Merritt accuses Hogsett of ‘fraud’ on effort to rehab or demolish 2,000 homes

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State Sen. Jim Merritt on Thursday called Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s initiative to renovate, transform or demolish 2,000 homes in the city a “fraud” after a news report found issues with the numbers claimed by the Hogsett administration.

Merritt, a Republican running against Hogsett in this year's mayoral election, accused Hogsett of “purposely inflating” the number of properties it had "improved" by including luxury apartment units or homes that received minimal maintenance.

Standing in front of a blighted home at 1230 S. Talbott St., Merritt said the mayor had “failed the residents of Indianapolis.”

“The reason why I said it’s fraud is it’s misrepresenting the facts, it’s misleading, to improve their image, burnishing their image rather than banishing blight,” Merritt said. “He and his administration have misled the public.”

Two years ago, in Hogsett’s state of the city address, the mayor pledged to “transform 2,000 homes in two years–targeting some of the most problematic properties in Marion County.”

The city’s online dashboard says that more than 2,500 homes have been “impacted,” counting 1,028 home repairs, 717 new units built, 424 demolitions, 394 sales and 83 rehabilitations.

But clearly, issues and blight remain. IBJ reported in 2018 that less than a third of the city's interventions were demolitions, and that the city was instead focusing on more cost-effective repairs.

The Indianapolis Star earlier this week published a report showing that the mayor's initiative “failed to target violent neighborhoods, inflated the number of so-called transformations and lacked coherency.” The report found that few of Hogsett’s interventions happened in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates, and that the city included new luxury apartment units in its count of addressed properties.

The home at 1230 S. Talbott St., with a shoddy roof and boarded up windows, is listed on the city’s website as “DVA,” which means "declaration of vacant and abandoned."

“This is abysmal,” Merritt said of the house. 

However, the property is actually a success story, according to Hogsett’s deputy chief of staff, Taylor Schaffer. The city in 2017 asked a judge to declare the property vacant and abandoned, allowing it to go to deed sale. It was sold in 2018 to Two Chicks and a Hammer, the Indianapolis firm behind hit HGTV show “Good Bones,” about fixing up houses around town.

Structural and craft permits were applied for in March, and demolition is scheduled to start soon, Schaffer said.

“This is exactly the point of our program,” Schaffer said. “This is exactly the intended outcome. Transitioning problem properties out of city possession and into the hands of responsible property owners who are committed to renovation, rehab and improvement is the definition of the 2,000 Homes strategy.”

Merritt also pledged to “make it a priority” to fix up blighted homes if he is elected. He pledged to hire 10 new inspectors and “rebuild our ability to take code enforcement complaints and address them within 72 hours.” 

Merritt also criticized the mayor’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services for having an $18 million fund balance. He said high fees assessed by the city disincentivize developers from renovating more properties.

“As mayor of Indianapolis, I will aggressively utilize the tools that the state has provided to the city,” Merritt said. “The problem is not a lack of resources but a lack of utilization.”

However, Hogsett’s administration quickly defended the mayor's record on the housing front.

Schaffer, said that when Hogsett was a federal prosecutor before taking office, he filed charges against city officials for using the city’s land bank to defraud taxpayers.

“Indianapolis lacked a common definition as to what an abandoned home was, had failed to track property interventions and make that data available to the public, and the city was just a few years away from the federal government threatening to revoke millions in grants for failure to demolish problem properties,” Schaffer said in a written statement.

Since taking office, Schaffer said the administration has “accelerat[ed] neighborhood demolitions by Renew Indianapolis and the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services,” resulting in 463 demolitions from 2016 to 2018, with 39 more scheduled this year.

The city had completed just 15 demolitions in 2014 and 2015, before Hogsett took office, Schaffer said. 

Schaffer also praised partnerships with the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership and Renew Indianapolis on new programs to “empower neighborhood revitalization, aiding in residential repairs and rehabs, funding the construction of new housing and apartments, and eradicating blight.”

“Mayor Joe Hogsett has helped lead the city from public corruption and federal investigations to a place where records are being set for neighborhood redevelopment, and data for the first time is being made available to the public,” she said. “We believe that the momentum of progress made over the last three years should propel us forward as a city, not backward.”

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