When most people think of blight, they tend to think of big city projects. But believe it or not, studies have found that small towns in rural and semi-rural areas experience nearly double the amount of property vacancy seen in Metropolitan areas. Widespread vacancy in specific areas skyrocketed distinctly during the Great Recession spanning 2005 to 2010, leaving many rural communities staggering. The need for community development in these communities is high!
Rural communities face similar revitalization challenges to their metropolitan cousins, but with less resources and fewer staff. Land banks often play a central role in helping rural local governments address blighted properties and foster community and economic development. In our work with rural governments, we’ve found some key differences in how local governments, whether at the county level or at a small town, deliver these services and steward land and property.
While metropolitan areas often have established land banks, initiatives, and funding to address vacant and abandoned properties, smaller towns and municipalities often have less funding and personnel to work with. Here are the main challenges of rural community development (and some exciting solutions!).
According to a helpful report from the EPA on Rural Smart Growth, sustainable growth, and development challenges, the biggest hurdles are:
Large geographic regions with multiple regulatory jurisdictions
While urban smart growth and community development is well-defined, it’s often far less defined in rural initiatives. The revitalization challenges faced by rural communities and small towns are similar to those of their metropolitan cousins, but with fewer resources and staff. A community revitalization effort or land bank may have to deal with multiple geographic designations, each with different needs, rules, and local governments.
The geographic spread can be especially limiting. The logistics of serving a rural area, where a person may need to drive 30 minutes or more between properties can absorb an entire day. Spotty cell service or lack of home internet in some areas also means that when staff is out of the office, they may be out of contact for stretches of time or be unable to access key information stored on a computer back at the office.
eProperty clients have experienced this issue personally, and after receiving their feedback, we integrated a mobile offline mode into our ePropertyPlus Mobile App so staff users can work offline and still access their property data. We also added a “where am I now” feature to allow a user to drop a GIS pin point using their mobile phone, so they can place a property location when the address is not readily apparent.
See more about ePropertyPlus in our new overview video.
Another challenge of small towns and counties is that they tend to have fewer personnel, and a subsequent struggle to stay thoroughly organized. Often one person must perform multiple roles, and land banks or similar community revitalization projects are co-housed with other offices.
A small staff can be particularly limiting when trying to enforce property codes. Many local communities lack some of the regulatory mechanisms that are common in bigger cities. They may have only a modest zoning code, may lack any property maintenance codes, and ultimately don’t have enough staff to enforce whatever codes they do have in place.
Good property code frameworks are essential for gaining control over properties, and enforcing them is a first step in resolving blighted property issues. One of our clients located in Tolga, NY has been able to use our ePropertyPlus Mobile App to accomplish this goal. By giving Tolga’s small staff the ability to plan and implement their tasks while mobile, it has allowed them to elevate their code enforcement strategy without losing momentum.
Small towns and rural areas also suffer from fewer basic resources. Heavy budgetary constraints limit how much a community development project can accomplish, and teams are often forced to triage tasks to keep from being overwhelmed.
The good news is that there are over a hundred federal funding programs serving rural communities, and numerous grants that can provide help. But many of these programs have contradictory requirements, making it hard to navigate and know which to target for the projects that a small community has. They often involve extensive application and reporting requirements, which can overwhelm limited staff. Finally, they often require local funding matches that smaller communities simply can’t deliver. As a result, they may be under-subscribed by the very communities they are meant to serve.
While federal funding programs can sometimes be suppressed or hard to access because of bureaucracy layers, many of these funds and grants still create opportunities for communities in need. The American Rescue Plan in particular has provided funding that local governments have been able to use in reactivating vacant and abandoned properties. Local governments have also been able to use SLFRF to improve the tech infrastructure being applied to vacant/abandoned property strategies. This means that ePropertyPlus could be utilized by even more communities!
The ePropertyPlus property management suite has been successfully used by our rural community clients to facilitate greater organization and seamless data collection- helping them reduce labor costs, required personnel, and mapping challenges. As we’ve collected more stories and worked with more clients faced with specifically rural community development challenges, we’ve honed our suite of applications to address those specific needs.
In addition to our ePropertyPlus software, we’ve enhanced our value-added services to include strategic consulting, grants research, and soup-to-nuts operational guidance to help launch land banks quickly and efficiently. For communities looking to bolster their regulatory framework, we can help them develop rental registration policies, adopt standard property maintenance codes, and use ePropertyPlus to implement a variety of programs, such as vacant property registrations, zombie property code enforcement, or more traditional acquisition, rehab, and disposition activities.
In light of the more limited budgets of smaller local governments we are currently piloting an eProperty Startup Subscription model that is designed for small staff and small budget organizations with limited inventories. Want to learn more about this pilot? Get in touch with us!
With our wide breadth of experience and clients, we’ve seen that cookie cutter solutions aren’t the answer to community development challenges. By collaborating with and listening to different teams as they’ve worked to revitalize their communities, we’ve grown ePropertyPlus into an intuitive, constantly learning and growing tool.
If you’re trying to take on rural blight/development challenges in your community, it’s easy to feel isolated in smaller locales. Fortunately, there are solutions that are designed FOR you.