Detroit has about 19 square miles of vacant, unused land and city officials say the vision for future development in its barren neighborhoods should rest with residents.
More than 20,000 homes have been demolished in the city since 2014, and according to Detroit Future City, the public and private parcels are scattered throughout the 142.9-square-mile city.
As blight remediation efforts continue through Proposal N – a $250 million bond approved by city voters in 2020 to tear down thousands more dilapidated structures – discussions have ramped up among city leaders, residents and community groups over what strategies will best serve Detroit and ensure long-time residents have a stake in the process.
The Detroit Land Bank Authority has sold tens of thousands of vacant lots and offers a growing number of programs to get more parcels into the hands of neighbors, but some Detroiters say they feel left out rather than empowered. Instead, they argue, the land bank’s processes often lead to confusion and barriers, including rules that limit buying options for city renters.
Olamide Olunbeji has rented a house in southwest Detroit for two years and has witnessed blighted houses coming down and open space being left behind. But for renters in the city’s neighborhoods, like Olunbeji, the rules for acquiring open lots aren’t as simple.
“Don’t just tear down houses and tell me all you can do is sell that space to homeowners,” said Olunbeji, who said he isn’t looking to buy a lot right now but doesn’t want to be deprived of the option in the future. “There’s people that are looking for lots who don’t own houses.”
The land bank has control of 62,781 vacant lots and Detroit residents can apply to buy them for as low as $100 per parcel through the Side Lots program or Neighborhood Lots program.
Detroit homeowners are eligible to buy side lots if they live directly next to or across the street from the vacant lot. Neighborhood lot purchases are less restrictive, requiring homeowners to be located within 500 feet.
The city’s side lot program launched in 2014 with the hope of streamlining a process that was often challenging and spanned years. The effort aims to reward long-time homeowners who have stayed, said Antonisha Smith, a constituent experience liaison for the land bank.
While program rules differ for renters, Smith noted the land bank’s programs don’t necessarily exclude them from purchasing vacant neighborhood lots. To qualify, she said, renters either need to become homeowners or join a bonafide community group or neighborhood association.
“The goal for the Side Lot program was to reward the current homeowners, those that have stayed invested in the city,” she said. “So these programs are geared toward homeowners or those that are affiliated with a community association or community organization.”
New census estimates released in recent days suggest that for the first time in a decade Detroit has more homeowners than renters, with findings that 51.3% of Detroit housing units were owner-occupied in 2021, compared to 47.8% in 2019. Despite that, as renters, nearly half of the city’s resident base remains without equal footing to purchase lots in their neighborhood.
Since 2014, the land bank has sold more than 22,000 vacant lots to Detroit homeowners, according to its most recent quarterly report to Detroit’s City Council. As of July, nearly 13,000 side lots and close to 18,500 neighborhood lots were listed for sale, the report states.
In the report, Land Bank CEO Tammy Daniels noted that land bank officials are committed to making the inventory of houses and vacant land “as transparent and accessible as possible to all Detroiters.”
“As our roster of vacant structures decreases dramatically,” Daniels wrote, “the organization’s strategy will continue to adapt and further emphasize avenues to sell the more than 62,000 vacant lots under DLBA ownership.”
‘It makes sense to own’
Among those to find success with the land bank’s side lot sale program is Jacqueline Moore.
A resident of Five Points on the far west side for more than 50 years, Moore said she and her husband complained for years about unmaintained vacant lots in her neighborhood before the land bank sold the couple their first lot in 2014.
“We bought it, we fixed it up. We have a basketball court over there, a volleyball court, we have archery there,” Moore said. “We have taken another land bank property that we purchased that’s attached to all of this and turned it into a community walk path.”
None of this, Moore said, would have been possible without the land bank’s help. She said the process was “fast and simple” and having ownership of land in her community is empowering.
“We could not have done it in any other city but Detroit,” she said. “For them to give us the opportunity to get this land and to utilize it for this, it has been a game-changer for us and the community.”
Barbara Martin, a resident of the southeast side near Pingree Park, said she’s bought two side lots and a neighborhood lot from the land bank since 2019. She has no big plans for the parcels other than keeping them maintained, she said.
“We just didn’t want it to be abandoned,” Martin said. “We didn’t want it to be overgrown, so my family and I keep it mowed, and keep it shoveled. That’s about it.”
Martin said it was easy to buy her lots from the land bank, so easy, she added, that she encourages anyone who can afford a lot in their neighborhood to buy one.
“People should buy their lots because they live there, especially if they’re next to it,” she said. “It just makes sense to own it.”
Some other homeowners interested in buying vacant lots agree with Martin, but said they have encountered roadblocks.
For David Mulkey, a homeowner in the city’s Midwest neighborhood, the challenge has been technology. The land bank, he said, has instructed him over the phone to apply for lots through its website. But, he said, “I’d rather not do this stuff online.”
“I really wanna just go down (to the land bank office) in person, but with COVID and everything, that stopped me from going out as much,” he said.
Mulkey said he isn’t sure what he would do with the lot that he’s been eyeing, but he has been looking to expand the garage in his backyard.
Smith acknowledged that some residents have had difficulty navigating the application process.
“We recognize that there is some concern about our processes,” she said. “So we’re currently working through that and getting our team out into the community.”
Damon Milliner, a Detroiter who purchased a home in Islandview on the southeast side four years ago, said most of the time he’s lived there he’s also been keeping up the vacant lot next door.
“I maintain it, but I don’t own it,” Milliner said. “I can’t fence it in without owning it, so my neighbor keeps putting cars and stuff there messing up the grass.”
Milliner said he’s tried “several times” to buy the lot from the land bank but hasn’t been able to. He claims the land bank told him the lot is part of a “package” being set aside for developers. Land bank officials said there’s no record of Milliner attempting to purchase the lot through either of its sale programs.
“I’ve been the one maintaining it, so why can’t I buy it,” Milliner said. “It’s like me and other folks will maintain it for years, but a developer comes in, after not doing what they promised, and they still get to do what they want.”
Pushing projects forward
The city and nonprofit groups offer funding and support for Detroiters and neighborhood organizations to help them acquire lots and bring those resident-led projects to fruition.
The city finalized an agreement this spring with Wayne Metro Community Action Agency to administer its Neighborhood Beautification Program, which is providing $2.25 million for street-level groups to turn vacant properties into “community connectors.”
Through the program, 150 grants, ranging from $500 to $15,000 are expected to be awarded by the end of 2024. The effort is funded with $1.25 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars and $1 million from the Neighborhood Improvement Fund, which collects income taxes from employees of the Detroit Pistons franchise. Eligible projects include graffiti removal and other clean-up activities, community gardens, art installations and public gathering spaces.
The land bank also has partnered with the Department of Neighborhoods on “Create-A-Project,” which sells land to organizations up to four lots for $250 apiece to community groups.
Lisa Leverette, executive director of Community Connections Grant Program, a nonprofit that connects grassroots groups with grant dollars to fund projects, said the idea of owning land is still new to many Detroiters.
One of the key functions of her organization, she said, is ensuring that residents are able to navigate that process and that they have grant funding to help push those neighborhood projects forward.
“The idea of being able to afford parcels of land as a regular person is new to a lot of us,” she said. “We can shift resources meaning knowledge, funding, and leadership to address some of these historically inequitable distributions of wealth and power.”
Community Connections is looking to give out up to $10,000 in grant money to neighborhood groups and block clubs for its Design Detroit Spaces for Early Learners program. Leverette said access to funding is important, especially for people with ideas for these vacant lots because without funding “it’s just an idea.”
“Our grants are specifically for community groups and community leaders, folks that are close to the ground who have solutions,” Leverette said.
Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, founder of Feedom Freedom Growers, began taking ownership in empty spaces near her home in 2007. Back then, she said, she began cutting the tall grass surrounding her home. She said she knew it was important to do something productive.
Thompson-Curtis, along with her husband and several neighbors, eventually built a garden and community space in the lots on Manistique Street in the Jefferson-Chalmers area on the city’s southeast side.
“It’s important for safety, first and foremost,” Thompson-Curtis said. “…it allows other people to come in and see that this is a well cared for neighborhood and that people want to be here and so it does attract other people, the gardens, the beautification and the upkeep of the vacant lots.”
Donna Givens Davidson, president and CEO of Eastside Community Network, said “vacancy can be leveraged for really positive purposes.”
“What’s happening is that you have these alternative economic solutions and land use solutions being developed by people in communities,” Givens Davidson said. “And really, in my opinion, the city is catching up to what people are doing.”
Some solutions, she said, include community gardens, outdoor gathering spaces, urban farms, and playscapes for children. She said in an ideal setting, the city would encourage people to make those things happen in their neighborhoods.
“And that means access to land and also access to resources to invest in land,” she added.
In 2015, Detroit Future City launched its Working with Lots program to connect residents and neighborhood groups with resources to transform lots into whatever the community saw fit.
Sarah Hayosh, director of land use and sustainability for DFC, said since then the organization has awarded $380,000 in grants to 50 neighborhood groups across the city.
Hayosh said there are “many cumulative impacts” for Detroit residents in neighborhoods that have high rates of vacancy, including concerns over safety, property values, violence and a general lack of social cohesion.
“Blight also has physical and emotional, mental wellness impacts on residents,” she said.
Hayosh also said the open space creates opportunity for more investment in “green spaces” to manage stormwater to reduce flooding as well as mitigate the impacts of severe summer heat, she said, given “many Detroiters live in homes that don’t have central air.”
The city has allocated $14.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for “Blight to Beauty” programs. All of that money is for beautifying vacant lots and alley activation according to the City’s planning department.
Jason Hawes, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, noted that Detroit’s ideas for land use historically differ from other rustbelt cities like Pittsbhurgh or Cleveland, due in large part to bigger plots of land for single-family homes.
But in the past few decades, Hawes said, developers have largely projected their vision of Detroit and its land use onto people who have been living in the city throughout hard times.
“That is an ongoing story in Detroit, that sort of contestation of land use in the city and especially in historically Black communities,” Hawes said. “It’s a story that has been going on since the 70s and I suspect will continue to go on as we see this sort of continued flood of reinvestment.”
The City Council in April allocated $2 million from the General Fund fiscal budget to update the city’s master plan. The plan, according to Detroit Planning Director Antoine Bryant, was designed to be a “high level document” to guide development patterns across the entire city.
“In its best case, it’s also supposed to be resident led as well,” Bryant told BridgeDetroit.
The most recent update to the city’s master plan was in 2009. However, Bryant said officials with the planning department and the City Planning Commission have consistently made iterative updates, nearly 30, he said, in the last decade.
Bryant said the master plan won’t be the best tool to address vacant lots. A “one-size-fits-all approach,” he said, doesn’t suit the individual needs of each of the city’s neighborhoods.
“The residents here have some tremendous ideas,” he said. “Many of them have come up with plans on their own. That’s why we actively engage our block clubs, we actively engage many of our seniors across the neighborhoods and include them in all of our planning processes.”