In 2018, Ball State University Professor John West, who had been working with the City of Muncie to start a land bank under new State legislation, approached Ball Brothers Foundation for assistance in making the new institution as effective as possible. West, along with collaborators Zane Bishop, Brad King and Heather Williams had worked together to learn about best practices. The challenge was to make it happen in Muncie. The proposed Land Bank would acquire, maintain, and dispose of abandoned property. In turn this work would improve public safety, put properties back on the tax roll, and contribute to neighborhood renewal. In 2019, Ball Brothers Foundation provided a seed grant which allowed a small group of committed community members and Ball State University students to explore how land banks got started, and how they functioned in other Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Toledo and Flint. Funding also allowed the team to hire consultants affiliated with one of the country’s leading land banks to help establish policies and procedures necessary to get the Muncie Land Bank off to a strong start. Five years later, the Muncie Land Bank is doing just what it envisioned—and more. It is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization staffed by two professionals who work tirelessly to acquire abandoned and blighted property, preserve it, and provide it to the public for strategic redevelopment.
Processes that require collaborative, collective work are challenging. For that reason, I think many of us—individuals and organizations—tend to steer clear from too much collaboration. Nevertheless, there are certain problems that can only be solved through working together. — Nate Howard, Muncie Land Bank
How big of a problem is abandoned and blighted property in Muncie? Can you give us a sense of the scale and scope of the issue?
Our job is to convert vacant, abandoned and deteriorating properties into productive use. The properties we acquire are distressed properties, many of them tax delinquent and encumbered, that have been rejected by the open market and left as growing liabilities for Muncie neighborhoods and communities.
#1: The first task is title acquisition. Most of the properties acquired by the MLB since its inception in 2017 have been via interlocal governmental agreements with the Muncie Redevelopment Commission and the Delaware County Commissioners and as donations from Habitat for Humanity. We have also received a handful of properties as donations from individuals, and in some cases have purchased distressed properties in the marketplace.
#2: Second, upon acquisition, the MLB manages, maintains and works to clear liens and encumbrances on these properties. We secure and mow them, address any safety issues, and prevent further deterioration. We also negotiate with lienholders to reduce or remove outstanding debts, satisfy liens through payment when necessary, or pursue legal actions to clear titles.
#3: The third task is to find appropriate and sustainable reuses for the acquired properties. We transfer or sell properties without the burden of existing liabilities, to local developers, community organizations, or individuals that rehabilitate or repurpose the land and/or houses. Additionally, we are in the process of assembling clusters of abandoned houses and vacant land to facilitate medium-scale development projects with an emphasis on salvaging Muncie’s housing stock and creating affordable housing opportunities.
How many properties does the Land Bank deal with over the course of a year?
Since inception, we have acquired 71 properties and sold 51. Currently our property inventory is at 20, 10 of which are available to the public for purchase, while the other 10 we are holding for identified end users via special agreements.
What is a typical day like for the staff of the Lank Bank?
The Muncie Land Bank staff is a team of two: I serve as Executive Director and Joe Fillenwarth is our Data and Inventory Manager. We work as a team. I spend about half my time in the office doing the typical things that an ED does to run an organization. The other half is spent out of the office engaging the community, building partnerships and maintaining relationships with local leaders. Joe’s day is filled with all the many tasks that the acquisition, maintenance, stabilization and transfer of property requires. Additionally, as an Urban Planner, he spends time collecting, managing and analyzing data, researching potential properties, conducting site visits, and evaluating their condition and potential for redevelopment or revitalization. The heart of the MLB is its distinguished and committed Board of Directors. It has been their collective expertise and willingness to get their hands dirty that has helped the MLB get to where it is today.
Since the Land Bank was established, what have been some of the greatest “wins”?
- Through an interlocal agreement, the MLB acquired 36 vacant lots from the Muncie Redevelopment Commission in 2021.
- In 2021, the MLB entered an interlocal agreement with the Muncie Building Commissioner, that allows us to clear liens for 10% of their full amount.
- Last year (2022) was a big year for us. We acquired 8 properties with structures on them. Four of those properties were sold to Muncie residents who are rehabbing the structures, two will be transferred to local non-profits for redevelopment in the fall of this year, and two were demolished at the beginning of this year.
- Muncie is one of ten municipalities across three states selected in a competitive process to send a delegation to the 2023 Vacant Property Leadership Institute (VPLI) in Austin, Texas this fall. The delegation from Muncie includes representation from local government, the non-profit sector, Ball State University, and local community leadership. We will receive hands-on training from top experts on urban policy and equitable community revitalization.
- Just this past July, the MLB entered into a formal partnership with Intend Indiana to do medium-scale mixed income housing development in Muncie. Via access to funding from the US Treasury, more than 1 million dollars of investment could flow into the Muncie community.
- Since October of 2022, we’ve been facilitating what we call our monthly “First Friday – Property Abandonment and Housing Development Meeting” to talk about the issues of blight and housing development in the City of Muncie. The meeting is open to the public and has been well attended by a mix of for-profit developers, non-profit leaders, government officials, academics, and other concerned community members. The smaller aim of the First Friday meeting is to expose individuals and organizations to new and innovative models that address the challenges of vacant, abandoned, or deteriorated properties. The larger, long-term aim is to create a space where Muncie folk can have open dialogue about their assumptions and biases, can be vulnerable and listen to one another, can let go of prescribed agendas, and in doing so, discover what is really needed and possible.
How did your personal and professional background prepare you to manage the Muncie Land Bank?
Prior to joining the team at MLB, I spent 20 years working in some pretty challenging contexts in Latin America – slums surrounding megacities, rural areas with no road access, lots of pretty much abandoned and forgotten places. These experiences taught me a lot about the importance of land and housing—and access to it. It taught me about the necessity of creating mechanisms that seek the common good over private gain and the power of solidarity. In Latin America, though the projects varied, the catch all for the work that I was involved in was collaborative development. Processes that require collaborative, collective work are challenging. For that reason, I think many of us—individuals and organizations—tend to steer clear from too much collaboration. Nevertheless, there are certain problems that can only be solved through working together. They are either so big, or so complicated, that multiple stakeholders have to be involved if one wants to seriously address them. Like it is in so many other cities in the Rust Belt, blight in Muncie is that kind of a problem. My experience in Latin America learning to facilitate collaboration between folks from different sectors of society with different perspectives, differing amounts of resources and different goals, informs greatly my work with the Muncie Land Bank.
Though I was away for many years, I maintained many longstanding relationships with people and organizations working to make Muncie a better place. Those relationships, in addition to my familiarity with Muncie culture as one of her sons, have helped me greatly in my new role at the MLB. >> Download PDF <<