While many land banks concentrate on obtaining, assembling, and improving blighted urban lots for the purpose of future redevelopment, some also seek to dispose of vacant properties for low-intensity residential uses. In Cleveland, OH, the Cuyahoga Land Bank (CLB) encourages property owners and community groups to acquire vacant lots through its Side Lot Program, which transmits publicly owned vacant properties directly to residents of neighboring lots. Arguably, no one in the community has a greater or more immediate incentive to improve a derelict lot than the homeowner living next to it. By providing an avenue for neighboring residents to obtain the parcels that cripple economic opportunity and blight their neighborhood, the Side Lot Program empowers Clevelanders to beautify their communities while raising their property values.
Through the program, eligible purchasers can acquire vacant lots at enormously discounted prices. While prices fluctuate due to factors such as size and redevelopment potential, standard lots sell for $100. Again, this can be a massive bargain; fair market value for even the least expensive of CLB’s lots hovers around $5,000, and can approach $20,000. While this may seem like an unsustainable business model, it is important to note that vacant properties have significant carrying costs for the CLB. When spread across the thousands of vacant lots in a rapidly shrinking city like Cleveland, the costs for maintenance activities like grass cutting and debris removal quickly accumulate. Furthermore, these costs consume resources the CLB could be using to acquire, assemble, and sell at profit more valuable parcels throughout greater Cleveland.
By helping limit its maintenance responsibilities, the Side Lot Program’s discount actually cuts costs for the CLB. It is important to note that the CLB has established programmatic guidelines to ensure that it is the community, not commercial development interests, benefit from these bargains. Without proper restrictions, the discounts offered in the Side Lot Program could incentivize speculative developers to purchase the vacant lots and merely wait for them to appreciate in value, a potentially lengthy process during which the lots would likely remain derelict and underutilized. To eliminate this potential outcome, the CLB requires that purchasers meet a variety of eligibility requirements. Most significantly:
- Applicants must both own and live in a property adjacent to the vacant CLB-owned lot;
- Applicants must be current on all property taxes and have no current housing or zoning code violations;
- The lot being purchased must be vacant. Any structure or improvement will disqualify an otherwise eligible lot from the program.
When side lots are redeveloped as gardens, formerly vacant lots can serve a variety of environmental purposes, from animal habitat to stormwater sinks. Additionally, lots that are transitioned to green space can help mitigate the urban heat island effect.
By both facilitating yard expansion and promoting growth of local non-profit organizations and other groups, the Side Lot Program provides Clevelanders with enhanced opportunities for grassroots community improvement.
Vacant lots can have a variety of deleterious effects on property value, investment potential, and other factors related to economic development. The Side Lot Program both gets these economic albatrosses into the hands of those most likely to improve them, and allows the CLB to commit its resources to developing Cleveland’s economy.
Often, the best tools for beautifying communities and repurposing vacant urban land are the vacancy and blight’s neighbors. Not only is it their properties that suffer the most from blight and vacancy, but it is their yards and community groups that benefit the most from additional space. This combination of urgency and opportunity can make those that live amidst vacancy the ideal redeveloper of derelict parcels, even if their idea of redevelopment is less substantial or noticeable than, say, a multi-family housing development that may not open its doors for another decade. In these situations, government can use incentives to transfer public property to private ownership, simultaneously reducing a cost in public ledgers and providing communities with opportunities for self-determination.
Research supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation.