The Equity Factor

Gary’s Mayor Knows That After Blight Mapping Ends, the Real Work Begins

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is ready to tackle the city’s 7,000 vacant properties.

One of Gary’s 7,000 vacant properties (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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After 200 volunteers surveyed nearly 60,000 parcels of land, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, is ready to make some comprehensive decisions about the city’s blight problem.

Gary’s population was 78,450 in 2013, down from a peak of 178,320 in 1960. Freeman-Wilson’s civilian squad spent 18 months pounding the city’s pavements armed with smartphones, identifying occupancy and safety concerns. According to the Gary Parcel Survey, made publicly available on, nearly 7,000 properties in the city are vacant.

The city is a recipient of the Center for Community Progress’ 2015 Technical Assistance Scholarship Program (TASP), which will help officials to develop a comprehensive blight prevention strategy. “The elimination of blight isn’t just an exercise in demolition or even in reconstruction,” Freeman-Wilson says. “There is an opportunity to look at ordinances and even state statutes that have an impact on how property is handled by property owners, how it’s disposed of, and how you are able to hold owners accountable.”

I spoke to the Mayor about the survey findings and next steps.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson

After collecting the data and taking a look at it, did anything surprise you?
We graded the properties [from A to F], and one of the things that was not just surprising, but was a great area of concern, was the number of people that were living in substandard housing. The other was the fact most of the properties that should be demolished are not owned by the city. There’s always been this sense that the city owns all of this blighted property, but we found out that was not true.

Are you looking at examples from other cities doing this type of work, like Detroit?
We’re looking at Flint and Cleveland … Detroit is really just getting started in this work and are probably about where we are, but Flint and Cleveland are certainly ahead. They provide great examples of the potential that exists.

How will the CCP’s Technical Assistance Scholarship Program work?
They are going to come in and assist us in the development of a full-scale strategy. They will work with us to review not only our demolition practices and procedures, but we will look at our city ordinances, how we enforce those codes. We will look at our relationships with banks that have properties in foreclosure. We will also look at property owners who are actually more speculators than property owners. With all of that, we’ll come up with a blight elimination strategy.

How have you gotten Gary’s residents excited about the process?
The fact that we are acknowledging the magnitude of the process, that we’re quantifying the problem, and that we’re beginning to actually tear down some properties we know aren’t salvageable, has been a source of inspiration and provided hope for local residents.

Do you have any ideas about how you will prioritize demolition?
Right now we are using dollars from state funds to deal with the demolition of single-family residences. We also have a new jobs program that we’ll be unveiling next month that will train people in the removal of non-structural blight. Because we have a number of landlords that are speculators, we are working with the state assembly to hold those individuals responsible.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: blightmapping

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