The Crusader Newspaper Group

Three Renovators who are Rebuilding a better Gary

Cory Armand, Joseph Peterson, and Deanna Johnson have at least two things in common: they are young Garyites rebuilding their city one house at a time and belong to the networking group Northwest Indiana Creative Investors Association (NICIA). The trio of private investors has renovated more than 80 homes in Gary, more than the 48 the local government recently tore down in the Aetna neighborhood, and the 16 apartments at 700 Broadway in the city’s downtown area.

Cory Armand Sees Nothing but Opportunity

Renovating Gary’s housing stock, and, recently, commercial properties, has been the focus of renovator Armand. After renovating several houses in Gary, the AIG Business Center at 3700 and Broadway is his new crown jewel. He has renovated about 60 homes, about 30 of them for himself mainly in historic Means Manor and University Park. “I would love to renovate more houses in Means Manor, but I can’t find a good deal,” added Armand. Armand learned his carpentry skills in high school at the Gary Area Career Center before studying business and construction management at Purdue University and Indiana University Northwest. After college, he worked for a general contractor and realized, “I like working with my hands,” he explained. With a growing family, he maintained a day job and a side hustle of repairing and selling cars, as he began 2007 renovating at least one house a year. When the housing market crashed in that same year and the mortgage payments on his construction loan were about to almost double, Armand faced foreclosure. To protect his credit, the Gary native sold his first property at a loss. “We pretty much had to pay somebody to buy the house,” he recalls.

He learned from the regional networking group NICIA how to use the equity in his properties to buy other properties and was soon buying two houses a year. “Once I learned about leveraging the equity in my real estate, I started increasing my inventory,” he says. In 2019, he bought his first multi-unit. Then, in 2020, COVID hit. “It took a toll on my mental and physical health and my family life,” he stated. COVID made him reassess his life. Again, he learned from his hard knocks, quit his day job, and focused full-time on his business. After renovating buildings throughout Gary, he admits that many Garyites find it hard to see changes in The City Built on Sand. “That is a challenge for people who are here every day,” he quips. “However, all my investments are in Gary,” he adds, “I see nothing but opportunity.”

Joseph Peterson from Art Teacher to Renovator

In 2003, at the urging of a co-worker, Joseph Peterson began looking for a real estate investment. The then third-year teacher wanted to buy a house for cash so he could remain mortgage free. He recalls, “That would provide me an easy exit if something went wrong.” He reached his goal in Gary, on 49th Avenue, in East Glen Park, for $3,000. He soon renovated more houses including his fourth unit in Gary’s Brunswick neighborhood, near his day job. During renovations, gas prices rose. “I was paying more for gas than my truck payment,” he recalls. As his commuting costs climbed, he moved from Merrillville into the Brunswick unit to save fuel costs.

Peterson now focuses on investing in East Glen Park because it is where he started. “For me, it also makes time management sense to build in one area,” he explained. In addition to time management skills, the former art educator also found the need to sharpen his organizational and financial skills. “Managing funds is one of the most important skills to groom and the easiest area that can get you into trouble,” quipped Peterson, who spent 22 years mostly teaching at Tolleston and West Side schools. He says he liked teaching, but his desire to renovate houses grew stronger while his request to teach part-time got a failing grade. He has been able to transfer some of the skills he learned from his past into his real estate business, including 22 years in education and six years of graphic design and education studies at the Chicago American Academy of Art, Indiana University Northwest, and Calumet College. However, he relies heavily on the carpentry skills learned from his dad. “I grew up working with my dad around the house,” he laments. From being his dad’s sidekick to renovating 14 houses in The City Built on Sand, Peterson also assists others in adding to the Region’s housing stock as president of NICIA. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the COVID easing in 2021 that he observed a marked change in the Gary housing market. “Before then, if I mentioned Gary it was like ‘OH’; now NICIA doesn’t have a meeting and not discuss what is going on in Gary,” he says. The group even has a subgroup that focuses just on Gary. NICIA group meetings cover a range of topics from using rental management software and meeting Section 8 rental requirements to meetings at project locations to share tips on everything from roofing costs and techniques to the best subcontractors to use. Like Armand, he’s bullish on Gary. “It’s cheaper to renovate a house for about $65,000 than to build a new one,” he says. He also warns that housing in Gary will become more expensive. “Once we get rid of the blighted houses, the remaining house values will go up.” Once house values rise, Peterson predicts more investors will build new units, which will open the door for higher rents. “If it costs an investor $200,000 to build a new home, the rent will have to be around $2,000 per month when the typical rent in Gary is now around $1,300 per month,” he reasoned. Higher rents may not be good for renters, but they are good for homeowners. As the American housing shortage, climate change and other factors make investing in Gary more favorable, Peterson takes pride in being part of Gary becoming a greater city. His bid to switch from full- to part-time teaching failed, but it opened doors to his rebuilding of Gary full-time. He adds, “I went out on Christmas break and haven’t looked back.”

Deanna Johnson Loses Job and Strengthens Foundation

When Deana Johnson got notice that she was being laid off in 2023, she had already renovated 10 houses and was managing 115 rentals in The Steel City. While holding her day job providing human resource services for construction and manufacturing positions, she managed the homes that are mostly in Midtown and on the West Side. Still, the lay-off news was traumatic. “The nine to five provided security and financial reward,” she says. The Gary native got into the real estate business by accident. It started when she bought her first condominium in Merrillville in 2017, and the job she had been working remotely asked her to return to its Houston office. I didn’t want to sell my place, so “I became a landlord by default,” she recalls. In Texas and Denver, she continued to work in the commercial and industrial construction industry where she honed skills in project management, managing contractors, and construction budgeting. Soon, the former West Side High School student found herself back in Gary as the cure for her homesickness. She also bought a second home. “Home is always home,” she says. She then set a goal of owning 10 houses and with the help of NICIA and the podcast Bigger Pockets, she reached her goal. “NICIA has been the biggest influence on my real estate career,” she says of the group of active, diverse renovators. Surprisingly, she reunited with her former teacher Peterson at her first NICIA meeting. The initial funds for her business came from her savings including her 401K. She says she had to convince family and friends that she was not taking away from her future, but “I was building my future.” She is already seeing results, “houses I used to pay $500 for at a tax sale, now cost $3,000-$10,000 at a tax sale,” she pointed out. Unlike Armand and Peterson, Johnson says she has no hard construction skills. “I cannot do the work myself,” she added gently. However, she uses her soft skills learned from her human resources jobs, a Business Administration degree from Kettering University and a Master’s in House Resource Development from the University of Texas at Tyler to nail her goals. Now, six months after getting a lay-off notice, Johnson is still processing how much work it takes to be a full-time entrepreneur. It takes consistency, self-discipline, and staying focused on my objectives, she says. “If you just want the money, you should just get and keep a job,” she advises. However, Johnson is honing her skills and earning more than a financial reward, she is reaching her objective, she says, of “providing better housing in my community, one house at a time.”

Wayne A. Young
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Gary native Wayne Young is the publisher of Port of Harlem magazine. Founded by Young in 1995, the magazine is inclusive, diverse, and Pan-African. He is also president of the Port of Harlem Gambian Education Partnership, which funds and manages small projects centering around culture, education, and community in the West African nation. He recently repurposed his parents’ home in Gary into a short-term rental.

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