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State seizes student houses

Sam Stryker | Thursday, February 23, 2012

Living off campus is a rite of passage for many Notre Dame seniors, but the state of Indiana threw a wrench in several students’ housing plans for next year before they could even move in.

In an email sent Feb. 9, Mark Kramer of Kramer Properties notified students who held leases for the 2012-13 school year at 916, 920 and 922 South Bend Ave. that their houses were being seized by the state under eminent domain.

Jim Pinkerton, director of communications at the Indiana Department of Transportation, said the houses would be demolished as part of a larger project to improve State Road 23 in the Five Points area.

“The entire project is designed to increase mobility and safety through that area,” he said.

Pinkerton said the state claims properties under eminent domain far in advance for preliminary work. He said the project is expected be completed by the end of 2013.

“[There will be] utility relocations, which in this urban area, will be quite detailed,” he said. “The properties are acquired … before construction begins so they can be cleared to make way for these types of operations.”

Juniors Kelly Taylor and Betty Graham signed a lease for 920 South Bend Ave. in October 2010 with three other people.

“We were given no idea that we might lose the house when we signed the contract,” she said. “Even if there were plans … we were not aware of them.”

Kramer said the state notified him around late November the houses were going to be taken, but was not sure when demolition was going to occur.

In the time between the state notification and the email sent to students, Kramer said he explored arrangements to physically relocate the houses. He said this would allow students to retain their lease during construction.

“At that time, we started to negotiate to allow us to turn the houses around and face the new access road. [The state] denied that,” Kramer said.

When the state turned down his idea to move the houses across the street, Kramer notified his tenants of the demolition plans. He said he did not inform students until he was certain a compromise could not be reached.

“We were negotiating with the state, and thought we had a solution to the problem … In the midst of all that, the state changed their mind,” he said.

Taylor said her future housemates heard about this possibility and looked into the matter before they were officially informed of the demolition.

“We sent multiple emails to Kramer awaiting a response, and finally had to personally call him only to hear that our house was getting demolished,” she said. “He technically never even reached out to us, we had to reach out to him.”

Juniors Duggan Everage and Ryan Kelleher planned to live in 922 South Bend Ave with three other friends. Everage said he wished Kramer alerted the group of the situation as soon as it came to light.

“According to [Kramer Properties], they told us as soon as they knew for a fact that they would not be able to move the houses,” he said. “If we had known about the possibility of this hassle, we would have asked Kramer to allow us to change our lease to a different house to protect ourselves.”

Kramer said he believed moving the houses was the best solution. He said ground planners and movers were prepared to relocate the houses in time for students to move in this fall before the state denied his request.

“We did the best we could with what was available as far as information is concerned,” he said. “Until we had answers to those questions, it was difficult to give answers to the students definitively.”

Kelleher said while Kramer Properties offered to help find alternative housing in addition to returning their full deposits, the group opted to search on their own.

“I spent a great deal of time the past few weeks coordinating with all the other housing companies trying to find suitable housing, much more than I would have liked,” Kelleher said.

Kramer said he advocated for current residents of the homes, who the state originally would have required to move out this semester.

He said after negotiating with the state, these students were allowed to maintain their lease through the end of the year. Additionally, tenants received compensation from the state for moving costs and disparity of cost in future rent and utilities.

Senior Paul Scheel, a current resident of 920 South Bend Ave., said the state was very blunt with both Kramer and his fellow tenants.

“It all kind of hit us at once and we were very much taken aback by it,” he said. “We definitely did not want to move out of the house prematurely, especially in the middle of the school year, because that just creates undo hassle.”

Scheel said he and his housemates were ultimately able to complete their lease and were pleased with how Kramer handled the situation.

“From our perspective Kramer was our advocate,” he said. “He too seemed frustrated with how it was handled because he told us the state just walked in and gave him a price.”

Kramer said there was no way his company could successfully stop construction on the properties.

“When you’re dealing with the state and eminent domain, there is really no fighting,” he said. “It’s ‘fait accompli.’ They hold all the cards, and the best you can do is try to negotiate with them.”

Graham said while she understands Kramer is not at fault for the houses being torn down, she believes he could have handled the situation better.

“The fact that it took for us to call him seems backwards,” she said. “It seems that even when potential discussions about the future of the home came into conversation, we should have been notified and made aware of the situation.”