Ever driven by an overgrown, weed-filled, debris-strewn vacant lot and thought, “That field’s a huge blight on our neighborhood. Wish I could afford it; I’d buy it and really fix it up.”
Well, in Akron, Ohio; Memphis, Tenn.; Beatrice, Neb.; Baton Rouge, La.; Rockford, Ill.; or St. Louis, Mo., residents have the opportunity to potentially own this type of vacant property at a very low cost.
These cities are offering a type of sweat equity to residents on these undesirable plots of vacant land. For example, if a resident does not owe any real estate taxes in his or her city nor have any outstanding violations on these properties, he or she becomes eligible to take ownership of such a lot, in exchange for maintaining it. This includes keeping the new property clear of debris and excess vegetation, keeping the grass cut no higher than 7 inches and paying real estate taxes assessed on the lot.
Benefits of owning these plots near residents’ homes include enhanced property values since unkempt lots drove down property values and improved public health with maintenance eliminating many pest and disease infestation hazards like trash or standing water. For cities, these programs transfer lots that are not on tax rolls to owners; however, cities should be prepared to reclaim properties if maintenance obligations are not met. In addition to offering these lots to residents, cities can give them to nonprofit organizations, land banks, stormwater management organizations and local food groups.
Maintenance includes mowing, landscaping, fencing, tree removal, trimming shrubs, grass restoration and leaf and snow removal on front sidewalks.
John Valle, director of Neighborhood Assistance, implemented an Akron Neighborhood Mow-to-Own program, which has thus far been quite successful since its inception last May.
“Public reaction has been very good, lots of questions and communications,” said Valle. “I look for 2021 to be a bigger program, once residents start to understand how it works.
“The Department of Neighborhood Assistance has been maintaining all vacant city of Akron properties; we have always looked for opportunities to be more efficient and cut costs,” said Valle. “We suggested to Mayor Dan Horrigan that we would like to start a mow-to-own program and explained what St. Louis, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio, were doing, and he strongly supported and encouraged the program.”
According to Horrigan, underutilized vacant lots are “often a source of complaints from surrounding neighbors. Offering this ‘sweat equity’ program helps return these parcels back to the tax rolls while giving residents a unique opportunity to expand their land ownership at very little cost.”
At the time of the interview, Valle had 1,400 vacant lots. He noted, “We were mowing 1,169 lots.”
From those mowable lots, 250 properties were selected by the city — many of which are contiguous to three or more adjacent homeowners — for the mow-to-own program. These initial lots generated 965 applications. Through that candidate pool, Akron drew close to 100 in mow-to-own and outright sales of residential properties, with contracts being entered with 66 individuals through mow-to-own and another 30 or so being outright purchases to adjacent property owners.
Many applicants ended up not being eligible either because they didn’t own their home, were behind on their taxes or had outstanding code violations on their existing property.
When taking over one of these properties, a landowner could use it for recreation by placing a ballpark, swimming pool, fence, a pond, swing set or a gazebo with no problem. Permanent structures such as a house or garage are not allowed.
Asked if the city ever had to repossess a lot after a resident failed to provide upkeep, Valle said no. Instead, the Summit County Fiscal Office handles any foreclosures and sheriff sales, while the city of Akron prepares the deeds for transfer.
As for program participants, Valle said, “The property owner would fill out an application and also sign a real estate license and a transfer of property agreement. Our applicant eligibility clearly states that all applicants must own and occupy the contiguous property. I am sure we used similar language to the St. Louis, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio, programs. If you owned an apartment next to a vacant lot, you could be eligible, and priority would be given if you lived in the apartment.”
The unrolling of mow-to-own caught quite a bit of notice.
“Back in late May, when this program went to city council, there was an incredible amount of interest from the local and Cleveland media, and we gave them contact information on a few potential people who would be in the program, but they were upset that we shared their contact information,” said Valle ruefully.
Other challenges surfaced.
“As with any new program, some residents weren’t selected and were upset,” said Valle. “Residents were selected on a first-come-first-served basis and the disappointment from those who weren’t chosen was palpable.” Selected property owners, however, have taken pride in mowing the lots, keeping them in as good of shape as their yards. The program will be ongoing, according to Valle, with another huge push in the spring of 2021.
Selected property owners, however, have taken pride in mowing the lots, keeping them in as good of shape as their yards. The program will be ongoing, according to Valle, with another huge push in the spring of 2021.