Pete Buttigieg tried to revive South Bend by tearing down homes. Did it work?

Why We Wrote This

Repair what’s there, or start over entirely are choices many Midwest cities are weighing. South Bend is considered a Rust Belt success story, but some minorities say Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s signature policy made it more difficult for them to share in that success.

Timmy Broderick/The Christian Science Monitor
Stacey Odom stands in front of her century-old home in South Bend, Indiana. Her house was almost torn down in 2015 as part of a housing program that repaired or demolished 1,000 homes.

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg – who is eyeing a Democratic presidential run – has received positive press for “transforming” South Bend, Indiana. The city has seen a revitalized downtown and a population that is growing after 50 years of decline. 

But a signature policy to address crumbling housing stock is not universally loved, and its evolution highlights Mr. Buttigieg’s willingness to adapt.

From 2013 to 2015, blocks of ramshackle houses turned into blocks of prairie. People were glad to have spruced-up properties and fewer eyesores. But the change also has critics. Community advocate Stacy Odom wants a focus on repairing homes and empowering people, to acknowledge the history that has led to African American poverty rates at nearly twice the national average. “They always want to come in and do something, instead of asking you: How can we do this together and create this together,” says Ms. Odom.

The mayor wasn’t happy, either.

“I’m not sure we got that completely right,” says Mr. Buttigieg in an interview.

This year, he announced an increase in grants for home repairs. City council member Regina Williams-Preston says, “You have to switch your lens as a leader, and that’s what I think Pete has been able to do.”

Stepping over mounds of boxes and tools, Stacey Odom makes her way to a newly-painted white wall and stands in front of it, beaming.

“Fire-grade sheetrock, put it across the whole house,” she says, giving the drywall a knock.

Four years ago, Ms. Odom – a property manager and business owner – had never picked up a hammer. Now, after watching hundreds of YouTube videos, she is fixing up a home in the Monroe Park neighborhood of South Bend, Indiana.

She hopes it will be the first rehab of many. Ms. Odom is the founder of a new community development corporation, one designed to serve African American neighborhoods – but she almost lost the opportunity to rehab this house.

In 2015, shortly after she purchased the century-old home, the city slated it for demolition, as part of an ambitious program to clean up 1,000 blighted homes. Spearheaded by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the initiative dramatically altered the city’s physical landscape, repairing homes but also leaving hundreds of vacant lots in its wake.

Ms. Odom is part of a group of community leaders looking to rewrite the script on housing redevelopment. She understands that the city needs to address blighted homes, but she also wants elected officials to focus on repairing homes and empowering people, to acknowledge the historical trends and patterns that have led South Bend to have African American poverty rates nearly twice the national average.

“If you would give [the community] the same opportunity that you do when you subsidize other people that have tons of money, if you give that little neighborhood association maybe $500,000, do you know what they would have the ability to do in that neighborhood?” Ms. Odom says.

Mayor Buttigieg – who is eyeing a Democratic presidential run and has seen his stock soar in recent weeks – has received a lot of positive press for “transforming” South Bend. During his tenure the city has experienced a revitalized downtown and a population that is growing after 50 years of decline. 

South Bend is considered a Rust Belt success story, but Ms. Odom and others in the community say the mayor’s signature policy made it more difficult for them to share in that success. The question of whether to rebuild or restart is something that many Midwest cities have grappled with, and the evolution of the program highlights not just the challenges but also Mr. Buttigieg’s willingness to listen and adapt.

Legacy cities like South Bend and Detroit are increasingly turning to demolition to address aging, crumbling housing stock. Some experts say that if cities don’t address these “hypervacant” neighborhoods, they can imperil the safety, finances, and character of the surrounding area.

That proved true in South Bend, says the mayor.

Richard Shiro/AP
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg laughs before he speaks to a crowd about his presidential run during the Democratic monthly breakfast at the Circle of Friends Community Center in Greenville, South Carolina, March 23. Buttigieg was the longest of long shots when he announced a presidential exploratory committee in January, but now the underdog bid is gaining momentum.

“I think some neighborhoods gave up on the city because they assumed that we had control over this,” he says. “And so when they saw a house go for years and years without being addressed it felt like a signal, fairly or unfairly, that the city had kind of given up on that neighborhood.”

Most of the work occurred on the city’s west side, which is predominantly African American and Hispanic. The city’s policy was not to demolish any home that was currently being lived in. Though the city did renovate many homes, there was some pushback.

“They always want to come in and do something, instead of asking you: How can we do this together and create this together,” says Ms. Odom.

Kathy Schuth has seen the impact that collaboration can have.

“If you’re able to fix up and renovate a property and shine up what’s already there, it’s really seen as a greater sign of hope, of we’re worth something, this is worth saving, worth keeping and celebrating,” says Ms. Schuth, executive director of a local community development corporation on the city’s northwest side.

‘People could have lived in those houses’

By the time Mr. Buttigieg ran for mayor in 2011, the city’s once-thriving, dense urban core had been hollowed out, and city residents were growing “despondent” over the number of boarded-up homes. The housing program tried to improve that outlook.

From February 2013 to November 2015, the city repaired 433 properties, demolished 579 properties, and brought another 112 properties under its auspice for 1,122 total properties.

The effect was dramatic. Blocks of ramshackle homes turned into blocks of prairie, with the hardest hit blocks losing more than half their homes. People were glad to have spruced up homes and fewer eyesores, but the change also had critics.

“People say, ‘Why did you tear 1,000 houses down, people could have lived in those houses,’ ” says Judy Fox, director of Economic Justice Clinic at the Notre Dame Law Clinic. “They just don’t understand that people couldn’t have lived in these houses. These houses would’ve cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make them habitable.”

Community advocates say the city was too aggressive with code enforcement, charging people thousands of dollars for fixing something they didn’t have the money to fix, and then threatening to demolish their home.

The mayor wasn’t happy with it, either.

“I’m not sure we got that completely right,” says Mr. Buttigieg. “If there’s one thing that I would encourage people to look at in the future, [it] is to really find a fair way to fine tune that enforcement because a lot of it almost inevitably falls to the discretion of the code enforcement personnel.”

One person at odds with code enforcement was Ms. Odom.

Timmy Broderick/The Christian Science Monitor
A derelict house is surrounded by vacant lots in South Bend, Indiana. From 2013 to 2015, the city repaired or demolished 1,000 homes as part of a housing program spearheaded by Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Her financial situation meant she has fixed up her Monroe Park house one board at a time. She explained that to code enforcement officers, but they continued to insist that her house would be demolished.

The situation changed after she demonstrated her resolve to an officer by showing him a picture of her and her contractor fixing the roof. Suddenly, they started calling her a model homeowner and canceled the demolition. She was happy at the outcome, but the experience left a bad taste.

Ms. Fox says the resentment is understandable.

“You’ve got this sort of, ‘First you wouldn’t give us loans, then you give us bad loans, then we get foreclosed, then you come and tear our houses down that we can’t afford to live in.’ You can understand why they feel that way,” she says, tracing the history of housing discrimination toward African Americans.

For Regina Williams-Preston, who also had problems with code enforcement, this history is why homeownership is so important.

“The history and pride of owning property for, I know African Americans and my family, we moved up from another place, the Jim Crow South. Being able to kind of create this new frontier, it became, when the land was passed onto you, you don’t sell that. Like, now it’s your responsibility,” says Ms. Williams-Preston, a Common Council member who is running to replace Mr. Buttigieg.

The real value of property

This sense of pride and preserving history is integral to Odom Community Developers. The group serves two predominantly black neighborhoods, one of which has been Ms. Odom’s home for decades. Rehabbing these homes is a way to lift up her friends and neighbors.

“If you’re all not succeeding, your family isn’t going anywhere, and it’s the same way with the community,” she says. “If you just have one neighborhood that you’re putting everything into and you leave all the rest of these people out, you’re not succeeding.”

Earlier this year Mr. Buttigieg announced that the city would increase its spending to over $1 million for home repair, targeting west side home repairs in particular. It was an attempt to recognize the value of existing homes and homeowners.

“I don’t know if the accountants have figured out how to fully account for it, but the value of a property with a story and a context, especially when you add it up across many properties, it really matters,” he says.

Ms. Odom was one of several activists advocating for that increase in grants for home repairs. They originally requested $300,000. The mayor came back with $650,000.

Ms. Williams-Preston says that the mayor’s willingness to change was huge.

“You have to switch your lens as a leader and that’s what I think Pete has been able to do at this point. That healthy pressure, instead of running away from it, we convinced him to embrace it,” she says.

For Ms. Odom, the progress represents a trust in her and her community to know what they need best.

“You can have stipulations and stuff, everybody does, but give us the opportunity to be a community. Because when you got neighbors helping neighbors, neighborhood associations helping each other, then we can build together.”

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