Consistently ranked in the top five U.S. cities with the worst vacant housing problem, Indianapolis joins the likes of the notoriously struggling Detroit, with estimates putting Indy’s number of abandoned houses between 12,000 and 16,000. In an effort to address this pervasive issue, in 2013 the Legal Clinic secured a grant from the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana (FHC). Tasked with this project, staff attorney Matthew Gaudin’s efforts were three-fold: identify vacant housing, pursue remedies for those houses, and educate community members regarding the law and problems caused by vacant housing.
In that time, Matt has identified 256 houses. His efforts began—perhaps tediously and unglamorously, though necessarily—with research. Next, he drove around to check the condition of the houses. Was there trash in the yard? Were the windows boarded up? Was the grass mowed? After identifying vacant homes, he again turned to research, trying to find property owners, if the city were pursuing any fines, if there had been a tax sale, and so on.
Matt then sent demand letters. He pauses and corrects himself: “I say demand letter, but I wasn’t being very demanding. It was more, ‘Would you like to come in and talk with me?’ and we tried to figure out why the house was vacant and how to fix that.” Although owners only responded 10% of the time, when they did, he heard a familiar refrain. The owner, dollar signs in his eyes, bought the vacant house to rehab it. “But,” Matt explains, “It was a lot harder than they thought.” If the owner tried to make improvements to the property by adding new windows or heating and cooling units, inevitably, someone would break in and steal them.
“Crime always goes up where there’s vacant housing,” Matt says. “[I]t lowers property values in the neighborhood; lower property values mean lower taxes, so it’s less money going to schools … [I]t causes health problems because there are a lot of infestations … [W]hen you’re living next to a vacant house, your morale goes down. You’re not as proud of your neighborhood. It also is harder for you to sell your house.”
The collapse of the economy, especially hard-hitting in Midwestern cities, ushered in the foreclosure crisis, which in turn caused the vacant housing problem we now face. Those who received foreclosure papers sometimes abandoned their home. If the bank failed to take the title, the house eventually went to tax sale, and if no one purchased it, the house ended up on the city’s surplus list. And this happened again and again, thousands of times over, until whole neighborhoods became ghost towns. Matt says, “There were some blocks I would go on where there was maybe only one house that somebody was living in. It was like a war zone.”
During this project, Matt worked closely with the Department of Code Enforcement (DCE) and also attended many neighborhood association meetings. He says, “[This project] turned into a lot of community lawyering … [someone] would come to me saying, ‘This house next to me is vacant—can you help me with that?’ and I would report it to DCE ... But I also helped them with foreclosure issues that they were having themselves, disputes with neighbors, estate planning, landlord tenant type stuff, all kinds of legal issues.”
Going forward, the city is seeking remedies of what to do with vacant housing beyond simply keeping them compliant with city ordinances to keep the grass below 12” and the windows and doors boarded up, which concerned neighbors can do themselves if they would like. In his report to the FHC, Matt recommends networking with developers who care about community rehabilitation. He also stresses the drastic measures that will ultimately need to be taken to fix this problem. The solution can’t just be one man, driving around neighborhoods, sending letters to property owners. At the end of his report he writes, “[The solution] requires lawmakers and government officials to take the issue seriously. More resources must be devoted to vacant housing.”
If you have questions or would like to report a vacant house in your neighborhood, please contact the Mayor’s Action Center at (317) 327-4MAC (4622).