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November 7, 2016
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November 7, 2016

Abandoned homes: rehab or demolish?

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Brad King was driving home from a neighborhood meeting in Muncie’s Old West End three years ago when he noticed red and blue lights flashing behind his home. Immediately, his thoughts turned to the safety of his wife and 3-year-old son.

Police told him his neighbors had been cooking meth.

“It’s not good to know you have a meth house in your neighborhood let alone one that is less than 150 feet away,” said King, who is Muncie’s Historic Preservation Officer and president of the Old West End Neighborhood Association.

The first nine months of 2016 saw a drop of about a third in the number of meth lab busts in Delaware County. But Brodie Cook, an Environmental Health Specialist for the Delaware County Department of Health, says the county still is on track to have the highest number of meth lab busts in the state.

The Old West End is one of 11 national registered historic districts in Muncie. The house where the meth lab was is not considered an historical home but it contributes to the historic significance of the district, King said.

“Neighborhoods like Gilbert and West End and East Central, they’re all downtown neighborhoods and it’s the oldest part of the city and it’s also the ones affected the most by blight and abandonment. It seems to be a winning recipe for cookers,” King said.

A survey conducted by ScoutMuncie in 2015 identified 900 vacant structures in 40 percent of the city of Muncie.

ScoutMuncie is a project led by volunteers from the Muncie Historic Preservation Committee that collects data to evaluate and identify the conditions of properties and areas within Muncie. The project is funded by a Ball Brothers grant and is partnered with the City of Muncie.

The data collected by ScoutMuncie came from Forest Park, McKinley, Riverside and Whitely neighborhoods. Information in the date includes details about whether there is a structure on the land being evaluated, the condition of the structure, whether it was occupied, its architectural character and structural integrity.

If the ratio holds true for the 60 percent not surveyed, there are an estimated total of about 2,200 vacant properties.

Aftermeth

This podcast explores the impact meth has on real estate and neighborhoods, after properties have been tagged as meth labs. (by Nick Siano)

“Abandoned houses are probably the number one spot to go find and cook meth. I live right around the corner from a giant abandoned house. A lady was found dead inside from drug usage two winters ago. We watch the house the best we can, my neighborhood association boarded up the house last summer, but you can’t be on guard 24/7,” King said.

It was two years after the bust of the home in Old West End that someone finally bought the property. King said he had reached out to the owner several times to ask him when the house would be remediated.

Known as Indiana’s “Meth Rule,” Title 318 IAC 1, says that a property used to cook meth must be decontaminated before it may be re-inhabited or resold, but the law does not give time restrictions for when that should be done. The result is that homes can sit untouched for years.

King said the city has started creating neighborhood investment programs that take vacant houses that aren’t bad enough to be demolished but in need of repair and remediation and sells them to an investor at a reduced cost so they’ll restore and remediate the home and resell it.

Craig Graybeal buys meth houses for as little as $1,000 to rehabilitate them for his non-profit organization, ecoREHAB, where he is executive director. EcoREHAB’s mission is to restore homes in an environmentally sustainable and affordable manner. The Ball Brothers Foundation has funded several of several ecoREHAB projects. Graybeal said there are more benefits to rehabilitating a home instead of demolishing it or leaving it vacant.

“If you tear the house down, there may never be something built there again, or if there is, it won’t aesthetically match the rest of the homes,” Graybeal said. “Having a quality house that somebody is living in is better than having an empty blighted house that nobody wants to live in.”

Heather Williams is program manager for Ball State University’s Building Better Neighborhoods and is president of the board of directors for ecoREHAB of Muncie. She says demolishing a home hurts the social fabric of the neighborhood. 

“When you tear down a house, you end up with what we call ‘missing teeth’ on a block. So you could have had what was a perfectly beautiful face to the neighborhood, but if you tear down a house here and a house there, then it appears as if the street is missing teeth, which really detracts from the neighborhood. The residents feel that. They see that these houses are deteriorated, they’re blighted, they’re abandoned, but a lot of times they still see hope in that. And when you go and the city comes in and they tear down the house, that hope is lost, because it is not likely that house will be rebuilt,” Williams said.

When Graybeal needs one of his homes cleaned, he calls Chris Hill, co-owner of DC Environmental Solutions. Hill said he has cleaned around 30 homes in Delaware County due to meth labs since he started cleaning homes in 2013. DC Environmental Solutions also cleans homes in Henry, Madison and Randolph counties. 

The annual White River Cleanup brought community members together, not only to clean up trash but to be educated on the issue of methamphetamine in Indiana. Jenna Liston reports.

“As far as Delaware County, they seem to be in worse shape looking at them, but they don’t really do any different than the other test results most of the time.”

The acceptable level of contamination in Indiana is 0.5 µg/100 cm2 or lower. For a job where the level of meth in the home is just above 0.5, Hill said the company charges $4,000 to $5,000. Highly contaminated homes can cost as much as $10,000 to remediate. Hill said they will get a dumpster to empty all the contents of the home into and send it straight to a landfill.

“Some people say they don’t care what happens to the house. They’d rather just tear it down. We’ve told people it’s always worth it to – unless it’s just a complete dump – to get it tested. You’re taking the chance that if you tear it down it’s going to be fine, and you’re losing all that money. We’ve never had anybody that actually went through with having it demolished,” Hill said.

The EPA estimates that for every pound of meth produced, there are six pounds of highly toxic waste generated. Chemicals produced from meth can contaminate an entire building and its contents, including walls, carpets and furnishings of the structure. In addition, there can be further contamination of ground water if the materials used for the production of meth are drained into the soil or poured into indoor plumbing drains.

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Craig Graybeal

Indiana’s Meth Law is what allows Cook to label a home ‘unfit’ and deem it necessary to be cleaned.

“Once you have meth manufactured in an area, you can bet that the entire area is going to be contaminated. And that is true whether it is being cooked or whether it is being smoked,” Cook said.

In terms of rehabilitating a home, Cook said it depends on the condition of the house and how much money one wants to put into the house.

“Some of these houses are worth $10,000 or $15,000, so it doesn’t make sense to put in $6,000 or $7,000 worth of cleaning into a house that is barely worth that.”

King says the way to decrease the number of meth labs in Delaware County is to find a way to decrease the number of vacant homes in the community.

“We find a way to deal with abandonment of home, we will narrow the scope of where you can cook, for sure,” he said. “We will narrow down the scope of where you can use, for sure. We’ll also increase the property tax revenue, increase the property values, and give people something to be proud of,” King said.

Muncie residents Jesse Gunner and Walter Risch talk about what it’s like to live across the street from a former meth house and how that bust has impacted the neighborhood.

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