INDIANAPOLIS — There are currently 336 structures sitting in Indianapolis waiting to be demolished, according to the city.
These buildings sit vacant, sometimes for years, before any action is taken to rip them down.
According to safety officials, this oftentimes results in squatters moving in to keep warm. This time of year, that also means an increase in runs to these vacant properties for fires.
As these structures continue to be monstrous eyesores in Indianapolis neighborhoods, there is frustration from neighbors and first responders as those burnt structures seem to be ignored by the owners and the city.
The yard outside of an abandoned apartment building on the corner of E. Washington Street and Wallace Avenue is filled with glass, shingles, nails and other debris after a fire destroyed the building 2 months ago. But the building had been damaged and vacant long before that.
In the summer of 2021, a fire at the apartments made the building unlivable but that didn’t stop people from going inside.
“We have been homeowners for five years and for four years that has been an eye-sore,” said neighbor George Offutt-Gillenwater.
Investigators believe squatters started the most recent fire that happened at the building on Washington Street and Wallace Avenue. Squatters continued to go in and out of the house and do elicit activities despite the building being boarded up. Not only are buildings like this an eye-sore for people living in the area but they are also a safety concern. Now, there are calls for the city to clean it up.
Offutt-Gillenwater said he and other neighbors have made multiple calls about the property to the Mayor’s Action Line over the years. The most the group said they have gotten was the grass was cut down from being waist-high after three months of calls and waiting.
Sources within the Indianapolis Fire Department said there are properties like this all over the city that need to be torn down, but the process is filled with red tape that prevents anything from being done until the structures burn to the ground.
“We hear all the time from people that they will come up to us and say that house is vacant. It has been vacant for two years. We have been waiting for this to happen and now it has happened,” said Eric Banister, Wayne Township Fire Department Public Information Officer.
Just short of one month after the second fire at the vacant Washington Street property squatters started a fire at a vacant property on Oxford Street. Both fires caused damage to surrounding homes forcing the families inside to move out.
“I don’t have much hope. I would like to be proven wrong but I don’t have much hope,” said Offutt-Gillenwater.
According to the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, a demolition order was issued for the Washington Street property this week and the hearing for the order is scheduled for December 20.
We asked the city about the process of getting these abandoned structures demolished after they are damaged. While they declined an on-camera interview a spokesperson for the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services sent a statement that said in part:
“When complaints are called into the Mayor’s Action Center, DBNS will investigate to see if the building needs boarded, or issued a Repair Order or a Demolition Order. All of these actions have required notice periods set forth in local code and/or state statute which DBNS is required to follow.”
They then explain a lengthy process that references state statutes that essentially outline what could be a five-year process involving boarding, citations, and liens, if a property owner doesn’t comply before the city would demolish a problem property.
But absentee landlords appear to be a contributing factor to the problem.
“Sometimes there are people that own the house but they are not in the state they are just people that own a corporation or a conglomeration of people that own houses and they are hours from being here so they just let it sit,” said Banister.
IFD declined an interview on the issue but according to their records the department has responded to dozens of vacant structure fires each year:
- 112 in 2020
- 81 in 2021
- 80 in 2022
- 71 in 2023
DBNS has demolished roughly 375 structures since 2017 with 29 structures slated for demolition in early 2024.
It is not clear how many of the fires listed by IFD are at repeat properties that remain up after being reported to the city.
“There is really no deterrent. People will try to survive and we completely understand that,” said Banister.
First responders and neighbors are on the same page in saying the process is lengthy, frustrating and dangerous but with the city’s hands tied by state statutes they have no choice but to sit back and watch.
“It is not safe and we are owed a safe space,” said Offutt-Gillenwater.