Much to Do about (Vacant) Lots – Next City

Before and after photos of a vacant lot rehabilitated under Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare program.

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Much to Do about (Vacant) Lots

Mowing-to-own in St. Louis. Installing trees and picket fences in Philly. How sweat equity and community engagement improves the economics of vacant-land reuse.

Story by James A. Anderson

Published on Sep 10, 2018

Cities across the U.S. Midwest and Rust Belt have long prayed for model citizens like St. Louisan Eltoreon Hawkins. Hawkins has drive: “My vision is to start on the block, in the neighborhood where I live,” he says. “I want to stabilize it. I see it as my chance to give back to my immediate community.”

His first step? In 2014, at the age of 21, Hawkins became the first participant in St. Louis’ new Mow to Own program — and only then by happenstance. Hawkins had previously bought a two-story, three-bedroom house on Shulte Avenue in the Walnut Park neighborhood of the city’s Northside in 2012 for just over $1000. Every two weeks he regularly mowed the empty lot next door, which he assumed was part of his property. It wasn’t, as he found out later when he looked up the deed. About the time he discovered the disappointing news, Hawkins met a local alderman who told him that his efforts to maintain the plot would pay off in time. That prediction came true: Hawkins was selected as the first Mow-to-Own participant and had to pay a mere $125 to have the title handed over to him in a public ceremony which the then-mayor of the city attended.

For Hawkins, the manager for a St. Louis meal-delivery nonprofit, his first experience was a springboard for several more vacant-property heroics. Since his first Mow-to-Own purchase, he has bought two additional homes nearby his Schulte house, one for $2,500 and another later $3,500. Hawkins found both in the inventory of the St. Louis Land Rehabilitation Authority (LRA), the city’s land bank. One he has rehabbed and since rented out; the other he gave to his mother as a present. He’s turned to YouTube and the internet for guidance on how to refinish floors, tear down walls and install cabinets. In all, Hawkins says, he has invested $5,000. What’s more, Hawkins has plenty of choices as he keeps working to rebuild his immediate neighborhood — the LRA website currently lists 604 vacant lots for sale in the very same 27th Ward where Hawkins has set down roots — six for $1,000 on Shulte alone.

St. Louis's first Mow to Own program participant, Eltoreon Hawkins, in the lot he purchased from the city. (Screenshot courtesy KSDK)

Alas, city halls in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City and other municipalities just can’t unearth as many Hawkinses as they’d like. Legacy cities have faced shrinking populations, leaving acres of abandoned structures to decay and eventual collapse. Alan Mallach, author of the 2018 Lincoln Institute of Land Policy report “The Empty House Next Door” (excerpted in Next City), has labeled the trend hyper-vacancy. The aftermath of the Great Recession has increased the inventory of vacant houses from 9.5 million in 2005 to 12 million in 2010. Mallach cites statistics that 22,000, or 26 percent, of Cleveland’s nearly 160,000 parcels of lots and buildings are vacant. In Detroit, the corresponding figure is 44 percent overall or roughly 165,000 of the city’s 375,000 parcels. Exact numbers are hard to nail down. Depending on the source, Cleveland’s figure could reach as high as 50,000.

Hyper-vacancy sets off a chain of negative events that progress from one crisis to the next. Abandoned homes and vacant lots depress real estate values. They cut into municipal tax revenues and lower the quality of life for communities. The fallow inventory costs millions to tend, whether that means demolishing empty structures, mowing grass, cleaning lots or policing empty areas. True, vacancies don’t pose much of a problem in cities such as Seattle or Washington, D.C. where properties are snatched up in overdeveloped local markets. That’s not the case in older legacy cities. In the words of a media release from the St. Louis mayor’s office, “Nothing good happens in a vacant building.”

Cities such as St. Louis are trying their best to tame hyper-vacancy while changing their thinking about the problem along the way. “The earliest work that targeted vacant land was tied almost exclusively to addressing the nuisance and problems,” says Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. “They centered on land stabilization and greening projects or reducing eyesore characteristics of vacant properties.” There’s been a change in thinking, however, says Schwarz. “Now, the new policies that have the most long-term impact are less about fixing nuisances or problems and instead seeing land for what it is: real estate. Cities now want to see what ways they have at their disposal to extract value out of their growing inventories of vacant properties.”

So far, successful responses seem to target individual plot-by-plot measures with the goal of amalgamating them into more sweeping efforts. St. Louis, Philadelphia, and even Detroit have chipped away at conquering hyper-vacancy one lot at a time. There’s no one magic formula. In some cases, the city finds success in promoting individual efforts. In others, nonprofits lead the way — sometimes in partnership with community groups to scale work quickly, or sometimes by slowing the pace of reuse to focus on training, education and stewardship.

In St. Louis, Vacancy Is a Pathway to Property Ownership

Earlier this year, St. Louis unveiled a coordinated effort to better manage its extensive vacancy problem at the start of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s second year in City Hall. St. Louis was the first U.S. city to establish a land bank — the LRA, in 1971 — and the LRA now reports that 25,000 of the 129,000 properties within city limits are vacant or abandoned. Just over half, or 13,200, are privately owned, while the LRA owns nearly 11,500 — 3,400 of those vacant buildings and 8,100 vacant lots.

The city’s plan will tackle the sprawling vacancy inventory from a number of angles. The Mow to Own program is just one of several coordinated efforts. Increased funding for demolitions, for example, will clear away part of the 4,000 vacant and condemned buildings across the city, a job the mayor’s office estimates will cost $10,000 per structure. To tear down the entire inventory would reach a daunting $40 million; budget numbers for 2018-2019 set aside only $3.6 million for the effort, up from $1.5 million in 2017-2018. The city, meanwhile, hopes to draw on philanthropic funding to accelerate the program, much as Detroit has.

While Mow to Own makes up a relatively small part of St. Louis’s vacancy plan, it’s anchored on a few good ideas. Along with direct sales from the city’s LRA landbank, it promotes home and property ownership, not long after the predatory lending crisis undermined large numbers of owners.

For St. Louis and other cities such as Memphis on down to Eustis, Florida with a population of 20,000, the mathematical benefits of Mow to Own (or “sidelot” programs, as they’re often called) hinge more on subtraction rather than addition. Each sold lot might add roughly $50 a year to the city’s tax rolls, on top of the $125 fee enrollees pay when they sign up. The city, however, saves big on the amount it typically spends on bare-bones maintenance of each vacant lot.

Look at the amount a municipality might spend on mowing and picking up trash, tasks that can be tackled by a city agency, such as St. Louis’s Forestry Department, or even private contractors. In the Midwest or North, where growing season stretches from March to October or November, that might involve 20 visits. At $50 each, the bill quickly hits $1000 a year per lot — and that’s on the low side. St. Louis’s Chief Resilience Officer Patrick Brown puts the city’s yearly expense at roughly $2400 per lot, a figure derived from the $60 million the city spends each year on 25,000 public and private vacant properties. That figure takes into account hard costs such as the LRA’s expenses and demolitions; the Forestry Division’s outlay to cut lawns and tame overgrown brush around buildings; and rough estimates of how often police and fire departments need to get involved.

The Mow to Own guidelines are straightforward. If you have a vacant lot next to your house, you can pay the LRA $125 and sign up for the program. All that’s required is that you tend to or mow the lot for two years; after that, as Hawkins will attest, the property deed is yours. During calendar 2017, for instance, the city was able to sell off 74 parcels of approximately eight acres each. Things have picked up somewhat; during fiscal 2018, 80 parcels were claimed.

A fair amount of consideration goes into setting up an effective Mow-to-Own program. This type of program addresses hyper-vacancy one plot at a time. There’s a risk that selling off smaller lots piecemeal without a bigger plan in mind might discourage larger-scale development. In addition, enforcement is necessary to ensure participants keep up their end of the bargain.

St. Louis takes two steps that Mallach says make good sense. First, there’s the upkeep requirement. The responsibility to check that participants are indeed mowing falls to the St. Louis Forestry Division, whose workers drive around town inspecting lots and tending to overgrowth. Negligent Mow-to-Own enrollees risk losing their $125 deposit if forestry employees note that their assigned lot is covered in high grass or other unruly flora. Secondly, the city mandates that eligible lots have no more than 40 feet of frontage, and mow-to-own parcels can’t border three or more land bank parcels. Mallach likes that approach because it keeps larger tracts open to developers.

For St. Louis and other cities, the mathematical benefits of Mow to Own hinge more on subtraction rather than addition. Each sold lot might add roughly $50 a year to the city’s tax rolls, on top of the $125 enrollees pay when they sign up. The city, however, saves big on the amount it typically spends on bare-bones maintenance of each vacant lot.

Patrick Brown, however, indicates that he’d like Mow to Own to expand plot-size limits for residential and commercial applicants, all as a way to expand the program. “If I could wave a magic wand,” says Brown, “ I’d make any residential lot available — especially when looking at commercial-sized areas. For now, these are just ideas we’d like to review.”

Alderman Jeffrey L. Boyd, who has represented the 22nd Ward in another North St. Louis neighborhood of Wells Goodfellow since 2003, says that for all its benefits, Mow to Own has had a limited impact on his constituency to date. He estimates that perhaps five people in his district have signed on. That’s in part because of the fact that many of the residents are elderly and simply cannot devote the time and effort required to tend a vacant lot.

Still, says Boyd, good news can’t come too soon, given that extensive vacancy has set afflicted neighborhoods spiraling downward. “No more than two weeks after a house is noticeably vacant, you’ll see pipes, gutters or electrical wiring stripped out — probably to be sold for scrap,” he says. Often, Boyd says, properties fall into a downward cycle, sometimes as a place to use drugs or even as a quick source of income, when materials are stripped from walls and foundations and cashed in. “One year, we had what we called brick rustlers, folks who would knock a hole in a house the minute it was vacant and steal bricks to sell,” Boyd recalls.

Boyd estimates that Wells Goodfellow, one Northside neighborhood in the district he represents, has seen vacancies and abandoned lots now count for roughly 40 percent of the all land parcels in the neighborhood, up from 20 to 25 percent a decade or so ago. The subprime mortgage crisis, he says, hit Wells Goodfellow particularly hard.

Other costs compound the hardship. Boyd, who owns property in his ward, knows of examples such as a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot home whose value cratered from $70,000 to around $25,000 at the height of the 2008 mortgage crisis. At the same time, homeowners insurance rates for a comparable house have increased 60 percent, from $500 to $800 per year, he says.

St. Louis has unpacked a wide range of other efforts in its recently launched vacancy effort. Brown says one of the first challenges is getting an accurate tally of just how much vacancy there is in the city. The work of updating and pinpointing exact numbers of vacant lots and abandoned structures runs into problems because any single property can appear in several municipal databases. “It’s a systemic governmental challenge at the municipal level since you often have a greater sense of urgency in specific departments on what they have to do day-to-day than at higher levels [of city government] where there are fewer resources,” says Brown. Departments have essentially fixated on their own siloed responsibilities and draw up lists that overlap. The forestry division keeps track of lots to mow, while the buildings department monitors permits, for example. One step toward the goal is an online LRA list of vacated properties for sale, including a selection of 19 “showcase” picks for browsers’ review.

Boyd is most encouraged by the city’s renewed commitment to boost demolition funding. He says the city passed a tax bill in 2002 on the back of promises to devote $3 million a year to tear down dilapidated, abandoned houses, but instead regularly earmarked only $500,000 to $1 million per year to the task. That will change in the current budget.

Besides herding properties into databases, the city wants to make a special effort to earmark properties in more desirable neighborhoods (such as Academy and Gravois) on special sale and set higher prices in order to better leverage its vacant inventory. A “Clear Title Task Force” has been established with the help of volunteer lawyers, to straighten out deeds for families who live in buildings, or in some cases to speed up tax foreclosures. Brown says St. Louis got the idea from cross-state Kansas City. In its first quarter, the effort has taken on 36 cases and held two clinics to teach local residents about what steps to take to unravel the deed paperwork and get ownership properly transferred.

In Philadelphia, A Nonprofit Partners with the Community to Beautify

Next City has covered the slow progress and challenge of scope faced by Philadelphia’s land bank, in selling off vacant lots and properties or converting them into affordable housing. But Mallach, Schwarz and other urban-planning experts frequently point to other Philadelphia successes in addressing hyper-vacancy. One nonprofit program there, LandCare, works with community organizations rather than individuals. LandCare is part of a broader effort started in 2003 by the nonprofit Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). At first, PHS tested a plan to clean, mow and fence off vacant lots. The idea worked, thanks to an ingeniously simple premise: People don’t trash fenced lots with mowed grass and trees.

A map showing the vacant land parcels in Philadelphia. The green dots represent plots renovated through the LandCare program. (Credit: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

LandCare now manages the cleaning and upkeep of about 12,000 of Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant land parcels. The program receives $3 million from the City of Philadelphia and its housing authority and an additional $16 million in private funding. LandCare adds between 300 and 400 new plots to its list of properties every year and can take on either city-owned or privately-owned parcels. The group works with the city to scout for new areas primarily near parks, residential blocks, schools and business corridors. When the land in question is private property, the city can write citations and provide owners 10 days to make fixes or else to give LandCare the go-ahead to start work, says Keith Green, the head of PHS’s LandCare effort.

“When a developer sees a vacant lot with weeds that are four to six inches high, it’s hard to see what’s there,” says Green. “Our long-term greening helps people to think what could be there and envision park-like settings for picnics, barbecues, weddings, football fields and more.”

A typical LandCare project starts with removing trash and debris from the lot, uprooting or cutting down overgrowth, mowing the grass and grading the soil. At that point, they install LandCare’s signature white rail fence around the property and plant trees such as redbuds, honey locusts, hedge maples and Japanese elms, all of which thrive in Philly’s soil and climate conditions. The fences have been so popular, the PHS has now labeled them as part of LandCare’s “brand.” PHS estimates that it costs between $1,000 and $1,300 to “clean and green” each lot, while bi-weekly mowing and other touch-ups run $150 a year.

LandCare uses PHS volunteers, but farms much of the work out to a network of contractors, almost all of whom are city-based; Green says the businesses they work with are 70 percent minority-owned. Even with this arrangement, the scale of LandCare’s work has surpassed the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s capacity. In response, an affiliated program now recruits local community groups as subcontractors. PHS has currently joined with 18 community organizations; this effectively expands the program’s footprint to encompass an additional 3,000 lots. In turn, LandCare draws up four-season contracts for $10,000 to $50,000 with each participating group.

Each year, LandCare collects applications for groups ranging from neighborhood social service centers to business improvement districts to community development corporations. Green says applicants are vetted to make sure groups are committed and have the personnel to manage the responsibility. Groups are awarded contracts for anywhere from a “starter” plan of 50 parcels to upwards of 300; the latter assumes a group has a supervisor in place and three or four full-time employees to tackle the job. The expectation is then that the awardees cut the grass down to two inches each month.

(Credit: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

The winners take six-week training sessions that cover landscaping basics such as the use of commercial-grade lawn mowers and weed whackers, plus the other essential steps to care for the lots.

One example is the 40th Street corridor in West Philadelphia, in the Mantua neighborhood. Green says LandCare started on about 25 lots in the area. In another case, a green space LandCare cleared has become a permanent park on 22nd Street and Carpenter. Green cites the Brewery Town and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods in North Philadelphia among the group’s successes.

LandCare’s immediate benefits are apparent, starting with a 20 percent jump in nearby home values once a lot is cleared and planted. Most importantly, LandCare’s work carries long-term impact. Green says roughly 20 percent of the sites the program has cleared and rehabilitated have been developed in some way. By LandCare’s numbers, 1050 houses, 150 commercial sites and another 135 permanent green spaces have come about thanks to its vacant plot management. A 2012 study found that the city’s $15.3-million program investment yielded a $3.5-billion gain in housing wealth; this includes appreciation in local home values by an additional 0.5 percent a year.

But the benefits aren’t just economic. Studies have underscored the negative public-health implications of living amid abandoned and blighted property. Similarly, more recent research has shown a link between the rehabilitation of vacant lots and an improvement in the mental health of neighborhood residents. Cleaning and greening is a source of jobs, a bellwether of improved home values and a marker of improved community health.

In Detroit, an Influential Group Writes the Design Playbook on Land Reclamation

Detroit Future City, is the nonprofit charged with implementing the city’s long-term strategic plan. They have worked with community groups to champion the city’s green infrastructure and act as an agent for measured, incremental change. The group’s seminal 72-page land-revitalization manual, “Working with Lots: A Field Guide,” walks readers — community groups, individuals or even municipal leaders — through the steps to design and rehab urban tracts. Chapters cover topics such as mixing layers of soil in sand, silt and clay, costing a project and choosing a design, whether butterfly meadow, wildflower garden, communal green space, or other landscape.

“It’s a reclamation strategy to promote productive planting,” says Future City president Anika Goss-Foster. “We’ve mapped out what’s good for the soil, alternative uses for stormwater, and even ways to manage snow since Detroit’s a snow city.” The Field Guide has drawn interest outside of Detroit city limits as well. Goss-Foster says Future City has fielded requests for consultations from Gary, Indiana and nearby Flint, Michigan. Kansas City reached out and received permission to publish its own version of the very same guide.

In this 2016 photo, a rider works the ramp at Detroit's Brush Park BMX, one of the vacant lot transformations facilitated by Detroit Future City. (Credit: Brush Park BMX, via Facebook)

Meanwhile, Future City has also started working with 20 local community groups to provide funding for individual rehabilitation projects. Goss-Foster reports that her organization has ramped up to $60,000 a year and in total has given out $120,000 to 20 groups which have taken on 60 lots around the city in all. Despite the reality of more than 21 square miles of vacant land within the city limits, Goss-Foster says Future City has purposefully kept the program small and anchored to groups rather than individuals. “We could crank out grants for more, but what’s important is education and building a knowledge base around land stewardship; that takes time and technical support.”

Jackie Grant, 70, president of the Courville Street Block Association is one example. Her neighborhood, Morningside, in eastern Detroit, has experienced hyper-vacancy firsthand, with an estimated 1,200 houses torn down since the mortgage crisis. She led an effort to apply for a Future City grant and received $6,500. She’s put the money to use in clearing a small parcel, putting post and rail fences up and planting serviceberry trees. Next, she and her son worked with a few neighbors to plant around 35 rose bushes as well as purple catnip. She added picnic tables, designed a rain garden with the help of the Future City’s field guide and started collecting rainwater in 250-gallon containers.

Grant’s work has turned heads in the neighborhood, slowly but surely. “It’s really changed the general attitude,” she beams. “There was a lot of illegal dumping on the lot before, but it has ceased. We’ve engaged the neighborhood — kids play in the lot and we’ve hosted a few festivities.” Grant says she has yet to get a firm standing commitment from people within walking distance to regularly pitch in, but volunteers will show up when she’s planting.

Future City’s work is indicative of many efforts around the country to grapple with hyper-vacancy. It’s small, and most effective when targeted at individual communities. Says Goss-Foster, “This is no panacea, but by the same token, it’s not a one-shot deal – it’s an approach.”

James A. Anderson in an English professor at the Lehman College (Bronx) campus of the City University of New York.