Rosie Cantu hurriedly called an exterminator out to spray for cockroaches along her fence line.
As part of Mayor Pete Buttigiegs 1,000 Homes in 1,000 Days initiative, the city was demolishing the house next door at 915 N. Harrison Ave., and the retiree knew those roaches would be scurrying her way in search of a new abode.
Cantu said the house needed to come down, but she wasnt jumping for joy. Over the past few years, 10 houses were demolished two blocks to the South, and of the six houses that surround her on all sides, only three are occupied.
To me its sad because theres no neighbors to talk to, really, and it looks bad, all these empty lots, Cantu said while sitting alone recently on her front deck. Weve been here since 1975 and weve seen the neighborhood come and go, but its gone for the worst now.
Since Buttigieg took office in 2012, the city has demolished 886 houses it deemed were unsafe under guidelines spelled out in state law, an average of three houses per week, according to records The Tribune obtained under Indianas Access to Public Records Act. The resulting empty lots, making some blocks look like big smiles with many missing teeth, are sparking debate about what should come next, if anything.
The void, and the lack of a concrete plan from the administration to fill it, prompted South Bend Common Council member Regina Williams-Preston, whose district has seen the most homes bulldozed, and affordable housing developer Ann Mannix earlier this month to propose 100 Homes in 500 Days. The plan would fill some of those lots with new homes for middle-income families, requiring buyers to qualify for $100,000 mortgage loans from private lenders. The city would need to spend $6 million $3 million a year over two years to help buyers fill the gap between a new homes construction cost and its lower market value in distressed neighborhoods.
Even if that plan fully succeeds, it would affect only 11 percent of the lots emptied under Buttigieg. Common Council President Tim Scott said its time for the administration to focus on the rest. He said he and council member Karen White have wanted since the first of the year to meet with Department of Community Investment officials and hear what they might have planned. He hopes to have a date set next week for a meeting with James Mueller, the departments new executive director and former Buittigieg chief of staff.
Im waiting for Step 2, Scott said. So far, the priorities have been downtown.
Scott said there are some blocks in his 1st District, on the near-northwest side, that have blocks with only one or two houses standing.
What is in the pipeline for neighborhood development? We know the commercial side seems to be running fairly smoothly. I think there should be a direction. If you look around at other cities around the country, they say were going to do a mix of market rate housing, affordable housing. We dont have that. We just seem to react as different opportunities come up for the city.
But administration officials say the issue is too complex, and vacant lots needs vary too much based on neighborhoods and location, for any kind of grand plan.
Its not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for each property, said Liz Maradik, a planner in the city Department of Community Investment. Each propertys going to have a different use thats probably ideal, or a market reality for that location.
Rather, the administration is looking into several ways it can facilitate productive re-use of the lots, where it has the power to do so. Because it ordered the homes demolished, theres a common misperception that the city owns these lots, but thats true for only 65 of them, Maradik said.
The city has acquired those lots from St. Joseph County in certificate sales, which occur annually for properties that go unsold in the annual county property-tax delinquency sales. The city has sometimes done this in anticipation of future development, such as that envisioned in the Westside Main Streets plan that covers the area between Lincoln Way and Western Avenue, Maradik said.
I think it becomes extremely difficult to have a very specific plan of what we can do with the lots if we dont own them, Maradik said.
The administration would consider productive re-uses to include, as examples, new construction, neighbors acquiring empty lots to expand their yards, and growing fruits and vegetables on them, Maradik said.
Since Buttigieg took office, the city has spent more than $1 million to maintain empty lots, including cutting vegetation, grass and weeds and picking up litter dumped there, according to the public records. Hoping to lower those costs, the mayor recently told The Tribune that he wanted his staff to research whether the city could offer tax incentives to neighbors to acquire the lots, such as income tax credits or property tax abatements. Maradik said that research continues.
Under the states Good Samaritan Law, neighbors can mow vacant lots without being charged with trespassing. If the city mows them, it places liens on the properties to recoup its costs.
Last year the city, working with the University of Notre Dame Law Clinic, began offering free legal assistance to people looking to acquire adjacent vacant lots. Neighbors had been buying them at certificate sales for as little as $25 but then discovering they faced about $1,000 in legal fees to obtain clear title to the land.
One option the city looked at was mow to own, a model launched in cities such as St. Louis, in which neighbors obtain title for free in exchange for mowing the lots. But Maradik said the administration has learned thats not possible in Indiana because state law requires public property to be auctioned to the highest bidder.
A growing number of nonprofits, co-ops and companies are growing fruits and vegetables on the empty lots. Kankakee Wetlands Organic Gardens, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by Judith Rubleske, farms a handful of lots, dividing the bounty evenly between people who help work the gardens, donations to area food pantries, and sales by vendors at markets.
Nick Licina, a retired aerospace engineer who lives on Niles Avenue in South Bend, has developed a for-profit model. His company, Jelena (pronounced Huh-LANE-uh) Farms, grows food on five lots he owns around the city, plus two more lots that hes leasing from the nonprofit Near Northwest Neighborhood. Theyre selling organically grown produce, including greens such as endive, kale and spinach, at Purple Porch Co-Op, Three Oaks Market in Michigan, and several area restaurants.
Lacking storage, their goal is pick to the plate in 48, meaning they try to sell vegetables within 24 hours of picking them, assuming the customer will eat them within the following 24 hours, Licina said.
The operation is small, consisting of just Licina and gardener Richie Janssen, and Licina said he doesnt plan to add many more lots because that would require adding staff. Its possible for others to do what he has done, but they should realize that it takes several years to condition soil to the point that its productive, Licina said.
Jelena Farms this season is letting Clay Township resident Deb Durall grow vegetables for herself in a vacant lot on Cottage Grove Street. Licina isnt charging her anything, but her growing is conditioning the soil that will benefit him later.
Where some see a problem in so many vacant lots, Mike Keen sees an opportunity to reimagine neighborhood living and promote incremental development. The retired Indiana University South Bend sociologists new venture, Thrive Michiana, is working with a builder and the NNN on several residential and commercial projects. They include a collection of tiny houses that would be assembled on vacant lots, possibly the corner of Cushing Street and Portage Avenue, along with traditionally sized zero energy homes that use solar power and energy-efficient materials.
In South Bend, we think that this kind of small-scale development is a crucial part of the solution to this problem, Keen said. Big developers either want high-value property in the downtown, or larger tracks in the outer suburban areas. They do not work at the scale of one, two, three lots at a time.
Keen said there is a missing middle housing gap in the city that this kind of development can fill. Hes now working with Habitat for Humanity to build six houses on seven vacant lots in the NNN. Later this month, Keen will bring to town Ross Chapin, who is promoting the concept of pocket neighborhoods, clusters of smaller homes (but not as small as tiny houses) that share a common green space and sometimes a common building. The city, along with others, is sponsoring Chapins visit, said Tim Corcoran, city planning director.
There is no one solution, Corcoran said. Who knows how many solutions its going to take? There is no certain document you can hand over to people because there are so many different levels of things that people are working on.
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