By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Sales from the initial phase of the Neighborhood Stabilization Project yielded about $954,000 for continued improvements to housing stock in New Albany.
Purchases are pending or have been completed on 23 of the 32 houses that were built or reconstructed through the $6.7 million federal program, and three of the properties remain in the construction phase.
One of the properties was turned into a community garden, and another, the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace, was transformed into a public facility.
The remaining houses are on the market as the city attempts to fill them ahead of an extended 2014 deadline.
Once they are sold, the proceeds will be added to the pot and the money used to improve more properties in the Midtown neighborhood.
“We still have to have some evaluations as to how we’re going to use those revenues,” Mayor Jeff Gahan said.
MIDTOWN THEN AND NOW
Mayor Doug England’s administration garnered the grant in 2009, and the nonprofit New Directions Housing Corp. was hired to implement the project.
About $857,000 of the federal award was used to purchase abandoned and foreclosed homes and properties in the S. Ellen Jones neighborhood as well as a portion of the surrounding area.
The goal was to turn the blighted properties into viable homes to be sold to low-to-moderate income buyers.
The area was dubbed Midtown, and officials said the project has extended beyond the houses that were refurbished through the grant.
Lisa Thompson, chief operating officer for New Directions, said a recent survey identified 70 “obviously vacant properties” in the Midtown neighborhood.
Eighteen months prior to that survey, Thompson said there were 113 vacant sites in the area.
“In April this year, 10 homes were undergoing extensive and obvious professional redevelopment” that weren’t associated with the NSP project, Thompson said.
The makeovers of the targeted NSP homes has influenced other property owners and developers to invest in Midtown, said David Duggins, director of redevelopment and economic development for New Albany. “To me that tells me we’re having an effect — an amoeba-like effect on the surrounding homes,” Duggins said.
East Elm Street, Eighth Street and Culbertson Avenue are among the streets that are having “dramatic turnarounds” due to the NSP project, Thompson said.
CRIME STILL AN ISSUE?
Former New Albany Police Chief Todd Bailey implemented a concentrated crime enforcement strategy in the Midtown neighborhood about a year after the NSP program launched.
Labeled police oriented policing, the POP program included the opening of an NAPD substation at S. Ellen Jones Elementary School.
Police patrols were heightened in the neighborhood, and the department claimed crime numbers dropped in the area.
The POP program was then shifted to the Broadmeade neighborhood, but was terminated in 2012 when Gahan took office and named Sherri Knight police chief.
Knight said Friday that the department doesn’t keep statistics for specific neighborhoods, but added crime citywide is at the same level or has been reduced since 2011.
“When we identify problems in a particular area, we provide additional resources so we can address the problem,” she said.
Instead of focusing on a specific neighborhood such as with the POP program, Knight said the department distributes patrols evenly throughout the city.
“We don’t want to take services away from the rest of the city,” she said.
An owner of one of the NSP homes, Debora Henry, recently appeared before the New Albany Board of Public Works and Safety to ask for help for what she described as a rise in crime elements along East Oak Street.
She said several vacant homes and blighted properties that remain in the neighborhood foster the crime element.
New Albany Building Commissioner David Brewer said he would meet with her on a regular basis to identify and address codes issues in the neighborhood.
Gahan said he didn’t know any specific statistics for the Midtown neighborhood, but added that crime is a concern for him across the city.
He echoed Knight’s stance that the strategy is to address crime on a more even basis instead of focusing on one area of New Albany.
“I feel good about the approach that we’re taking,” Gahan said.
Duggins and Gahan said the New Albany Redevelopment Commission and the public will be involved in discussions as how to proceed with the next phase of the NSP project.
The redevelopment department chose the Midtown area in the grant application, thus the proceeds from the project must be spent within the designated boundaries.
Duggins said the city has already obtained some properties that could be rehabilitated through tax sales, and thus has been able to garner houses at cheaper costs.
Since the city holds liens on many of the properties in tax sales, Duggins said they are able to purchase them at a less expensive price.
New Albany City Councilman Dan Coffey recently called for an audit of the NSP project, and it was approved by the redevelopment commission.
The project is already audited by the state, but Coffey insisted on approving the resolution to show what he said is a commitment to transparency in the project.
There have been questions about the project almost since its inception. Some council members took exception at how much New Directions and administrators of the project were paid, as well as the amount of money that was being poured into the houses.
Construction on the houses typically ranged from $117,000 up to more than $200,000. Most were sold for between $75,000 and $109,000, but officials said the discrepancy in construction versus sales proceeds was expected due to the condition of the properties when they were obtained.
Additionally, homeowners had to make between 50 percent and 120 percent of the area median income to qualify to purchase an NSP house.
The city and New Directions did provide $168,000 in grant funds as incentive assistance for some home buyers.
Duggins and Gahan said they support New Directions and are pleased with how the program has led to a new image for the Midtown neighborhood.
Gahan said he plans to ask the city council to fund the salary for a full-time grant supervisor. They would be charged with applying for grants as well as overseeing money awarded to the city.
“They would make sure that we’re in compliance as well as put New Albany in line for as many opportunities as we can be,” Gahan said.