Path to stronger neighborhoods built one small project at a time

What if one of the solutions to more housing to Elkhart County can be found in the story of South Bend’s “accidental developer?”

Not long ago, Mike Keen was like many in the audience of 38 who gathered for a Community Champions Roundtable at Tolson Center on February 20, 2020. He loved his home in his aging South Bend neighborhood. He was deeply invested in and cared about his community. And he was concerned about the trends, particularly the lack of investment in his block.

Keen said he defines vibrant communities as those that are “socially diverse and inclusive, economically sound, and ecologically strong and beautiful.” That was the goal he had in mind when he acquired his first vacant lot in his neighborhood.

He built relationships, learned what tools he needed and who could help him. Starting slow, Keen worked with other partners such as Habitat for Humanity to invest in building environmentally sustainable housing. One lot and one project at a time, Keen said the Near Northwest neighborhood is seeing the work pay off.

“I’m not building buildings,” said Mike Keen. “I’m building neighborhoods.”

 

“I’m not building buildings; I’m building neighborhoods,” Keen said. He highlighted two low-cost public art installations he created that helped bring neighbors together and strengthen bonds between neighbors — the Birthday Chair and the Laughing Bench.

“You can make a difference in your neighborhood for a very low cost,” Keen said.

It takes patience, a true love of community, and partners, but it also requires municipal officials to be flexible in its zoning requirements.

The payoff, Keen said, is that appraised values in the neighborhood gradually increase, allowing property owners to obtain the loans to do the next project.

“We can paint the picture,” Keen said of “incremental developers,” those neighborhood-based investors who build one small project at a time. “The city needs to set up the canvas.”

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