Many towns that once anchored Indiana's auto industry experienced a major rise in home-vacancy rates over the past decade, underscoring that those areas are losing residents along with the jobs, local figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau show.
North-central and east-central Indiana, which absorbed the brunt of the job loss, also showed the highest percentage of unoccupied homes. For example, in Madison County, where General Motors' former Anderson parts plants are now shuttered, more than 7,000 of about 59,000 housing units stood vacant during last year's census count.
Five adjacent counties that have been major manufacturing hubs — Madison, Grant, Delaware, Howard and Wayne — combined to show a 10.5-percent housing vacancy rate, higher than most other places in the state.
Retired auto worker and Anderson City Councilman OIllie Dixon said that city's west side has been struggling for 30 years as jobs slowly drifted away, with businesses closing behind them and finally people leaving.
"They're all gone," Dixon said of the factory jobs. "We have people here working two minimum wage jobs trying to make ends meet."
State demographer Matt Kinghorn of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, said a large swath of Indiana, from Logansport and Wabash in the north to Richmond and Connersville in the east, were among the biggest losers of population, along with Gary, which lost nearly a quarter of its residents, declining from about 102,700 people in 2000 to about 80,300 in last year's census.
Among gainers, the 10-county Indianapolis-Carmel metropolitan area grew by about 231,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, compared with statewide growth of about 403,000. The state's overall population rose nearly 7 percent to 6,483,802 as of April 1.
Cass, Grant, Blackford and Fayette counties all lost at least 4.5 percent of their population in the most recent census. Each of those counties has experienced major plant closings in recent years.
Any substantial loss of jobs, particularly at a company that serves as a community's economic base, will have a heavy impact on the community's housing market, said Karl Berron, CEO of the Indiana Association of Realtors.
"What's important, I think, is we get some job growth in the economy, which seems to be also picking up at a modest pace," Berron said.
But not quickly enough.
Even though the region is starting to attract some new jobs in areas such as food processing and making components for solar and wind energy, the region's manufacturing and economic decline has been occurring for more than a decade, said E. Roy Budd, executive director of Energize-ECI, Inc., an economic development agency for a large part of that region. He expects the population losses for the region to continue for a few years.
"New jobs we've created over the last two years will take 18 to 24 months to come on line," Budd said. "It's like trying to fill a bathtub with no stopper in it."
Just two weeks ago, Key Plastics announced it was closing its auto parts plant in Hartford City, 15 miles north of Muncie, putting more than 200 people out of work by August. The announcement devastated the area, said Rob Cleveland, executive director of Blackford County Economic Development Corp.
"When you have a company announce that they're closing, it's very tough on the morale," Cleveland said.
Retired auto worker Elijah Hollingsworth noted President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited his hometown of Kokomo last November to trumpet the turnaround at Chrysler, which has several plants in that area. But things are still slow at another auto industry employer there, parts supplier and GM spinoff Delphi.
"Chrysler is doing good, but it's just bad on the other end, at Delphi and even service industry jobs in Kokomo," Hollingsworth said.
The loss of population and economic good times in Anderson has resulted in the closing of two Anderson high schools during the past decade. Now the remaining Anderson High has about two-thirds of its students on free or reduced-price lunches and a graduation rate under 60 percent, said President Nancy Vaughn of United Way of Madison County. It's no drawing card for potential residents, who will find more attractive schools in nearby Fishers and Carmel, both in growing Hamilton County.
"There's a huge problem with people feeling hopeless. That can be a self-fulfilling legacy," Vaughn said.
Realtor Patty Kuhn said Anderson's best shot at reinventing itself is turning into a bedroom community for Indianapolis, an easy 30-minute commute down Interstate 69.
"Once people understand that commuting is not that big of a deal, I think we will see growth from the Indianapolis-Hamilton County area because we have good buys here. I think that's a possibility — I think that's our hope," Kuhn said.