by Jennifer Guerra
Joanne Palek and her brother, Richard, have lived on West Court Street in Flint for 10 years. A few years ago, the abandoned house next door burned down. So they bought the empty lot from the Genesee County Land Bank for exactly $1.00, and then they started to plant.
“We had carrots, we had green beans, we put in broccoli this year, but it didn’t do anything,” explains Palek.
There’s yet another abandoned house on the other side of Palek. As soon as the city pays to tear the house down, Palek says she’ll likely buy that lot too.
“And I know that it’s gonna cost me in tax money and I’m not that flush,” says Palek. “But I would make sure the taxes were paid and Flint got the money for it, whereas right now they’re not getting anything.”
She’s right. Vacant land doesn’t bring in any money for the city. In fact, an Emory University study shows that failure to collect even two percent of property taxes from abandoned houses translates into $3 billion in lost revenue for a city.
It’s the Land Bank’s role to find new uses for all that foreclosed property.
Christina Kelly works at the Land Bank. She says they’ve sold more than 400 empty lots to residents like Palek, though the lots are more this year. They cost $25 instead of $1. But she says it’s still a good deal, not only for the person who buys the lot, but for the neighborhood.
“It actually is very transformative in a neighborhood when you have lots that are gardened and cared for by the community, you can really see visual changes in the surrounding properties,” says Kelly.
The Land Bank has teamed up with a bunch of other groups to form an umbrella organization called Edible Flint. It’s basically a one-stop shop for all your urban gardening needs. The Land Bank provides the land, some materials and support.
“Michigan State Extension provides training and seeds and plants as they are available,” says Kelly. “The Ruth Mott Foundation provides training and technical assistance, and Salem Housing has a tool bank. Any one of those is not as valuable as all of them together.”
And it’s not just for people who want to buy property. Groups can adopt lots for free and get help from Edible Flint. Edible Flint will supply seeds, plants, tools, even a master gardener, anything to get people to care for the vacant lots in their community and help cut down on the city’s huge blight problem.
Bobby Jackson runs the Mission of Hope Day Shelter in Flint. He adopted two vacant lots and planted all kinds of veggies.
Jackson points out all the vegetables in his garden: kale, collard greens, broccoli, cabbage, basil, cilantro.
Anyone in the neighborhood is allowed to come and pick vegetables. Several churches brought their entire congregations to eat from the garden. But Jackson says it’s not just about food.
“The neighbors commended us for making the whole area look better because it was just overgrown and nothing there. And now they had opportunity to have a place to come and share in the work because people that didn’t know their neighbor four houses down met in the garden.”
And he says, since the garden went in, there’s been hardly any vandalism in the neighborhood.
Now, it’s important to note that not every vacant lot can grow vegetables. And while Edible Flint tests the soil, the still a chance of lead and PCBs and asbestos, since Flint was a big manufacturing town back in its hey day.
Still, Joan Nassauer, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, says rust belt cities like Flint and Detroit can still turn all those vacant lots into natural assets, even if it’s just a pleasant open green space that gets mowed on a regular basis.
“In a kind of ironic way,” says Nassauer, “these cities that are facing abandoned property, they have the opportunity right now to pause and do it better.”
So, there may not be a lot of hope for all the abandoned and dilapidated houses in Flint that have fallen into foreclosure, but the land still has room to grow.
Contact Jennifer Guerra at firstname.lastname@example.org
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