Detroit side lot sales help battle blight

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Willie and Jacqueline Moore got a side lot at a January fair in their northwest Detroit neighborhood. They have been maintaining the spot for years as destination for area youths.

Detroit  — Linda Gadsden spent years living next door to an overgrown and weed-filled dumping ground.

By next summer, the 63-year-old Detroiter says it will be a lush garden with pumpkins, watermelon, tomatoes, lettuce and greens.

It cost Gadsden less than two hours and $100 to snap up the property next to her corner lot home on Indiana Avenue during a Detroit Land Bank Authority side lot sale fair last month.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration launched the program last year to make it easier for residents to purchase vacant lots. Formerly, the process of gaining ownership had often been tedious and spanned years.

“There were times that I would go out and attempt to stop people from dumping things, but (the lot) wasn’t mine. Therefore, my voice didn’t carry a lot of weight,” Gadsden said. “It’s exciting to finally be able to maintain something that belongs to me.”

Duggan announced the pilot effort last winter to accelerate the sale of side lots through targeted fairs serving residents within specific City Council districts.

Just eight months in, officials say the program is a success, with Detroit on pace to get 3,000 vacant lots into the hands of residents by the end of the year. Officials said between online and neighborhood fairs, side lot sales mark a 10-fold increase from the previous maximum of about 300 side lot sales each year.

As of July 25, the land bank had sold 2,188 side lots in neighborhoods throughout the city. Of those, 1,324 were sold at six neighborhood fairs beginning in December; 864 have been purchased online since July 2014.

“We have sold 2,000 side lots. That’s 2,000 houses in the city where the homeowner is able to have a little bit more room to plant a garden, put in a fence or give themselves a bigger yard,” Duggan said. “We managed to solve the bureaucracy which used to take years.”

Duggan noted it costs the city $150 a year to mow each vacant lot; selling off 2,000 of them saves Detroit about $300,000 annually.

In another effort aimed at revitalizing vacant land, Duggan says he’s planning to ask the City Council in September to pass an ordinance that would pave the way for a land lease program. He hopes the initiative can be implemented by the fall.

Under the program, individuals would pay $25 a year for a three-year lease of vacant land bank properties in city neighborhoods. The city expects 20,000-40,000 vacant lots could be up for lease under the program, Duggan said.

To give more decision-making power to neighborhoods, Duggan said individuals seeking to lease the space would have to take plans to neighborhood associations or block clubs where the property is located and gain approval. Lots could be leased for a variety of uses, including park or garden space, off-street parking and sports.

Willie and Jacqueline Moore planted a garden in front of the fence to the vacant side lot they purchased in January.

The hope, Duggan said, is that the housing market will continue to improve in Detroit and after three years new homes can be built on some parcels. In the meantime, neighborhoods can secure three-year commitments for upkeep of the properties.

The lease program would roll out as a pilot in one- or two-square-mile areas within each City Council district, he said.

Likewise, the city began its targeted side lot fairs as a test project last winter.

In December, the land bank sold 85 side lots during its first fair, offering parcels in City Council Districts 6 and 7. District 6 encompasses a portion of downtown, Corktown, southwest Detroit and part of Wayne State. District 7 is made up of industrial pockets and neighborhoods including Warrendale, Petoskey and Russell Woods.

Most recently, a fair in July for lots in those districts plus District 5 yielded sales of 426 side lots. District 5 covers a portion of Midtown and the city’s downtown and riverfront, low-income neighborhoods and more affluent areas including the Boston-Edison Historic District and Indian Village.

The land bank has 19,069 side lots for sale. Sales are pending on more than 5,000 others, officials said.

To qualify for side lot purchases, residents must live in or own an occupied home next to a vacant lot that’s in the land bank inventory. Buyers must also be current on property taxes or enrolled in a payment plan.

The next round of side lot fairs is expected early next year. Lots remain available online at buildingdetroit.org.

Before a successful transaction at a January side lot fair in their northwest Detroit neighborhood, Jacqueline and Willie Moore spent more than a decade attempting to gain ownership of a vacant space next to their home.

Jacqueline Moore said the seamless process of securing the deed at the fair was like a dream come true.

“I was shedding real tears,” she said. “It was officially ours.”

Over the years, the couple had taken upon themselves to maintain the space on Lenore and transform it into a destination for area youths. They’ve named it “Moore Park.”

The 300-foot-deep parcel, complete with basketball and volleyball courts and a horseshoe pit, has long been a neighborhood attraction for drop-in exercise classes, poetry readings, bonfires and live jazz concerts.

The Moores have established a nonprofit with the goal of serving city youth and have even more ideas for enhancing the space.

Future plans include a miniature golf course and a camp-out program, Moore said.

“Every year we looking at what else can we do for the youth,” Moore said. “The lot has allowed us the opportunity to really just touch some lives.”

cferretti@detroitnews.com