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Indy developer faces pushback over ‘Cracker Jack, shotgun houses’

BWI LLC has constructed 37 housing units, a project known as Canal Village, throughout the Northwest Landing neighborhood. A few of the homes are pictured March 18, 2024, on the near northwest side of Indianapolis. (Photo by Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy)

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — When Maunah Wadud saw the designs for Canal Village, she was excited that someone was investing in her neighborhood.

She and her neighbors went to several community meetings where the Indianapolis-based developer, BWI LLC, shared what Wadud and others considered to be tasteful home designs that matched the aesthetic of the historic Northwest Landing neighborhood.

The 37-unit project also offered low-income residents a chance at home ownership; if a resident rented the property for 15 consecutive years, they would own it outright.

But when the houses started popping up about two years later, Wadud noticed they didn’t match the renderings. Some houses had two-toned siding, which wasn’t in the designs. There were no wrap-around porches, and the homes weren’t being professionally landscaped as promised. 

“They built what we consider to be Cracker Jack, shotgun houses,” said Wadud, 74.

In response, some local residents, business owners and community organizers are asking city officials to prevent BWI from starting the next phase of Canal Village, which would involve the purchase of 33 additional lots from the city’s landbank on top of the 37 purchased for the first phase of the project. BWI was awarded $1.2 million in tax credits for the next phase, but its fate hinges on the city’s approval.

Several near northwest side organizations wrote to the Northwest Landing Neighborhood Association to share their concerns. Those letters were then shared with city officials.

“The atrocious, overpriced and poorly built homes to ‘help’ residents attain home ownership in the (near northwest side) was not what was promised to the neighborhood,” states a Feb. 22 letter from Adam Velazquez, executive director of Groundwork Indy, a local nonprofit organization that led the redevelopment of a historic firehouse in the neighborhood that previously sat vacant for 13 years.

“We have concerns regarding the quality of the buildings already built on properties by BWI LLC and their long-term sustainability when it comes to the finish and fit of the homes,” wrote Tom Hanley, CEO of Nine13sports, a neighborhood nonprofit that offers youth programming. “This concern extends to the impact on the neighborhood if the homes quickly begin to fall into disrepair as we believe they will.”

Gary Hobbs, president of BWI, said the project faced a number of unexpected financial setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody knows the story: prices went up, lumber went up,” Hobbs told Mirror Indy. “We had to pivot at the end of the day.”

It’s not just Canal Village, though. Residents upset about conditions at the nearby Clifton Square Apartments have formed a coalition to oppose BWI’s continued involvement in the neighborhood.

City officials are aware of the complaints and have met with neighborhood stakeholders to hear their concerns. A spokesperson for the Department of Metropolitan Development, the city agency overseeing landbank sales, acknowledged that the Canal Village project did not meet expectations and said the next phase would not move forward without certain commitments from the developer.

“Indy DMD is thankful for developers like BWI for their continued efforts in helping create affordable housing, but in accordance with city policies and procedures, DMD is unable to move forward with offering incentives until our required minimum standards are met,” department spokesperson Kennedy Weaver told Mirror Indy in a statement.

City-County Council President Vop Osili, a Democrat who represents parts of the near northwest side, declined to comment.

Developer blames ‘poor communication’

Hobbs isn’t giving up yet.

In a 90-minute interview with Mirror Indy, Hobbs acknowledged there were things he could have done differently while also offering explanations for why the project didn’t turn out as planned.

During the pandemic, Hobbs said he became deathly ill of COVID-19, and his brother died from the illness. He also said he had trouble finding construction workers, and pandemic-related delays ended up costing him half a million dollars, forcing design changes.

That could have been communicated better, he said.

“I genuinely am sorry about the poor communication — that I take ownership on — around the design changes that happened during COVID,” Hobbs said. “It is different and is not really, to be quite frank with you, what I had wanted or envisioned as well.”

He said he, too, was frustrated that the final designs didn’t include wrap-around porches, which he said had to be removed because there wasn’t enough room on the side of the lot to meet the city’s setback requirement.

While the project didn’t live up to his ultimate vision, Hobbs sees himself as providing a much-needed service to an underserved population. Many of the residents are happy in their homes, he said, regardless of what their neighbors think of them.

Keegan Allen, who moved into a four-bedroom Canal Village home last year, said he hasn’t had any issues while living there.

“Some people don’t like the houses, but the neighborhood is going to change,” said Allen, a 21-year-old minister at Eden Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department chaplain’s office.

Hobbs said more than 100 people, mostly single parents, are on the waitlist for Canal Village, and that critics don’t understand how the project is benefiting the community in the long run.

“That’s part of the strategy and that’s part of my passion,” he said, and “I’m cool with it. I love the folks who may not understand. It’s kind of like Jesus. People didn’t understand, they hated him, but it’s like, ‘Man, look I’m going on a cross here for you and your sins, right? So you can live, right? You can be saved.”

He caught himself. “I’m not trying to compare myself to Jesus. Please don’t get me wrong about that. I love him, but I’m nowhere near him, not by a long shot, but at the end of the day some people just don’t know. Jesus said forgive them for they know not what they do. They don’t really understand, and if I gotta be that sacrifice for our community in the long run when people will get it, so be it.”

Negligence alleged at Clifton Square Apartments

At Clifton Square Apartments, a BWI-owned and operated affordable senior housing complex just north of Canal Village, some residents have grown fed up with what they say are shoddy management practices by the company.

When 80-year-old Helen White moved into her apartment several years ago, she was promised certain amenities that are no longer available: a working washer and dryer in her unit, cable TV and access to a rooftop garden, to name a few. 

Her issue is less with the quality of her apartment itself and more with management, which she said is slow to respond to maintenance requests.

“The way things are done, it’s like they don’t have a clue,” White said. “They treat us like we’re senile.”

Last year, a grease fire in an apartment unit set off the sprinkler system on the first floor. The newly hired building manager couldn’t figure out how to shut the water off, and the floor flooded, causing water damage.

When some residents’ laundry machines broke down, employees put the defunct units in the community room, creating an eyesore for residents.

In the community room, a kitchenette has been unusable for the past year, residents said. A pool table was removed but never replaced. The TV in the community room does not have cable. The computers don’t work.

“To Clifton Square, these things don’t matter, but they matter to us,” said Judy Cox, 77, who moved into Clifton Square shortly after it opened in 2014. “We’re seniors. We want to be comfortable.”

The Marion County Public Health Department has made 16 trips to the apartment complex in the past two years, according to public records. Six of those visits resulted in violations.

Hobbs said BWI is working on fixing the damage caused by the flooding. Instead of replacing the washers and dryers in units, he said he plans to invest $50,000 to build a laundry room adjacent to the community room.

Wadud’s daughter, Hadiah Amit, a community builder with the Near Northwest Neighborhood organization, has been urging Clifton Square residents to document their interactions with management and submit multiple work orders, if necessary.

“We are trying to get the city’s attention,” Amit said. “We have to show consistency, negligence. Keep a journal. Start documenting everything.”

Dreaming of a better neighborhood

Amit remembers the days when she could play in her neighborhood unsupervised.

“Kids walked the streets and nobody worried about them. This was a vibrant community,” Amit said. “We could walk, run, ride our bikes in the community. People are starting to see hope now.”

During the pandemic, Wadud, Amit and several others in the Northwest Landing neighborhood on the city’s northwest side brought new life to the neighborhood association, which had grown stagnant over the years. They see Hobbs as an impediment to that movement.

“If he did this in Fishers or Noblesville, he would’ve been tarred and feathered and burned at the stake,” Wadud says. “You can’t come in and disrespect our community and expect to get the money and community support. We’re not against development. We’re against getting steamrolled by a developer.”

In the hopes of repairing his fractured relationship with neighborhood groups, Hobbs has been meeting with city officials and local stakeholders to hear their concerns. 

The parties are working on a mutual resolution that could involve improving the existing Canal Village homes while still allowing the next phase to move forward, but Wadud remains guarded.

“I’m not totally confident in anything yet,” Wadud said.

Peter Blanchard covers local government. Reach him at 317-605-4836 or Follow him on X @peterlblanchard.