ELKHART — Building Commissioner Denny Correll has been in the midst of preparing a presentation for the Elkhart City Council in hopes of winning support for hundreds of thousand dollars to demolish the most troubled abandoned houses in the city.
The project has taken months, and he has the support of Mayor Dick Moore, who has said he’d like to see upward of $500,000 made available to help put “a big dent” in the list of blighted properties that plague some of the city’s neighborhoods.
And then officials learned $75 million in federal money would be available to Indiana communities to remove vacant and abandoned houses.
The city is now working with Elkhart County and other communities to apply for the money. The group is one of 12 vying for $19 million through a state agency.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to take those (houses) that cannot be renovated and remove blight from our neighborhoods,” said Crystal Welsh, director of community development.
It remains to be seen whether the Moore administration will make a pitch for local dollars or wait to find out how much might be gained through the grant.
But what is clear is the city is embarking on a new era in its attack on blight, an issue plaguing communities across the nation, and especially Indiana, in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis and recession.
Across Indiana, the problem of residential blight is extensive. The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, which is administering the grant, estimates the number of vacant and abandoned houses could be around 50,000, including nearly 20,000 in Indianapolis, Gary and Muncie combined.
The agency also estimates about 30 percent of homes in Indiana that fell into foreclosure are now vacant and abandoned.
Money from the grant was part of the $7.6 billion federal program originally used to assist homeowners facing foreclosure. Five years later, though, some of the remaining money is now being channeled to eradicate vacant and abandoned properties.
Elkhart officials are uncertain exactly how many houses need to be demolished, but a map assembled by Correll pinpoints 110.
The map, he said, represents a fluid starting point.
Houses spotlighted on the map fall into several categories: those severely damaged by fire, others located near parks and schools, and still more found along heavily traveled roads in the city.
Correll said he doesn’t think the city has ever assembled a strategy to attack residential blight.
“Part of my feeling is if we don’t have a game plan, we’re not going to get anything done,” Correll said.
The chance of receiving a huge amount of grant money is a mixed blessing for Correll, who took over as city building commissioner last year and has worked to revamp the department to more aggressively attack residential blight.
Correll said he has a sense of urgency and still hopes to make a presentation before council for local funds.
Grant money won’t likely become available until October, and Correll doesn’t want to wait.
Correll said the city has budgeted about $100,000 annually for demolitions in recent years. That’s enough to remove a little more than a dozen houses a year.
The city recently saw three houses demolished. Those included one on West Lexington and two adjacent properties on Edwardsburg Avenue. Funding for those will come from the estate of the owner who passed away, Correll said.
He said about six more houses could be demolished in the next 90 days, but that pace is still too slow to overcome the accumulated number of dilapidated properties.
The backlog has left some neighborhoods waiting for action for a long time, he said.
“Some of these people have been living with these burnouts for years,” Correll said. “It’s not fair.”
“If we hold off too long, we’ve only exacerbated the issue of the corridors, the burnouts and the school and park areas,” he said.
He believes a request could still receive broad support from council and is buoyed by suggestions from councilman David Henke, an oft-heard critic of the administration, who has said he would support a request for several hundred thousand dollars.
Correll said he believes the rare chance for bipartisan support underscores the seriousness of the problem.
Correll’s map also outlines the six city council districts. Targeted homes can be found in every district, but there are large concentrations on the city’s near-south and near-west side neighborhoods.
More than 40 can be found in city council member Tonda Hines’s 6th District.
Hines said she hears complaints about vacant homes in her district and those conversations often turn to concerns of crime and public safety that blight often perpetuates.
“It’s been a long time a coming,” Hines said. “It’s past due and I’m glad that it’s coming to fruition.”