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Rehabilitating Historic Houses Points Toward the Future in Muncie, Indiana
The city of Muncie, Indiana, population 65,000, was an industrial center in the late 19th century. Over the past several decades, however, the city has faced deindustrialization and a declining population. Aerospace and automotive manufacturing were once major sources of employment, as was Ball Corporation, a manufacturer of canning jars. The relocation of Ball Corporation’s headquarters in 1998 marked a milestone in the era of disinvestment and deterioration. Home to Ball State University (named for the five brothers who also founded the Ball Corporation), Muncie has benefited from the expertise and labor of university students and faculty working to restore the city’s built legacy rather than remediating population loss and economic decline through demolition. That effort began as a Ball State class aimed at renovating an abandoned house in the city and has evolved into ecoREHAB, a nonprofit organization that recruits students from the university’s College of Architecture and Planning to rehabilitate derelict Muncie houses that might otherwise be torn down. Recently, new partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, local developers, and educational institutions, including Ball State, have made ecoREHAB a community leader in reimagining Muncie’s path forward and improving the economic landscape of the city.
Practicing Green Rehabilitation, Not Demolitions
In 2009, on the heels of the Great Recession, officials in Muncie conceived a plan to tear down abandoned and deteriorating housing in the city’s core to eliminate blight and build a foundation for future vibrancy. Instead, Ball State architecture professor Jonathan Spodek proposed using federal Hardest Hit Fund assistance to pursue rehabilitation rather than demolition as the best strategy for stabilizing downtown and arresting a self-reinforcing cycle of decline and abandonment. Jason Haney, ecoREHAB’s executive director, says that restoring legacy buildings can help residents of struggling cities resolve the feelings of hopelessness that arise from a proliferation of old, abandoned structures.
The first ecoREHAB project involved Ball State architecture students at every level of the process, including needs assessment and evaluation, budgeting, design and planning, and labor. Students renovated a 19th century Italianate farmhouse with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, completing their work in 2011 with Community Development Block Grant funding.
Environmental and Community Wellness
As its name suggests, ecoREHAB is committed to minimizing its ecological impact; existing structures are generally greener than new builds. By avoiding demolition of the Italianate farmhouse, ecoREHAB prevented nearly 4 tons of waste from entering a landfill. In addition, water-saving features reduce future environmental impacts, and landscaping helps prevent erosion caused by the runoff from an adjacent parking lot.
In the decade since the completion of the Italianate house, ecoREHAB has renovated six other properties in Muncie with various partners and funding sources, and in its first 5 years continued to operate as an immersive, hands-on course for Ball State architecture students. The second ecoREHAB project, completed in 2012 with the help of funding from the Ball Brothers Foundation, focused on using reclaimed materials to renovate a historic Victorian house in the city’s West End, near downtown. Following its restoration, the resulting two-bedroom, one-bathroom house was occupied for the first time in at least 2 decades. In 2014, ecoREHAB partnered with PathStone Housing Corporation of Indiana, Muncie Community Development Department, High Performance Government Network, and others to salvage a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house built in 1910. Another project supported a $1 million city effort to revitalize Main Street, rehabilitating a historic three-bedroom, three-bathroom house. Like all ecoREHAB projects, the Main Street project emphasized green design and features resource-efficient appliances; building materials; plumbing fixtures; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. This 2013 project was supported through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
According to Haney, the true impact of ecoREHAB’s work lies beyond the number of projects completed. The work, says Haney, demonstrates a revitalization strategy that honors and restores, rather than erases, a struggling city’s history. In that regard, ecoREHAB’s most symbolically significant project has been the rehabilitation of an 1880 house that the city condemned in 2014 after its owner was arrested for producing methamphetamine on the property. The area around Muncie, like many rural American places, has struggled with an epidemic of methamphetamine production and use. At this property — acquired by ecoREHAB in 2015 — Ball State architecture students helped with the significant rehabilitation, which by 2016 had transformed the house into an affordable home for a local retired teacher.
Supporting the Economic Recovery of Deindustrialized Areas
These projects led ecoREHAB to consider the broader issues facing many Midwestern cities and towns, and the organization consequently sought out partnerships aimed at strengthening the local workforce associated with housing production. Since 2014, in partnership with the Muncie Area Career Center, the Building Trades program has taught high school students energy-efficient design. Students who participated in this program have gone on to build three houses in the area.
In 2021, ecoREHAB hosted the first cohort of the Skilled Trades Education Program (STEP). The program is open to any interested adult, and the first cohort consisted of 10 community members. Many members of this cohort, according to Haney, were working in low-skill and low-income jobs and faced challenges that included criminal records and homelessness. Over the course of 16 weeks, STEP participants were involved in the full rehabilitation of a house that is now used by local nonprofit Muncie Mission Ministries as transitional housing for men who have graduated from its substance abuse treatment program. Acknowledging that 16 weeks is not enough time for participants to develop the skills needed to land a job in the building trades, Haney says the experience helps graduates make an informed choice about which career to pursue. Some students worked with ecoREHAB staff to connect to continuing education opportunities at the local technical school or with a local union, often in the plumbing, electrical, or general construction fields. To make program participation feasible, ecoREHAB pays participants a wage of $13 per hour, which allows them to focus on learning without worrying about the need to juggle a job. Furthermore, the program takes place from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM — hours selected to accommodate the local school schedule, which helps participants manage their childcare responsibilities. A Ball State professor is evaluating the program to identify strengths and areas needing improvement for future iterations.
ecoREHAB hopes to become more involved in Muncie’s redevelopment efforts. The organization has joined the area 8twelve Coalition, which is rehabilitating a Muncie neighborhood’s housing, amenities, and civic infrastructure. ecoREHAB will also focus on the development of a former lumberyard donated by the Norfolk Southern Railway. Haney hopes that ecoREHAB will be able to create a nonprofit hub at the 3-acre site where area organizations can share resources and increase collaboration. The hub will be another example of ecoREHAB’s efforts to forge Muncie’s future out of its longtime community assets.