Community-based Placemaking, starting at $1 - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Community-based Placemaking, starting at $1

Flickr user *hajee (cc)

The City of Chicago is selling many vacant parcels in and around Englewood for $1 to community residents.

Vacant properties don’t just drag down nearby property values; they wreak havoc on neighborhood vitality and, when owned by a government agency, suck up vast resources. The City of Chicago owns many such properties across the South and West sides. In the greater Englewood area, until more permanent solutions can take hold, the City has introduced an old trick with a new twist: selling properties for $1.

The major selling point with the new Large Lot Pilot is its community-based approach. As the first initiative in the City’s “Five-Year Housing Plan,” the pilot allows residents and nonprofits in the greater Englewood community first dibs on these vacant properties. The catch? Qualifying individuals must own property on the same block as the vacant lot, and they can’t owe any money to the City.

Giving residents and community organizations first dibs levels the playing field between those who care about their community and the types of investors who snap up properties and then sit on them until the market improves. The pilot engages residents and community organizations in neighborhoods to convert vacant lots to community gardens, side lots and home expansion projects.

Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) commends the City on this community-based approach to neighborhood revitalization. The Large Lot Pilot is reminiscent of both MPC’s Placemaking initiative and the Cook County and South Suburban land banks: All three give communities opportunities to take the fate of vacant lots into their own hands. Whether by side lot or community garden, neighbors’ efforts will return these unattractive and often detrimental spaces back to a productive use.

Given the pilot’s restrictions, however, MPC is concerned about its effectiveness. The one-block radius seems unnecessarily tight. Neighboring residents may be uninterested or lack the financial means to purchase or rehab a lot (because purchasing new property, even for $1, means an increase in property taxes). Most people consider themselves part of a community that constitutes a wider geography than their block; the City should consider expanding the radius to property owners within one to three blocks of the vacant lot.

Secondly, the program, announced on March 20, 2014, will only be active for the next 30 days. Extending the program for two or three months would mean more time to get the word out and sufficient time for residents to become current on their financial obligations to the city.

Overall, though, we are thrilled at the potential community and economic benefits of the Large Lot Pilot. It is great to see the City promoting these lots as a positive opportunity, allowing Chicago residents the ability to shape their communities. Lots and houses should be owned by people who will care for them.

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