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Real estate conference details Church property trends

Within the second-floor conference rooms of McKenna Hall, the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate’s (FIRE) Church Properties Initiative (CPI) hosted its first on-campus conference last week entitled “The Future of Church Property.” Forty-three conference sessions took place, from 15-minute lightning talks to 45-minute panel discussions.

FIRE director Dan Kelly welcomed colleagues from many universities, representatives of Catholic dioceses and other religious denominations, leaders from the nonprofit world and the real estate industry, and Notre Dame faculty, staff and students.

Kelly said that CPI covers properties owned by religious organizations and nonprofits — churches, graveyards, hospitals and parking lots — although FIRE’s work spans all areas in the real estate sector.

“We’re hoping that this conference… can help to advance the ball in terms of research, in terms of education and in terms of real-world impact [for church properties],” he said.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental landowner in the world, according to the FIRE website, with an estimated 177 million acres

Villanova University management professor Matt Mannion led off Monday’s opening panel, addressing the challenges faced by church leaders. Villanova offers the world’s first and only Master of Science in Church Management degree.

“We have an infrastructure that’s built for a time that no longer exists so that we have more properties and facilities than we can potentially use and or sustain,” he said. “The things you own, end up owning you.”

Mannion narrowed the Catholic church property discussion to the diocesan and parish levels, attributing, in certain cases, the cause of financial and mission strain to sex abuse scandals and declining Sunday Mass attendance.

A most glaring example, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, sold “over 600 church properties” since coming out of bankruptcy in 2018, Mannion said.

In May of this year, the New York Times reported that the $121.5 million settlement involving the archdiocese was “among the top five payouts in abuse litigation involving the Catholic church in the United States.”

In New Brunswick, Canada, the bishop there made a different observation, that “it’s unjust to ask 10,000 people to try and [financially] sustain 31 parishes and all the associated properties,” Mannion said.

Jumping in, Nadia Mian, an urban planner from Rutgers University, spoke to the factors impacting church property managers such as zoning bylaw regulations, historic preservation boards and community activists known as NIMBYs.

Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Kevin Rhoades spoke Tuesday afternoon. Bishop Rhoades was notable among church leaders in attendance as he is in charge of making decisions about diocesan properties.

“I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge in this area, nor the data needed for these decisions,” Rhoades said. “Because of my own inclination towards our evangelizing mission, I was often reluctant to close or sell parish buildings and properties and tried to think of creative uses for our facilities.”

Rhoades thanked FIRE for cataloging Fort Wayne-South Bend diocesan property using GIS, or geographic information systems.

“[The] high caliber data that we now have really helps us in our pastoral planning,” he said.

CPI program manager Madeline Johnson explained that GIS is an umbrella term for an ecosystem of tools that use and integrate spatial data, “cartography for the 21st century.”

Johnson said that GIS is used at the diocesan level in inventory and property management.

“Think of it as a series of linked spreadsheets, where you’ve got a [geo-located] shape on the map that defines the property boundary,” she said. “It’s not limited to property management applications. It could be cultural artifacts that are located within the church.”

This mapping application shows all building permits issued by the SJC/City of South Bend Building Department. Courtesy of St Joseph County GIS

The number of columns in that spreadsheet is endless, Johnson said. FIRE and CPI add the most recent property appraisals, church or otherwise, into this map.

Johnson also overlays available demographic information such as school enrollment into the data set to inform property management decisions.

“Another capability that is made possible by having property records in this form is that you’re then able to integrate it with a full ecosystem of GIS-based research and tools that exist out in the world,” she said.

South Bend community member Richard Williams asked Bishop Rhoades during a Q&A session after Johnson’s talk to include data from church properties of other Christian denominations in Notre Dame’s GIS model.

“Because this is the universal church,” Williams said, “I would ask that you also, in particular for South Bend, include the other churches because we may be able to show how we can map and pull a city together that has been fragmented for years.”

Williams explained his reasoning for raising this point, saying “I just wanted to offer that as a challenge to FIRE and to the bishop and to Notre Dame.”

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu.

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Tech ethics faculty fear focus on banning TikTok is misplaced

Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said the social media app TikTok should be banned in the U.S. The Council on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) has spent months negotiating with TikTok to determine if it can be divested by its Chinese parent company ByteDance creating bleak outlooks and the possibility of a ban. 

The main concern is the security of U.S. citizens. TikTok collects data on all of its users.  

“No one is storing the nuclear secrets launch codes on Tik Tok, don’t get me wrong. But our behavior patterns, our interests, what we like and don’t like and how we watch consuming media. That’s a goldmine of information,” Tim Weninger, affiliated faculty of the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center, said. 

Director of the Tech Ethics Center Kirsten Martin said other tech giants collect similar data but don’t receive the same amount of scrutiny as TikTok.

“The thing that’s odd that there’s such a fixation on TikTok is that that same type of data is available for foreign governments to take advantage of on Instagram or Facebook,” Martin said. 

Martin added that the issue goes well beyond TikTok and fundamentally lies in the current state of ad delivery systems.

“They can still get access to it because Facebook or Instagram or whatever, any social networks, will give them access by selling access to us, based on what our preferences and concerns are, who we’re friends with, where we spend our time, where we are, you know, all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I agree with the general concern. It’s just that it seems to be a misplaced concern on TikTok, when it’s a more general problem with the way the ad delivery systems work.”

Current attitudes toward China divert Americans’ attention to TikTok when it comes to the issue of data collection, Weninger said.

“The reason that we’re interested in it is not because it’s got fake news and stuff, I mean it does, but it’s because it’s owned by China, a Chinese company, and we’re deathly afraid that we’re sending a lot of data about our behaviors and activities and our interests, all the social media things to the Chinese,” Weninger said. 

Martin said significant regulations on collecting data through social media are yet to come in part because it benefits political campaigns.

“That’s one of the reasons why they don’t want to stop hyper-targeting, these political operatives use them all the time. And so it’s not a mistake that they haven’t stopped the collection and use of our data. It’s because it’s so useful when trying to micro-target for political reasons,” Martin said. 

Because a large portion of young voters on TikTok tend to vote Democrat, Weninger said the Biden administration would be hesitant to consider banning the app.

“So it will be Joe Biden doing this, it will be kicking off a bunch of 25 to 30 year olds who are on Tik Tok. I don’t know if politically that’s something that he wants to touch,” Weninger said.

Within this age of technology, some find it hard to believe that this would be feasible. They may be able to ban the app, but they will not be able to keep people off of it. Many kids nowadays understand how VPNs work and that they can mess with their locations to have access to technology, movies and television shows that are not available in a certain country.

Martin said she doubts completely banning the app in the U.S. is feasible. Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow users to appear as though they’re accessing the Internet from a different location.

“I can’t imagine anyone successfully banning a social network site from 14 to 24-year-olds,” Martin said. “I just think the technical ability of a 14-year-old to watch a movie pretending that they’re in Germany on a VPN is pretty good.”

Weninger said going to the lengths of setting up a VPN would discourage lots of users from browsing the app.

“Why is TikTok so popular? Because it’s easy and it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. Imagine trying to set up a VPN so you can browse this thing which takes no effort. I just don’t see it happening,” he said. 

The federal government needs to attempt to regulate the app before it resorts to banning it, Weninger said. Allowing the government to ban an app like TikTok would set a dangerous precedent, he fears.

“If the executive branch can just ban a site that hasn’t violated any laws, that’s a problem,” Weninger said. “It makes me a little scared because then what prevents the government from banning you know, some site that maybe you rely upon that’s maybe not bad.”

Contact Emma Duffy at eduffy5@nd.edu.