ELWOOD — Over the grass-growing season, Jimmy Vest has taken his equipment to about 49 neglected properties around Elwood — about 85 percent of which have been abandoned — on a two-week rotation to manicure the lawns.
The part-time landscaper was hired by the city earlier this summer to ensure the lawns of those properties don’t become unsightly or grow into a health hazard by attracting vermin.
“I wanted to clean up the city I love,” he said.
That sentiment is shared by city leaders, including Mayor Todd Jones and members of the Common Council, who in recent months have been on a crusade to clean up rental properties, particularly those that have absentee landlords.
“What we have found out is the properties we have mowed are the continual properties that have to be maintained by the city. The properties we maintained in 2016 are pretty close to properties we continue to maintain in 2017,” Jones said.
Of the 3,351 residential buildings in Elwood, 1,328, or nearly 40 percent, are rentals owned by banks and individual landlords, Jones said.
“There are many avenues we are going after to continue to beautify Elwood,” he said.
One has been the city’s Blight Elimination Project, through which 37 unsafe structures have been demolished this year. Jones said the project’s funds have been under-spent by about $200,000, so he expects more structures to be razed.
Others are an ordinance passed unanimously last month that will require the owners of rental properties to register them with the city and a measure passed unanimously on Monday that would set up a system to monitor abandoned properties. In the event of a change of ownership in either instance, the new owner would have 30 days to inform the city.
“Many communities throughout the state of Indiana do this,” Jones said. “It’s really just to expedite the process and let my building commissioner be more efficient and help the city look beautiful.”
The main thrust of the rental ordinance is to ensure that city officials always can get in touch with property owners because at times, city officials have had difficulties tracking them down, Jones said. One landlord, for instance, owns 30 properties and lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where it is difficult to reach him and hold him accountable, he added.
“We would go to the tenant, and they would say, ‘I just rent,’’’ he said. “What we are finding is properties that would have been labeled nuisance properties where the building commissioner would put notice on the property, the landlords never got the information.”
One person who is thrilled with the efforts of the city to clean up rental properties is Marcy Fry, executive director of the Elwood Chamber of Commerce.
“Some of the blighted areas in this town did not happen overnight. It will take a long time, and we all need to be part of the solution,” she said.
Another strategy expected to be discussed at the September meeting of the Elwood Common Council is creating a “good neighbor ordinance” and strengthening existing nuisance ordinances.
The good neighbor ordinance addresses households where police are called time and again. That will allow city officials to work with families to find social service solutions to reduce the number of calls, Jones said.
“We have some properties in town where the police department has been called over 10 times this year,” he said.
The city’s attorney, Michael E. Farrer of Graham, Regnier, Farrer & Wilson, said he also will bring recommendations to the council for ways to clarify and strengthen existing nuisance ordinances. That, he said, will require looking at a variety of issues, including abandoned vehicles and the setting off of fireworks.
“The term ‘nuisance’ relates to a slew of issues,” he said.