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Detroit block club and neighborhood association leaders celebrate the creation of a new fund to help cover the cost of local beautification projects at a community garden in Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood on April 27, 2022. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

The Detroit Land Bank Authority is touting more programs and over $2 million in grants to make it easier for block clubs and neighborhood organizations to obtain and improve vacant land.

Detroiters have long expressed frustrations with navigating neighborhood lot and side lot programs offered by the land bank and to address those concerns the authority recently launched or expanded programs aimed at helping more of the city’s street-level groups. 

Gail Beasley, president of the Lakewood Block Club Association on Detroit’s southeast side, said residents often take responsibility for neglected vacant land in their neighborhood even when they don’t own the lots. It can be crushing, she said, when Detroiters get passed up for an opportunity to buy land they’ve been mowing and clearing of debris.

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“There was a young girl on Phillips Street, she took care of these two big lots,” Beasley told BridgeDetroit this month. “She kept them cut, planted beautiful trees, and the flowers. The girl had a green thumb. People were saying ‘oh, look at this beautiful place.’

“(The land bank) wouldn’t let her get it and gave it to some other people who are not taking care of it, and the thing looks horrible now,” said Beasley, who argues the land bank should do more to put those properties in the hands of locals instead of developers.  

Land bank officials said they are working to address resident aggravations with a series of offerings, including the new “Create-a-Project” program. The effort, which launched in May, is designed to sell up to four lots at $250 apiece to nonprofit community organizations. The lots must be located within the organization’s designated neighborhood and improvement projects need a green light from the local district manager in the Department of Neighborhoods. 

“We were getting resonant feedback that said ‘hey, this side lot has been for sale down the street from me but the person next door doesn’t want to buy it. Why can’t I buy it?’” said Alyssa Stickland, the land bank’s assistant director of public relations and strategic initiatives. “They were right, so we created this program to answer that question.”

Detroit organizations interested in the program can fill out an online application or send an email  to inquire@detroitlandbank.org. The land bank has 29,256 vacant lots available, according to its online property tracker. Detroiters can view current listings here.

So far, three groups passed eligibility checks for Create-a-Project and were in the process of being the first recipients of discounted neighborhood lots at the start of June, Strickland said. The land bank did not respond to a request for updated figures on applications as of June 30.

Jennaine Spencer, president of the Field Street Block Club Association, said she’s seen outside investors buying up land and has worried that the practice, which changes the character of the neighborhood and results in less families moving in, will get worse. 

“Our seniors and people that have fought to stay here in this community to make Detroit have not received any incentives to help them,” Spencer said. “They fought to keep this Detroit. Now they’re making a new Detroit that does not include the people that fought to stay here.”

As another means of empowering community groups, the land bank has opened up benefits and waived boundary limitations of its “Neighborhood Lot” program to include nonprofits. Until now, neighborhood lots owned by the land bank could only be bought by residents living within 500 feet. 

Neighborhood lots are among a number of categories designated by the land bank, each with different requirements and pricing. An online guide for purchasing neighborhood lots is available here.

Strickland said block clubs typically have a member purchase the land who lives within 500 feet, but many groups wanted to have the property owned by the organization instead of an individual homeowner. 

“One of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot from the community, even after the launch of our neighborhood lot program, was that groups really wanted to be able to purchase land in an easier way,” Strickland said. “Most of our programs are tailored to individual buyers.”

Strickland said cost has often prevented neighborhood groups from making their vision a reality. 

“When we sell neighborhood lots at $250, that’s significantly below market rate,” she said. “If you’re a block club and want to purchase a couple of lots to do a community garden, spending a few thousand or more just on the land is really going to be prohibitive to a lot of groups … The less money they spend on the land means the more money they have to actually invest in the project and any infrastructure or programming that they might have in mind for the property itself.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave the Neighborhood Lot program a shoutout during his annual State of the City address in March. 

“I’m talking now to every block club president, every neighborhood association president … If you have a vision for your neighborhood, that you want to create a park, you want to create a garden, you can come in and buy the vacant lots that are down the street,” the mayor said. 

Community groups that obtain land bank properties can also receive funding through the city’s new Neighborhood Beautification Program, which has set aside $2.25 million for the groups to turn vacant properties into “community connectors.”

Tamra Hardy, neighborhood services division director for Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department, said the land bank is coordinating with the city to connect community groups that pick up land with funding for their projects. 

Detroiters can apply for Neighborhood Beautification Program grants ranging from $500 to $15,000 to help improve their communities. Up to 50 projects a year will receive funding, according to city officials.

The grants provide funding for Detroit-based neighborhood associations, block clubs, faith-based organizations and nonprofits that own property where they want to carry out a community project. The Neighborhood Beautification Program was created to support three types of projects: clean-up, community gardens and public activities. 

The grants are partly paid for through a development deal for the Detroit Pistons’ downtown headquarters and training facility. The initial funding for the program is $2.25 million, which includes $1.25 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and $1 million derived from the net income tax revenue collected from NBA players’ salaries during home games played at Little Caesars Arena and the salaries of Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees.

The beautification program is being overseen by the city’s housing department and administered by the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. Organizations can apply here. For more information, email Wayne Metro at NBG@waynemetro.org or call (313) 388-9799.

The Mohican Regent Neighborhood Association is among the early applicants. The association said it is seeking a grant to turn several long-vacant lots on the corner of East State Fair and Anvil Street into a sitting park for residents in the District 3 neighborhood.

“This corner used to be an illegal dumping site, but about 100 people from the community have worked hard to clean it up,” George Preston, president of the neighborhood association, said in a statement this month. “We want to keep that momentum moving forward and turn it into a gem in the community, a true place of beauty for all to enjoy.”

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