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Wed July 2, 2014

For Sale: Vacant Lots On Chicago Blocks, Just $1 Each

Originally published on Wed July 2, 2014 12:08 pm

Chicago is practically giving away land: vacant lots for just $1 each. The catch? To buy one, you must already own a home on the same block.

Like many U.S. cities, Chicago has struggled with what to do with a growing number of empty lots in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Efforts to develop affordable housing or urban farms have had some mixed results.

So Chicago officials and community development advocates hope the vacant lot program can help spark a renewal in some of the city's most blighted areas.

The City of Chicago owns close to 5,000 vacant lots in the greater Englewood area alone, and is supposed to clean up, mow and maintain them. But residents such as Asiaha Butler say the city doesn't always stay on top of the job.

"So like right now, the kids over there are just playing in the lot, they're just running," she says. "I would hope that it would be somewhere where they feel a little more safe, a little more secure, that's a little more beautified than what we see currently."

Butler says some of the lots get so overgrown that toddlers can get lost in them. They often become mini garbage dumps, or are sometimes taken over by drug dealers or gang members.

"I just want to make my block nicer," Butler says.

And she plans to, alongside Sonya Harper, 32, an outreach manager for a nearby urban farm. Harper has lived on a block of South Wood Street in Englewood, on Chicago's South Side, her entire life. Her house was once her grandmother's home. Her aunt used to live next door, where her cousins now live, and her parents met on the same street.

The neighborhood has changed over the years, she says. Older neighbors have moved or passed away; most of the decent jobs left the area, too. And as poverty and unemployment increased, many people lost their homes to foreclosure.

Left behind were abandoned homes, many of which the city has now torn down. That's left vacant lots here and all across Englewood, including several on Butler's block a mile or so away.

The women want to buy vacant lots on their blocks and repurpose them. And under the new program, they can. Under the Large Lot Program, homeowners can buy lots on their block for $1, as long as they do not owe back taxes, parking tickets or other debts to the city.

Butler's idea is to put public art, such as murals, on her lot — and maybe concrete chess tables, a barbecue pit and even an area for dogs.

Harper has already started a small community garden and wants to expand it into adjacent vacant lots.

And both see their lots as serving an even greater purpose.

"We want to be a block club. It turns from, 'We care about gardening and food and nature and open space, and yet this is all brand new to us,' to, 'Hmm, what's going on down the street?' 'Oh, look at that vacant lot over there, should we do something about that?' 'Oh, Ms. Thompson needs help cutting her grass, let's go see if she needs help,' " Harper says.

Phil Ashton, professor of urban affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says the program selling vacant lots for a buck taps an underutilized resource.

"Existing homeowners are sometimes some of the best assets that these neighborhoods have," Ashton says. "They have a lot of energy. I mean, these are people fully invested in their neighborhoods."

But Ashton says some of these kinds of efforts have waned after a couple of years in other cities — so the big question is what else can be done to sustain urban revitalization.

"There's got to be something more, really," he says. "Otherwise we're sort of facing this very pragmatic tool being just a drop in the bucket."

City officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and corporate leaders joined neighborhood activists in breaking ground Tuesday for one potential new cornerstone in the community: a Whole Foods Market. It not only will bring needed jobs to the area, but after years of residents seeing one grocery store after another closing up shop and moving out, many believe Whole Foods could be an oasis in one of Chicago's largest food deserts.

Officials say the initial response to the $1 lot program has been strong — it received more than 400 applications to purchase more than 500 vacant lots in Englewood, where the effort began as a pilot program.

The response has been so positive that on Tuesday, Chicago began accepting applications for more than 400 vacant lots in East Garfield Park on the city's West Side; homeowners can apply through July 30.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Chicago is practically giving land away. The city is selling some vacant lots for a dollar each, but there is a catch here. You must already own a home on the same block. Chicago officials and community development advocates hope this new program can help spark a renewal in some of the city's most blighted areas. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: This is South Wood Street in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, and it's Sonya Harper's block.

SONYA HARPER: Been living here my whole, entire life.

SCHAPER: In fact, the 32-year-old outreach manager for a near-by urban farm has very deep roots here.

HARPER: This is my father's house. This used to be my grandmother's house where I primarily grew up. The house next-door to that is my aunt's house. My cousins live there now, and my mom and dad actually met on this street. So my mother's - which is her mother's house - is actually down there. And I reside out of that house down there.

SCHAPER: But most of those previous generations are gone. And Sonya Harper says this part of Englewood on Chicago's South Side has changed over the years. Older neighbors have passed or moved away, most of the decent jobs have left the area, too. And as poverty and unemployment increased, many more people lost their homes to foreclosure. Left behind were abandoned homes, many of which the city has torn down, leaving vacant lots here and all across Englewood, including several on Asiaha Butler's block a mile or so away.

ASIAHA BUTLER: I just want to make my block nicer.

SCHAPER: Butler says some of the lots get so overgrown that toddlers can get lost in them. They often become mini garbage dumps or sometimes are taken over by drug dealers or gang members. The city of Chicago, which owns about half of the estimated 4,000 vacant lots in the Englewood neighborhood alone, is supposed to clean up and maintain them. But Butler says the city doesn't always stay on top of it.

BUTLER: So, like, right now, like, the kids over there are just playing in a lot. They're just running. Our hope that it could be somewhere they feel a little more safe, a little more secure, that's a little more beautified than what we see currently.

SCHAPER: Butler and Harper want to buy vacant lots on their blocks and repurpose them. And under a new program, the city of Chicago is selling vacant lots to homeowners who live on the same block for $1, so long as the buyers do not owe back taxes, parking tickets or other debts to the city.

BUTLER: So this is the lot that I applied for.

SCHAPER: Butler's idea is to put public art, such as murals, on her lot and maybe concrete chess tables, a barbecue pit and even areas for dogs. Harper has already started a small community garden and wants to expand it into adjacent lots. And both see their vacant lots as serving an even greater purpose. Here's Sonya Harper.

HARPER: We want to be a block club. It turns from, we care about gardening and food and nature and open space, and, yes, this is all brand-new to us - to, what's going on down the street? Oh, look at that vacant lot over there. Should we do something about that? Oh, Ms. Thompson needs help cutting her grass. Let's go see if she needs help.

SCHAPER: Chicago and many other cities have struggled with what to do with the growing number of vacant lots in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Efforts to develop affordable housing or urban farms have had some mixed results. Phil Ashton, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says the program selling vacant lots for a buck taps an underutilized resource.

PHIL ASHTON: Existing homeowners are sometimes some of the best assets that these neighbors - neighborhoods have. These are people who have long-term commitments to the neighborhood. They have a lot of energy. I mean, these are people who are fully invested in their neighborhoods.

SCHAPER: But Ashton says some of these kinds of efforts in other cities have waned after a couple of years. So the big questions is, what else can be done to sustain revitalization?

ASHTON: There's got to be something more, really, otherwise we're sort of facing this very pragmatic tool being just a drop in the bucket.

SCHAPER: The city of Chicago is working on other neighborhood development tools, but officials say the initial response has been so strong to the $1-lot program that it's expanding it to another neighborhood on the city's West Side. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.