Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Demolition ain't Development.

We can all agree that Indianapolis has an abandoned home problem. The City has identified 4,500 buildings that are abandoned.  Some burned out, abandoned homes in Indianapolis would probably never be rehabbed or repurposed as anything other than housing for squatters.  Most of us are ok with those houses being demolished.  But the City's new plan to demolish 1,200 buildings by the end of 2011 and take down an additional 800 -- a total 2,000 ---  by the end of 2012 has preservationists and neighborhood advocates rightfully concerned, even outraged.

Looking for a quick fix with a sudden influx of money from the water utility sale, but without any redevelopment plans in line, the City/County Councillors and the Mayor allocated $15,000,000 to demolition and $0 to any other options that might save some of these homes and fill them with new neighbors.

If you have a gut feeling this isn't a good plan, you're right.  Here are just a few of the salient reasons why.

1. All Smart Growth and New Urbanism tenets say that urban density is the best way to achieve a sustainable city.  Empty lots between houses is counter to urban density.  Empty lots lower walkability scores, don’t make the highest use of urban infrastructure and don’t use the embedded energy of the existing buildings. 

2.  While many houses may need to be demolished, clearly many on this list are not unsafe and many are saveable.  The buildings were not surveyed by structural engineers.  Health and Hospital, the agency that makes the "unsafe" call, does not do interior investigations. The decision of which buildings to add to the list was based on a wide variety of criteria, which may or may not include a hole in the roof, a hole in the foundation, tall grass, and/or police runs.  But, many structural issues are repairable and demolishing a house should never be based on police runs.  The bad tenants will just move to another house.  We can't demolish every house they live in until they eventually move out of the county.  Or at least, we shouldn't.

3. Right now, the City owns only a tiny percentage of the buildings to be demolished.  Which means that any future development would be reliant on the absentee landlords being found and willing to sell the lots to developers.  

4. This plan is a quick fix that will result in empty untended lots still in the possession of landlords who have already failed to maintain them.  Health & Hospital will be putting thousands (or more) of extra dollars into maintaining these 2,000 lots after the demolitions.  More money down the drain.

5.  According to Reggie Walton, Assistant Administrator of the Abandoned Housing Initiative, the great majority of these properties are “severely delinquent” in property taxes.  This means the City could take the properties and make them available for purchase. But the City has no intent to take the properties, which means little to no potential for development.  [See Point 4]

6. Few if any of these properties have been offered up for sale.  At least some might sell if the City would take the property and put them on tax sales or find other ways to get them into the hands of new owner/occupants. 

7. Once the demolition has occurred the lien for demolition goes onto the property.  Unless the original landlord is willing to pay the demolition cost, or the City is willing to forgive the fees, any new owner would have to pay off the cost of the demolition lien, as well as buy the property, adding even more cost to the properties and making their eventual reuse even more unlikely.

8. The bond was written to allocate all the money for demolition. It could and should be rewritten to allocate some for uses that are positive, such as rehab grants, stabilization programs, urban homesteader grants, and $1 house programs (such as the one introduced by Republican mayor William Hudnut). 

9. In most cases, even neighbors who complain about the abandoned homes would rather see them filled with new homeowners than see them demolished.  Alternative programs could use the same monies now designated for demolition to bring urban homesteaders into these buildings. 

If you agree that this wholesale demolition is a bad idea, please join the Facebook page,


  1. Thoughtful post, Connie. Thanks for staying on top of this important issue.

  2. For anyone interested, there is a Facebook page that supports finding alternatives other than demolition for abandoned housing.

  3. Connie, thank you for such a well thought out article about the issues in the inner city of Indianapolis. I am from a downtown neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana (East Central Neighborhood). We have had demolition as a solution to our inner city blighted homes, and it does not work. Our homes are demolished one by one with no more additional properties added to the neighborhood. We have had Community Development Corporations come and go but the solutions are not here. I agree it is nationwide and with little or no solutions. Your article speaks for us all. We all must preserve the housing stock of our communities. I know an organization that is developing a proposal of development with a training solution for unemployed, returning offenders and the like. This may be an idea that may keep the cost of repair at a fraction of the cost and provide opportunity to re-build the neighborhoods. Please keep up the good work and perhaps we can develop a viable plan.

  4. Summit City. Thanks for that thoughtful comment. I hope we can develop a workable plan in Indianapolis, too. Maybe we need a statewide approach.

  5. First - a comment on this article - I hate to see old houses destroyed, but rotting houses are worse. The problem is you need people in the houses. It doesn't do any good just to keep old houses around unless there are drivers for bringing in people. I think the biggest problem with inner city areas is that they are tied to inner city schools. I don't know how they do it in Indiana, but charter school provide a level of choice, and, over time, can make a difference as long as they aren't kept artificially restricted. I will continue this in another comment because the rest has nothing to do with this.

  6. Connie,

    How ultimately cool. A career that combines architecture and history. I love it.

    I have an interest in both and recently started a blog about residential architecture. I am a fan, not a professional, but I do hope I get my facts straight.

    First, if you get a chance I would love it if you wondered my way and took a look around. Perhaps you could leave some comments. If I need a correction, or you want to take exception to my editorial slant, by all means do. I'd love to get some conversations going on my articles. My site is I have some style specific sites like and perhaps your knowledge of these styles could add some depth to my surface knowledge.

    Second, I would love to exchange links. I like supporting quality establishments like yours.

    Third, I would like you to consider some cross-posting of articles. Basically I would love for you to write for me and I would love to write for you. Writing is why I got into this gig.

    While we are at it, what do you think of modernist vs postmodernist vs new urbanists? I am writing on these subjects and am getting out of my depth.

    Joffre Essley aka homesower

  7. Homesower, I happen to agree that the way to address this problem best is to put homeowners into the houses that are saveable. The majority of these were built as worker housing. They would be perfect for young couples as starter homes or for singles. Some are doubles that could provide both a home and a means of income. Some certainly should come down but judging from the many I've looked at a large number can and should be saved with homesteader or other programs.

  8. Joffre, I've added you to my links and would be glad to have you reciprocate. Thanks.

  9. Just to clarify, due to semantics. The 1$ home program was a HUD program that was available and accessed by Mayor Hudnut. Your writing may implicate that it was Mayor Hudnut that came up with the idea. Yes, he did start the HUD program in Indianapolis, but he did not come up with the idea.

  10. Actually, a bit more research showed that Richard Lugar introduced the program in Indianapolis and Hudnut was the first mayor to use it. It was indeed a HUD sponsored program. Currently several cities are sponsoring their own homesteading programs. We need to do that.