned houses are more than a neighborhood nuisance. They can attract drugs and crime and Indianapolis has thousands of them.

Tearing them down isn't just complicated because of title or ownership issues, it's costly. Demolition averages $6,000-$8,000 but can cost far more if there's a basement or contamination issues.

The city will soon have the money to tear down 168 abandoned houses with nearly $6.4 million in federal monies from the Hardest Hit Fund Blight Elimination Fund.

The St. Clair Neighborhood, just east of downtown, is one area that stands to benefit.

Ernst Collins, 82, who's lived in the area since 1986 said, "I think it's all positive, better than it was."

Collins said several years back the neighborhood struggled with crack houses "and they got in a gun fight...there were bullets (shot through) my house and one hit me right in the chest."

Pulling up his shirt, he pointed to the scar, saying, "You can see the place right here."

But he said things have changed.

"They been rehabbing and tearing down houses and building new ones," he said.

Since 2011, Near East Area Renewal or NEAR, has built or rehabbed 60 houses mostly along Jefferson Avenue. NEAR's executive director John Hay said they're now focusing on Beville, a block over, with plans to redo or build 12 houses.

He took us inside one of five that will be demolished with money from the Hardest Hit Fund.

The interior was gutted, the floor caving in.

"Clearly for us, the foundation is gone so it's structurally unsound," he said.

Hay said plans are to tear the house down and have a new one in its place by year's end.

"The program helps us by saving the cost of demolition and it helps the neighborhood by taking down a blighted property," he said.

NEAR took a "cluster" approach when redeveloping Jefferson Avenue. It plans to do the same along Beville, which had said has a far greater impact on transforming an area

"When you can restore or build houses close together, get neighbors moving in together, they look out for one another, they get to know one another, get to know the neighbors in the neighborhood, it brings crime down and value up," Hay said.

The Hardest Hit money can only be used for demolition of residential properties that are in line for redevelopment. The money cannot be used for renovation of existing structures.

Hay said NEAR's first preference is to rehab a property, but if it's too costly to repair, they turn to demolition.

He pointed to one property originally on the Hardest Hit list that NEAR requested be taken off after deciding it could be restored.

Ernst Collins son Ernie lives next door in a house that he bought five years ago for $6,000 and rehabbed on his own.

He said it's not easy work and he's far from done, but he likes the changes he's seen in the neighborhood, especially along Jefferson Avenue.

"I like the fact that everyone is starting to buy their houses and you have less renters," he said. "It's definitely helped with crime and upkeep...I mean with people who own their homes you're less apt to see your neighborhood destroyed."

Hay said NEAR's goal is to have all 12 houses finished and for sale by year's end.