Fighting Blight

Jonathan Spodek instructs the students joining him for his EcoRehab course to forgo laptops and backpacks and come prepared for class with protective glasses, steel-toed boots, and leather gloves.

Since January 2010, Spodek’s students have immersed themselves in semester-long shifts, working toward their goal—rehabilitating the Boyce House and helping to revive a neighborhood. Abandoned for years, Boyce House is one of the first and few remaining Italianate-style homes near downtown Muncie, Indiana, which has one of the highest vacancy rates in the nation.

Citing U.S. Postal Service data, Heather Williams, a planner in Muncie's community development department, says approximately 2,700 homes in the city—roughly one in every 10—have been vacant for 90 days or more. In addition to locally high unemployment, "as a region, the Midwest has the second highest foreclosure rate in the country," explains Williams, noting that even in relatively affluent Marion County (Indianapolis), more than 8,000 homes are identified by the Postal Service as long vacant.

In the face of such daunting statistics, efforts such as EcoRehab may appear to many as something of a futile stand against a flood. But that is not the case with Williams, a Ball State alumna who serves on the project's advisory board and sees the work, instead, as an important demonstration of the community's resolve and resilience.

“This kind of work is important to the community,” agrees Jessica Weigel, MS ’11. Stripping layers of old paint from the Boyce House’s doorways, Weigel says every week of work has brought with it both new challenges and new rewards.

“I’d never tiled before, but I learned how to do that. So far, it’s been a great learning experience,” says Weigel, who expects to extend the lessons she's learned on the job site after receiving her graduate degree in historic preservation.

Spodek has incorporated recycling and green technology into the project, with upgrades to the home costing less than half the money it would take to build a comparable new house. “I see new green homes built today costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we can’t all be blessed with unlimited budgets like that,” says Spodek, an architecture professor. “What I tell my students is we are building a house and, at the same time, changing mindsets that a sustainable home can’t be affordable.”

Funding for the Boyce House renovations was provided by an $85,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Spodek and Bill Morgan, Muncie’s historic preservation officer, cofounded EcoRehab as a nonprofit organization, which allows them to pursue funding sources outside the university. Once work on the Boyce House is complete, city officials intend to sell it to a low-income family who will receive training in financial planning and learn how to make best use of the home’s environmentally friendly features.

But the work doesn’t end there. With a $75,000 grant from the Ball Brothers Foundation, Spodek already has students beginning EcoRehab’s next assignment, rehabilitating another blighted property on Gharkey Street near downtown Muncie. 


Related Links:

Immersive Learning

College of Architecture and Planning

Architecture

Historic Preservation