Omaha Land Bank Reorganizes to Serve BetterDec 01, 2021 12:47PM ● By Dwain Hebda
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
There appears to be something different about the Omaha Municipal Land Bank these days. There’s much new with the organization, both immediately and compared with similar groups around the country. For starters, the Omaha land bank distinguishes itself by being one of few such entities to be entirely staffed by women.
“I’m involved on the National Land Bank Network and anecdotally, the interaction I’ve had with other land banks has been pretty male-dominated,” said Executive Director Shannon Snow. “You see a lot of construction and maintenance backgrounds and we’re very much a real estate and property management-type organization, which are all male-dominated fields. We are kind of a unicorn in that respect.”
The team also distinguishes itself on its background and experience. Snow said while many land banks are run by people with a career in nonprofits, the Omaha crew is stacked with expertise in business and professional industries. It’s a tour de force of talent at which even Snow sometimes marvels.
“Being a niche market of real estate, I thought it would be tough to attract the kind of qualified people we need, but [that] hasn’t been the case,” she said. “Sarah Cunningham, our director of operations, comes to us with some construction background, a little bit of property management, she has a real estate license. She was director of operations at a construction company.”
“Deana Walocha is a licensed attorney who has only done tax foreclosure her entire career,” Snow continued. “She’s the kind of candidate you just don’t think is going to apply for nonprofit work, because there’s only a handful of them in the state.”
Snow said varied experience is what helps the staff of five cover a surprising number of bases. She herself brings myriad experience to her role, which she’s held since joining the organization in February 2020. Snow has worked in private-sector residential development, construction, economic development for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and planning and special projects for Metro Community College as well as several entrepreneurial pursuits.
As for the gender anomaly, Snow said she never set out to create an all-female staff but acknowledges that it probably lends itself as a bonding agent among the staff.
“First off, I want to make sure the public knows we value diversity. I would love to see a guy on the team at some point, if he’s the best candidate,” she said. “As far as the advantages it gives us, the advantage I see is more weighted to the specific expertise they bring to the table that I don’t think any other candidate would have. I don’t think that can be attributed to them being women.”
“However, I do see the team talk about issues in a way that other teams don’t,” she continued. “We experience things similarly. Frequently we’ll be in a group of construction professionals that predominantly are male and we’ll make connections and network in a way that is unique to women business professionals and how we support each other when we’re in those environments.”
The team has had ample opportunity to showcase its expertise on a number of challenges since early 2020. Snow came aboard during a period of reorganization that sought to refocus energies on the land bank’s core mission of obtaining derelict properties and making them available
to those who would improve them, thus upgrading neighborhoods.
“We were really suffering from some mission creep at that time,” Snow said. “The board employed an interim executive director, who did an awesome job identifying our mission, focusing in on that mission, and putting us on stable financial ground. But what that first phase of reorganization didn’t do was look at our internal structure and processes.”
She continued, “When I started here, we learned pretty quickly that we weren’t following best practices. This wasn’t because we were bad, we just weren’t optimized.”
The staff dug into the painstaking process of self-examination and began to improve multiple internal operations.
“Some of our processes were causing delays in closings, so [Cunningham] got into our purchase process and has now successfully got our closing time down to less than 45 days,” Snow said. “We’re aiming for less than 30 days, which in real estate is really good, even in the private sector.”
“Our method of clearing title was really expensive because we were outsourcing everything. Bringing that in-house has provided a savings and also increased our responsiveness to the community. We now have someone dedicated to answering questions who’s right here and knows everything that’s going on with our properties.”
To these accomplishments add updated internal policies and a process for working with historically redlined communities that’s attracted national attention—all done during a pandemic, no less—which has earned the Omaha organization praise both inside and out.
“Honestly, I could not be prouder of the staff we have at the land bank,” said Christopher Rock, the group’s chairman of the board and sales agent with Redfin Real Estate. “They really have turned around the organization from where we were just 18 months ago to something that is working very efficiently.”
“We’re now able to go ahead and get to work as a type of clearinghouse, getting properties in, getting them cleaned up, and getting them back out. The staff is phenomenal; each one of them has played a tremendous role in developing us to where we need to be right now.”
With most of the hard reorganizational work behind them, Snow is looking forward to gaining and keeping forward momentum.
“Where we’re at now is, we’ve mastered the land banking thing,” she said. “Every day when we come in, I’m confident in the work we’re doing.”
“I think the overall message from us going forward is it’s a new day and we’re here and we’re ready to serve. There’s so much opportunity and we’re in a place where we can really take things to the next level.”
Visit omahalandbank.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.