Singapore Investor Shows Mettle In Rehabbing Indy Homes

By Jeff Swiatek
The Indianapolis Star.

Clara Tan Lisin is funneling Asian money into Indianapolis to repair dozens of homes in some of the city’s most down-and-out neighborhoods.

It’s been a difficult year and a half for Lisin, who heads a Singapore company called CTL Global Holdings. She’s lost $500,000 or so to contractors for disputed work. Her assistant had a gun pointed at him. And on one of her visits to Indianapolis, she says, someone tried to snatch the necklace from around her neck.

“I was just in shock,” she says. “There are dangerous people.”

On a fall afternoon, Lisin stands on the porch of an Eastside house, wearing a turquoise jacket, black miniskirt and high heels with over-the-knee black socks. CTL recently finished renovating the two-story house, but it wasn’t easy.

Her employees found an elderly woman and her adult son living there as squatters. Inside were 17 cats and dogs. Trash filled every room of the three-bedroom house, and Lisin points to a living room ceiling that was blackened from indoor barbecuing.

“A lot of things were in extremely bad shape,” she says. “I don’t understand why they were living in such bad conditions. There were dead cats in the basement. Is it dead cats or dead dogs?”

One of her construction team leaders, Norman Williams, is listening. “Both,” he says, “and there were dead rats down there.”

It’s safe to say that Indianapolis’ street scene has never seen an investor quite like Lisin, whose naivete about the city, American culture and urban problems hasn’t stopped her from plunging into the risky business of housing redevelopment.

The 30-something businesswoman says she grew up in Malaysia, went to college in London and worked 10 years for the German software and services company SAP before starting CTL in 2010 in Singapore, where she now lives. CTL’s Asian investment brochures describe her as having “the Midas touch” and the ability to help investors “invest in property without laying a hand on it.”

Lisin says she picked Indianapolis as an investment spot because she visited once with her father and the city offers a plentiful supply of run-down houses that she can buy cheaply for her investors and turn into money-making rentals.

The work Lisin’s tackling is the sort usually done by neighborhood groups using government subsidies and maybe a private grant or two.

And, typically, a development plan with multiple stakeholders.

Lisin has none of that.

Neighborhood groups have barely heard of her. John Franklin Hay of the Near East Area Renewal group that supports housing rehabs on the Eastside, says he’s had no direct dealings with CTL. CTL has had no dealings with the city, other than buying many of Lisin’s houses at city surplus sales or sheriff’s auctions.

Almost all the 60-some houses Lisin says CTL has bought were in frighteningly bad shape. CTL has fixed up about 20 so far, she says, at an average cost of about $25,000, and is starting to rent them out for $600 to $900 a month. So far, little has gone smoothly.

The first contractors she hired did shoddy work or none at all, she says. One contractor took a year to renovate one house. CTL has legal proceedings against at least two contractors it used, she says.

“A lot of people tried to take advantage of us. It’s not easy. Being a foreigner is tough. There are so many contractors who just take money and run away.”

How much money has she lost in Indianapolis?

“Close to a million,” she says. “A few hundred thousand, say. It’s easily $500,000.” She thinks for a few seconds. “It’s not really lost; it’s a bad debt. I don’t know the numbers; we just put it behind us.”

Lisin wanted to show off two houses CTL fixed up on Eastern Avenue. They’re in an Eastside neighborhood where vacant homes with boarded windows riddle almost every block.

She walks inside the house where the squatters lived. Now Williams, one of her team leaders, calls the place home. Lisin is renting the house to him at a low rate. Most of CTL’s renovated homes so far are rented to CTL’s staff, she says.

Inside, Williams’ girlfriend watches TV. Lisin greets her like a next-door neighbor and walks into the kitchen. She chides Williams about a missing pane of glass in a back door. He promises to replace it.

Then it’s off to the house next door, another wreck that was fixed up by CTL and is rented to another employee, Juan Burks. He lives there with his wife and three children.

“I love it. I love this house,” says Burks, who formerly rented across the street in a double where the heat didn’t work. He says Lisin gave him a job when he said he could hang drywall.

“I love Clara. She’s down-to-earth, and I like what she’s got going.” She overhears and responds: “Will you like me when I am screaming and shouting?”

Lisin decides to walk over to the double Burks once rented. Williams is still in tow. She looks at the patched concrete porch. “Norman, if the concrete was done like this for our house, you know what I would do?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says.

“I would shout.”

Under Lisin, CTL resembles something of a social service agency.

Almost all of her 22 full-time employees and 30 or so part-time employees are single women, veterans or ex-felons, Lisin says. She says she’s hiring the disadvantaged because it seems to be the right thing to do and they usually work hard.

“We are giving them a new environment so they don’t go back to what they did. Everybody makes mistakes,” she says.

Of her hires she says, “Some of them are under probation. Forty percent don’t work out. My former project manager, we already removed him. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but we tried.”

“I’ve met a lot of crooks here,” she adds, “but there also are a lot of good people.”

She turns to Williams. “I am very proud of him,” she says. “And Juan is always trying to climb up.” She looks at Burks. “What did I tell you when you were scratching something?”

“You told me to stop gambling and save your money so we can make a big move,” Juan replies.

Another worker appears. James Jethroe says Lisin hired him as a landscaper even though he was working as a server at Applebee’s and had no landscaping experience.

“She is sweet,” he says of Lisin, who overhears him and responds: “He’s never been to the office and seen me giving commands.”

“She’s trying to help the poor,” Jethroe adds. “She gave us all a chance, even though we are all felons and stuff.” Jethroe says he served 14 years in prison for arson and felony possession of a handgun.

Lisin says she’s hoping to pick up the pace of renovation and find renters. She talks of pouring more investor money into the city’s poorest neighborhoods, even though she says many of her investors “basically don’t know if Indianapolis is in India or where.”

Recently, Lisin hired a Singaporean assistant, Randall How. He says he’s 23, hasn’t gone to college and served two years in the Singapore military before going to work for Lisin. How helps put on the three-day training sessions given to new CTL employees and has been put to work lining up building materials suppliers and reliable contractors in Indianapolis.

“I am not so clear on how contracting is done. I am learning about it,” he says while following Lisin around on the Eastside tour.

It was How who had a pistol pointed at him while checking on one of CTL’s Eastside homes. How said the gunman left without firing, but the incident scared him.

Standing on the porch of one of her homes under renovation, Lisin says she isn’t at all sure CTL’s investments will pay off.

“A few times I wanted to give up. Indy is the most difficult city I have ever worked in in my life. But yet it has so much potential. I’m going to give this place a last shot — one more year. If I can get it to work, I tell you, a lot of Asian investors will come in. Our connections are not little. Every week we have a few (investment) seminars in a row.”

The talk makes her pull out a cigarette and take a few puffs.

“Whenever I talk about this, I am very stressed. I need my cigarette,” she says, tossing the partly smoked cigarette off the porch.

Across the street, a scampering squirrel catches her eye. “That is a squirrel that is very busy,” she says. “I got to buy some nuts for him.”

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