In 2015, Chicago’s Large Lots Program was created to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods and cultivate new tax revenue. Within this program, existing local property owners are allowed to purchase up to two vacant, residential lots on their blocks for $1 each. Requirements include the stipulation that lots must be held for at least five years to prevent flipping. In return, the new owners pay the property taxes and maintain each lot.
Since then, Chicago has sold 1,250 out of approximately 11,500 total vacant lots, transforming these desolate spaces overrun with trash, nuisance animals, and illegal dumping, into gardens, housing and public parks.
Very few municipal government programs have generated such excitement. As one resident exclaimed, “[Large Lots] allows us to tell our own story… This is about history making… and it’s time for us to take ownership of our community.”
Given the successes of this program, other cities are excited about adopting it. Officials from Rochester, Kansas City and New Orleans have all spoken to the City of Chicago, according to Peter Strazzabosco, the Deputy Commissioner for Chicago.
Not everyone is a fan of the Large Lots program, however
While there are multiple benefits to the Large Lots Program, it is not without its detractors. Luerlis Gutierrez initially celebrated the program, excited that her community would be able to take ownership of the vibrant “Fulton Garden” community garden which had been created over a decade before in an abandoned lot near her home.
But today the garden has been destroyed, half of if it fenced off and cluttered with weeds and trash. The Large Lots Program sold half of her garden to a local property owner (who also owns three properties that have remained empty) who barred Guetierrez from tending to the garden, citing liability concerns.
Violating the spirit of the program
Fulton Garden isn’t an isolated incident; another community garden at 311 North Sacramento Boulevard was also sold off and is now sitting untended and overgrown. Angela Taylor, head of the Garfield Park Garden Network says, “It’s just like if somebody comes in and takes your child away.”
The program requires purchasers to own property in the area where the lots are located — however, they are not required to live near them. In the case of community gardens, such purchases can rip apart community revitalization efforts.
Recently, local Chicago aldermen have requested a list of all community gardens to add to a “do not sell” list for the city. However, residents like Gutierrez believe this effort is insufficient and argues that these lots should be for residents who are “sitting in the community, working with the community, engaging the community.”
In other words, she believes the program should favor those who will steward the property for the community. Whether the purchaser owns property locally should be a secondary concern.
Boston has found a way around concerns like Gutierrez’s
Dudley Street was once one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Boston metropolitan area, with numerous vacant and tax-defaulted lots, much like the lots in Chicago.
With the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI), instead of selling these lots to local property owners, residents worked with city and state officials to transfer ownership of 15 acres to a Community Land Trust (CLT), in which 1,300 parcels of land were placed. Now, those lots boast 225 new affordable homes, a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, urban farm, playground, gardens, and other amenities one would only expect in more privileged, resource-rich neighborhoods.
In Chicago, an alderman representing Gutierrez supported transferring Fulton Garden to a local CLT called Neighborspace. However, since there was no formal process in place to do so, “wires were crossed” and the lot was sold.
The Co-City Protocol
CLTs, like the one set up in the Dudley Street neighborhood, exemplify an alternative stewardship-based approach to urban revitalization pioneered by LabGov and its Co-City framework.
The Co-City protocol, designed by Professor Sheila Foster at Georgetown University (one of the co-authors of this article) and her LabGov colleague Christian Iaione, fosters alternative forms of land stewardship. In this model, residents use available urban land and infrastructure to generate resources such as housing, and commercial and artistic spaces, while keeping them affordable for future generations.
Back to Chicago
In order to take advantage of a program like the Boston model, Chicago city administrators would need to find or cultivate a land trust to steward the plot. If there are insufficient land trusts, the city could learn from New York City’s exciting efforts to incubate more of them.
Demand for these cheap lots — with new conditions — should be a secondary concern. Each sales round is already massively oversubscribed. Having validated the program, the City of Chicago can now afford to be more choosy.
As we saw in Boston’s DSNI, when more residents benefit from their use of land, cities unleash the creativity to build more. Cross-cutting relationships are built, communities thrive, and sustainable economies develop. Such strategic, long-term thinking means leaders earn the trust of their stakeholders.
The City of Chicago has a unique, legacy-building opportunity to build on its Large Lots Program by integrating land trusts. The city is poised to empower its most valuable resource — its people — to build autonomy and “tell their own stories.”
This article is a follow up to our editorial series on land use and housing policy challenges and solutions. Download our latest FREE ebook based on this series: “How Racism Shaped the Housing Crisis & What We Can Do About It.”