Residents concerned about suspended land bank program


Abandoned properties are one of the city's biggest problems and an FBI investigation at city hall has put on hold one program designed to tackle the issue.

One week ago Tuesday, federal prosecutors charged the top administrator at the Indy Land Bank with fraud and accepting bribes. With that investigation continuing, the mayor suspended the land bank program and that has some community leaders and residents concerned about the impact on neighborhood revitalization.

George Johnson sees what abandoned properties can do to a neighborhood. Johnson lives on the near north side in an area littered with vacant houses and lots.

Pointing to the backyard of an abandoned house, he said, "See the trash? clean it up and they start dumping again...they use it as a landfill."

Michael Osborne with the Near North Development Corporation said, "In our service area alone, there are 80 land bank properties, about three-quarters of which are houses...It's critical we address those, say, 60 homes, if we're going to turn the tide in the neighborhood."

And Osborne said having a land bank makes the process much easier.

"Our ability to acquire these properties at discounted prices makes them a little more financially feasible," he said.

Osborne said, so far, Near North has acquired 16 properties from the land bank, with a goal of acquiring many more.

Katie Brett, formerly with Indy-East Asset Development, said the land bank was instrumental in helping transform the near east side neighborhood known as St. Clair Place.

She said of the 58 homes gutted and rehabbed over the last few years, 25 were from the land bank.

"For us, working with the city was an important tool to get property into good hands," Brett said. "Folks have been working for a decade to bring this tool to the city to make a difference and I would hate to see the actions of a few taint our ability to move forward."

Brett is now head of the Land Bank of Indianapolis (unrelated to the Indy Land Bank.) She said the "quasi-government agency" began working with the city well before the land bank investigation to bring "openness and transparency to the process."

She said the goal is to have an advisory committee with representatives from banks, community development corporations and real estate agencies to "look at the whole picture," when a land bank property is up for sale.

"Who's going to be involved in the process from beginning to end? Where is the financing coming from? Who will own it? If it's a rental, who will manage that property?," Brett said. "We want to make sure the (sale and redevelopment plans) are in the best interest of the community versus the amount of money (it brings in.)"

Maria Davis, who lives in the revitalized area, said she doesn't know much about the land bank, but she has been amazed by the transformation of her street.

Davis said, "Seven to eight years ago, you couldn't walk down this street. There were abandoned houses, lots of trash, people sitting on the porch everywhere, playing loud music, but now it's come a long way...the kids can play outside now. It's much safer."

There are still abandoned properties in the area, but Davis said nothing like before.

As Osborne notes, there are only 1,200 properties in the land bank, a fraction of the estimated 12,000-15,000 abandoned properties citywide. But he said it's still "a critical tool in neighborhood revitalization" and he hopes the issues with it won't take too long to resolve.