Poverty, Housing, and the VA. Terre Haute steps forward and back

Opinion Article Submitted by sophomore from TH South Vigo

See You In Terre Haute Plan Opinion Piece by Anon
See You In Terre Haute plan Pillars may be cracking

As the news breaks across the Wabash Valley that a new VA outpatient clinic will open on Terre Hautes east side, another news item was released proclaiming the end of the United Way Mobile Market.

The United Way in 2013 recognized that many areas of Terre Haute and surrounding communities are lacking access to fresh fruits and vegetables. As Terre Haute saw the poverty rate continue to climb, the United Way observed a direct correlation to unhealthy eating.

As local grocery stores moved further away from the poorest of residents, those same residents resorted to Dollar General and Convenience Stores for a greater percentage of their household food source.

The See You In Terre Haute community plan also recognized this problem and touted in one of its pillars of making Terre Haute a better place, encouraging local grocery and farmer markets.

The plan also envisions a revitalized downtown complete with dinning, shopping, and housing options for all levels of income.

The loss of the mobile market and a continued focus on developing SR46 will continue to crack away at several of the pillars outlined in the See You In Terre Haute 2025 plan.

Historic preservation and revitalization of downtown is at a cross roads. The planned convention center may attract some tourist from out of town, but does not offer a draw for residents.

Similar to the way the Honey Creek Mall was blamed for the demise of downtown as I-70 afforded better access to the south part of town, vacant land and the promise of easy access is creating an identical scenario on the east part of town.

Plans have been laid to continue to beautify the access point to Terre Haute from exit 14 on the east side. Landscaping and uniform construction are both mentioned in the community plan. Resource dollars from the Capital Improvement Board, Chamber of Commerce, City and County may all be earmarked for this area.

Neighborhood revitalization with a business /community partnership will become even more unobtainable if the migration to “desirable” shiny new locations is the name of the game in Terre Haute.

Urban renewal is often viewed as a failing public policy, but it is more a decision acted upon by leaders of a community to Revitalize segments of the community that have been vacated by business, and residential areas left to be populated by transitional housing residents.

These old homes and neighborhoods built from the end of 1890’s until the start of WWII in Terre Haute are the only affordable home options for many. These have nearly all become rental property due to need for costly roof, plumbing, and HVAC repairs. Lower income individuals cannot afford ownership with the addition of property taxes and monthly mortgage payments. These then become transitional properties until blight finally squeezes the profitability out of them.

Aerial View of Terre Haute, Indiana, Circa 1920

So, what can be done? Condemn the property as quickly as possible. Raze it to the ground and thin out the herd. Single family home owners left in these neighborhoods need a firm connection to their home in order to salvage it. As the poorest of the poor face rising taxes and stagnate wages, little can be done to free up the resources they would need to maintain the property on their own. Painting and general repairs could become a community effort, but not in communities where the residents are not invested in those neighborhoods. Stricter code enforcement generally produces rising rents and can lead to a snowballing effect of some of the problems they were intended to eliminate.

The Craftsman and Queen Anne homes concentrated in the decaying parts of City could see a revitalization when the stock is thinned. A continued investment in neighborhood parks, curbing and sidewalk upgrades and the infusion of local community business has been known to stop the decline in other parts of the country.

The property tax on these homes can certainly be a limiting factor. Many homes that have appraised values of 50-60k would be very hard pressed to sell for 25k. While the potential may have been there at one time, these neighborhoods are far from the gentrification realized elsewhere.

Most of the blighted, decaying, bungalows of the City were built at time when Terre Haute had major employer’s within the city limits. Public transportation was the main mode of transportation while many would walk to their nearby job.

The argument that many of these same homes were rented even the 1930’s and 40’s holds true. Some were, according to census records from 1920-1940. A traditional bank mortgage may not have been available to 1st generation emigrants to area.

Those days are long gone, but the housing that this era produced is still standing, in various stages of upkeep.

The railroad workers, shop and factory workers that owned a home valued at $1800-$2800 generally reported annual income of roughly the same amount. On a rare occasion you would see a year and a half annual salary to home value listed. An example being that a Railroad Car Inspector make approximately $2681 per year. His home value is listed as $3500 and it was built in 1913. This would be equal to 15 months (1.3years) of annual salary. Compare this to today that same home has an accessed value of $62,600. The home since 1987 has changed deeded ownership 5 times for $0.00. Zero Dollars. The home is no longer the pride of the block it once was. For a wage earner to purchase this home using the same income to cost ratio of 1930 they would need to make $50,080 per year…to live in a home in the AVENUES. This of course will never happen. The home will be utilized as rental income property, until it has deteriorated into the ground. Zero dollars are reinvested in this property. Affordable rental property is extremely important to have in every community, but this type of housing is creating a blemish on Terre Haute that has no easy way to wash out.

When the rent for this 2 bedroom house is $500/month. The gas/electric/water/sewer/trash utilities total over $300/month it is easy to believe that the people who live there are in poverty. They are a bad day away from being without one of things most people reading this would take for granted as a necessity of life. This poverty may be situational poverty or generational poverty. It is poverty none the less.

Another pillar of the See You In Terre Haute 2025 plan calls for “Quality of Life” improvements. The suggestions made in the plan are to increase the use of green spaces, create a riverwalk trail system, invest in an indoor water facility among other things. All of these items would be great, but at the very first opportunity to follow the plans suggestions for downtown construction of the Terre Haute Convention Center, a green space plaza was eliminated to make space for an auto plaza. Those darn pillars again.

The City of Terre Haute keeps promising the growth of small business as driving force of lifting the wage problem facing it’s residents. Terre Haute in 2017 according to US Census Bureau had a median household income of $34,746. A per capita income of $19,263 and 26.0% of its population lived in poverty. Families that have a household income of $34,746 can not afford to buy the dilapidated property discussed earlier even if a bank would loan money on a property needing such costly repairs. This will require an exponential amount of small business growth, even as Terre Haute nears what the U.S. Dept. of Labor considers full employment rate. (4.1% or less) Terre Haute has the jobs, but they do not pay enough. The cost of living continues to rise, but wages have actually decreased.

So, finally back to new VA clinic. It will provide some health care jobs and the wages will be largely subsidized by the Federal Government. Money that would have flowed to another community will now be here, if the positions it creates are filled by those who chose to live locally. The sucking sound heard by the east side of town will come at a price for the rest of City, a repeat of 1970’s action by the south side. Decay will set in. The mall, Kmart, that whole strip mall where Circuit City use to be. A couple of more years of vacant, and a NEW area of blight will be created. This time, it won’t take as long.

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