a lot of land with a lot of branches and trees
Tracy Trammell purchased three vacant lots from the land bank’s Neighborhood Lot program. She said she’s already spent thousands to clear out dead trees. The program has had close to 5,500 applicants since it started in October 2020, but just under half of applicants were denied. (Courtesy photo)

Tracy Trammell considers herself a doer. The east side resident was keeping up blighted land bank-owned lots on her street long before she was eligible to buy them. When that time finally came, Trammell said she was ready.

“I don’t feel any such thing as having no control. If there’s something I want, I’m going to find out about how I get it,” said Trammell, a social worker who lives near the Barack Obama Leadership Academy. “I’m a researcher. The process for me to get it, it went by real smooth.”

Trammell moved to the neighborhood eight years ago and now owns three houses and seven lots. She acquired three of those vacant lots within the last year under the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s Neighborhood Lot program which allows residents to buy lots within 500 feet of their primary residence for $250 apiece.

But city leaders, community groups and land bank officials say for some, the program hasn’t been easy to navigate.

The Neighborhood Lot program launched in October 2020 for Detroiters who are seeking more flexibility than what is afforded under the land bank’s more restrictive Side Lot program, which sells vacant lots for $100 each, but only to adjacent property owners. 

Since the program started, the land bank has received 5,499 applications for Neighborhood Lots, but 2,524 of those applications – or 46% – failed, according to land bank data through April 5. 

To ensure more Detroiters are successful, the land bank has worked to alleviate some barriers in the program and later this month Detroit’s City Council will be reinstated as endorsers for the program, a requirement that “is key” to being successful with those purchases, said land bank spokesperson Alyssa Strickland.

“In general, if (residents are) denied it is typically because they didn’t find someone to endorse, which is why it’s great to have Council back on board,” said Strickland, adding that the option “should make the process more efficient for residents.”

Other reasons for stalled or denied applications include being outside of the required 500-foot boundary, invalid addresses, failure of potential buyers to prove that the home near the lot was their primary residence, payment issues and outstanding taxes, Strickland said. 

Right now, a certified neighborhood organization or the city’s Department of Neighborhoods handles endorsements for prospective Neighborhood Lot purchases. Council members had been an option when the program began but the past council, due to logistical difficulties and concerns about not being familiar enough with the projects, sought to be removed in June 2021. But this month, members unanimously supported a resolution from President Mary Sheffield to bring the council back into the fold.

Strickland said the program became popular immediately after it began. In under three years, the DLBA has completed the sales process for 1,592 Neighborhood Lots. The most – or 401 – were sold in southwest Detroit’s District 6, followed by 346 in District 5 and 288 Neighborhood lot sales in District 4 on the city’s east side. The fewest, 82 lots, have been sold in District 2. 

neighborhood lot sales by District
(BridgeDetroit map by AJ Jones)

Pending Neighborhood Lot applications “haven’t failed,” Strickland said and those initially turned down can amend and resubmit them and “still have the potential to turn into a successful sale.”

As with all land bank programs, Neighborhood Lot applicants must be current on taxes. For those who are not, the land bank offers residents a chance to either pay off the outstanding taxes or to enroll in a payment plan so their applications can move forward. 

“So it isn’t an immediate rejection,” Strickland said, “there is opportunity to fix.”

Of the approved Neighborhood Lot applications, Strickland said about 300 were canceled due to issues on the buyer or land bank’s end. Another 860 applicants are considered inactive/pending review or endorsement, about 130 new applications are awaiting review, and just over 50 others are under review. 

The land bank also can take back Neighborhood Lots within the first three years of sale if the owners are issued blight tickets and fail to maintain them. So far, none of the lots have been reconveyed, Strickland said. 

More than 17,000 Neighborhood Lots are listed for sale on the DLBA’s website. Interested buyers can visit buildingdetroit.org and click “all listings map” on the site’s homepage to see what’s available in their area. 

Sheffield, who was joined by Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway in the resolution urging the land bank to reinstate council members as Neighborhood Lot endorsers, noted during the council’s formal session earlier this month that the council was (formerly) listed as one of many options for endorsement, including Detroit’s neighborhood district managers and said that the council’s offices “should be allowed that same right.”

“I enjoyed the process of our office being engaged in the process and learning about the projects,” Sheffield said.

Kim Theus, president of the Canfield Consortium, an east side community development corporation, said she is supportive of the program because it expands opportunities for ownership. 

But Theus said there’s often a lack of understanding among prospective buyers. A more streamlined structure, she said, could make the program more successful for applicants. 

“I think there needs to be a bit more transparency,” said Theus, noting that her group’s projects and relationship with the land bank are strong and that the CDC knows how to get help with its questions or concerns. “Not everyone has that.” 

To further aid buyers, Strickland said that the land bank updated the original Neighborhood Lot policy, which required that buyers have a Principal Residence Exemption (PRE), “after finding that many people did not have PRE’s already on file with the City and didn’t want to go through the process.

“The intention behind the PRE was to ensure the lots are only being sold to buyers within 500 feet of their primary residence,” Strickland said. “So, we updated the program to allow other means of proving primary residency, eliminating that initial challenge for many buyers.”

If buyers are confused about the process, Strickland encourages them to reach out to the land reuse team at landreuse@detroitlandbank.org or by calling customer service at (313) 974-6869 and asking to speak to the Neighborhood Lot team.

Katrina Watkins, founder and CEO of Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation, said she began purchasing lots in the McDougall-Hunt community in 2017. Her nonprofit has 23 contiguous lots that have been transformed into what is now known as Bailey Park. 

Although Watkins did not acquire her parcels through the Neighborhood Lot program, she said that it has become popular in her east side neighborhood.

“People are doing it. We encourage it,” said Watkins, adding she helps residents navigate the process of applying for land bank side lots and neighborhood lots, including paperwork and drafting their lot plans for the city’s building department.

Bailey Park in Detroit
Bailey Park is in the city’s McDougall-Hunt community and was created by the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation. The group’s founder and CEO Katrina Watkins is an endorser for applicants of the land bank’s Neighborhood Lots program. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Watkins, also a certified endorser for the program, said most of the Neighborhood Lots in her area are used for flower and vegetable gardens. She said the application process has been a struggle for some residents – especially those with technology or mobility challenges – but it’s valuable. 

“This can be a slow process. It’s a game of patience. It’s not like you apply for the lot and get it next Monday. No, it can take a little time,” she said. “For some people, it seems to happen much faster, but it can take a year. I tell (residents) ‘don’t give up. Keep sending emails and stay connected.’”

Watkins said it’s important that neighborhood lot endorsements come from people who are connected to the community because “we know the residents.” In regard to the City Council being added as an endorser for the Neighborhood Lot program, Watkins said she believes it’ll have a big impact. 

“I hope they will do their homework to make sure that the person is someone in the neighborhood and that the project is something that the neighborhood wants,” she said. 

Kim Theus and her sister, Rhonda, also act as endorsers for the program through their CDC.

“What Rhonda and I like about being an endorser is we can see residents who are buying the properties,” she said. “They come to (community) meetings. We see their ideas. Obviously there is some level of interest in putting their roots in Detroit.”

Theus said she doesn’t know if that will happen on the council side and she’s unsure which representatives from the council members’ offices will be heading up the endorsements of applications if they are sought through their offices. 

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” she said, “but it’s not necessarily a good thing either.”

Strickland said the land bank welcomes more community groups to sign on as endorsers. Block clubs or community groups registered with the Department of Neighborhoods and interested in becoming a Neighborhood Lot endorser can reach out to the land bank to get involved.

For Trammell, the Neighborhood Lots mean more exercise space for her three dogs and this summer she’s going to assemble a recently purchased greenhouse. 

“I’m an outdoor person,” said Trammell, who wants to grow garlic, spinach, squash, green onions, red bell peppers and jalapeno peppers. “This is something I wanted to do for me.”

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1 Comment

  1. Having a PRE should be eliminated completely. Why can’t Detroit born and raised people who have roots in the city but maybe live just outside the city and want to give back be denied.

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