By Joe Fillenwarth, MURP 2023

My graduate assistantship at the Muncie Land Bank has given me an incredible number of connections and career opportunities throughout the past year and a half. When I first started at the land bank, I didn’t even know what a land bank was. All I knew was that I had a desire to work in community development and to help develop affordable housing opportunities in Muncie. Throughout the time that I have worked for the land bank, I have accomplished those ambitions and more, working alongside Executive Director Nate Howard, non-profit groups like the 8Twelve Coalition, and Department of Urban Planning Chair John West who founded the land bank.

For those who are unfamiliar with what a land bank is, land banks are organizations that acquire abandoned and blighted properties, clean them up both physically and legally, and maintain them until a new and responsible owner can be found. What sets land banks apart from other organizations is their emphasis on finding responsible owners for abandoned land rather than making a quick profit off of a sale. Without the vetting process that land banks provide, properties in lower income communities are often purchased by absentee owners due to their low prices, and this can be problematic to local residents’ ability to maintain site control. Many states, like Michigan, New York, and Ohio, have land banks that function as parts of their city and county governments; however, Indiana has yet to pass legislation that would allow this to be the case in our state. Therefore, the Muncie Land Bank is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization.

Often when people think of graduate assistantships, they think of students providing professors with administrative support. However, my assistantship at the land bank has been the most hands-on, career-defining experience of my life. The Muncie Land Bank is a tight knit organization, so there have been a number of opportunities for me to learn new skills alongside passionate community members within a productive setting.

Apart from my day-to-day property management responsibilities, my role at the land bank has allowed me to think both creatively and critically. In August of 2022, the land bank acquired our first properties with houses, and I was involved in processing those structures and finding creative ways to maximize block-level impact through the rehab processes. I was also given the responsibility to work alongside web developers from the Cuyahoga Land Bank to develop a custom online property database for the Muncie Land Bank.

The Muncie Land Bank serves the City of Muncie, a constantly changing ecosystem, and as a result, I have learned not only about the City of Muncie itself, but about how to strategically approach planning issues from the perspective of a non-profit organization. I have applied for, presented, and been approved for a zoning variance by the Delaware County Board of Zoning Appeals, I have presented organizational updates to the Muncie Redevelopment Commission and Mayor Dan Ridenour, and I just recently assisted Muncie Habitat for Humanity in conducting block level and structural surveys within the city.

Each of these career-defining opportunities were made possible by the College of Architecture and Planning’s partnership with the Muncie Land Bank. These experiences have not only helped me to develop professional experience and connections in the field that I am interested in, but they have also helped me to affirm that I have chosen the right career path. It’s always exciting to meet Muncie community residents and to assist them in developing the future of their blocks and neighborhoods. I’m excited to see how my professional life develops over the next few years, and I am grateful to the Ball State Urban Planning program for presenting me with such great opportunities!