New head of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Sid Ellis, gets ready for community transformation work

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness and ways to increase affordable housing. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Kalamazoo County Land Bank, LISC, and the ENNA Foundation.

The new leader of Kalamazoo County’s Land Bank is coming aboard as the program faces new challenges – and an urgent demand for more affordable housing. Sid Ellis joined the community development agency as CEO earlier this month, continuing a high-profile career in community service and the arts. Ellis says he’s excited by the opportunities his new position offers though there is uncertainty over how to maintain the program’s funding sustainably.

Founded in 2009 by then Kalamazoo County treasurer Mary Balkema, the Land Bank takes over properties that are abandoned or run-down through the tax foreclosure process. The goal: turning those properties around to create new housing and commercial developments. Helping the community create more affordable housing is a major part of that mission. After the Land Bank acquires a property, it is cleared and maintained until a new owner comes along.

Ellis is no stranger to the Land Bank. The former director of the Douglass Community Association and the Black Arts and Cultural Center collaborated with artist Buddy Hannah and students in the Kalamazoo Public Schools on the “Eastside Voices” project in 2019, an oral history initiative that was part of redevelopment on Kalamazoo’s Eastside supported by the Land Bank. Ellis says that experience and others ultimately drew him to his latest job.

The Land Bank staff: Anna Roeder, Administrative Assistant; Theresa Coty O’Neil, Assistant Director; Sidney Ellis, Executive Director; and Reality Rojas, Project Manager."Seeing the transformation in communities, whether it was land or old buildings becoming useful for entrepreneurs, I liked what I saw. And what attracted me was being able to see the difference that they were making."

In its early years, the Land Bank was put in charge of hundreds of vacant lots and deteriorating houses that needed attention. But as demand for real estate soared and the tax foreclosure process changed, that pace has slowed. 

The Land Bank now has 319 properties in its inventory. It sold 21 of them in 2021, including five to the non-profit Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services. Seven lots went to the City of Kalamazoo to build new affordable housing on the city’s Northside. And the Northside Association for Community Development has an option to buy 21 properties over the next five years to add 17 affordable housing units. 

Sid Ellis is the new Executive Director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.The Land Bank sells the lots to non-profit developers for only $500 each to help fill a growing gap in housing that low- and moderate-income people can afford. Ellis says the Land Bank “is not the first step but we’re one of the main steps to help them start doing that.” He says that will help efforts to put a dent in the number of people who are homeless in the Kalamazoo area.

The Land Bank has also been involved in commercial, retail, and mixed-use developments. They include big changes in the Washington Square area aimed at helping minority and Edison Neighborhood residents put businesses in the block that was once home to an adult bookstore and movie theater. Other projects include:

Eastside Gateway - Highly energy-efficient homes in Kalamazoo’s Eastside neighborhood.

Eastside Square - A mixed-use development of condominiums and commercial space replacing nine vacant or abandoned properties on East Main.

Prairie Gardens - a 24-unit “cottage” development for senior citizens on the site of a former Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital satellite campus.

The Marketplace - 23 “Craftsman” style homes for low- and moderate-income families near the Kalamazoo Farmers Market in the Edison neighborhood.

The Land Bank also demolished an old structure on Portage Street to make way for The Creamery development that includes commercial space, affordable housing, and a 24-hour daycare center.

The Land Bank works on only one redevelopment project and focuses on one of Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods at a time. The Eastside projects followed a partnership with the Edison Neighborhood.

Sid Ellis is the new Executive Director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.Finding the money to make those projects happen, and clear and maintain the property in its portfolio, is a challenge. The Land Bank has an annual budget of about $725,000. Until last year, that included about $250,000 from Kalamazoo County. But that money didn’t come through in 2021 and 2022 because county commissioners were worried about revenue shortfalls caused by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. 

Land Bank Executive Director Sid Ellis says it’s now looking for other sources of funding. That includes an application this year for a grant through the county’s housing millage approved by voters in 2020 to address homelessness. 

Though there are potential obstacles, Ellis remains optimistic about the Land Bank’s future: "In the next five years I expect that people will be purchasing more of the empty plots and turning blight to bright." 

Ellis acknowledges that he has a lot to learn in his new role. But once that learning curve is behind him, Ellis says one of his major goals is “rebranding” the Land Bank and raising its profile in the community. “That's when I'll go out and start yelling on the bullhorn about what the Land Bank is doing and changing the perception of what the Land Bank is all about. And I'm excited about getting out there with the community to assist any way we can."
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