A guide to buying neighborhood vacant lots in Detr...

A guide to buying neighborhood vacant lots in Detroit

Everything you want to know about buying city-owned lots -- and activating them.

Arboretum Detroit. Courtesy Detroit Future City

For years, Detroiters have demanded greater access to the tens of thousands of vacant parcels owned by the city. Now, they have much more of it.

Under the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s new Neighborhood Lot Program, Detroit residents are gradually being given the option to purchase city-owned vacant lots near them for $250. Announced last year, the program is an expansion of the agency’s successful Side Lot Program and part of the agency’s efforts to increase Detroiters’ access to land alongside its anti-blight initiative — over the next five years, the city is looking to demolish 8,000 homes, creating even more vacant land. 

For Detroiters, the fate of vacant lots — and the opportunity to own and steward them — can have a critical impact on quality of life. 

“I’d drive to work and see children standing in front of overgrown vacant lots with weeds and a lot of debris that had been illegally dumped and I thought that’s just not what those kids should be exposed to,” said Rhonda Theus, who has worked to activate vacant lots on Detroit’s east side as vice president of the nonprofit Canfield Consortium. “They should have a beautiful place to wait for the bus.”

Previously, interested buyers either had to live next to a vacant lot, which allowed them to purchase it for just $100 as part of the Side Lot Program, or buy a parcel directly from the Land Bank at fair market value. While the Side Lot Program has perhaps been the agency’s most successful program, resulting in the sale of over 18,000 lots since 2014, Detroit residents and community groups found buying detached parcels an arduous process. 

Beginning July 1, the Land Bank will begin transferring side lot properties to its Neighborhood Lot Program. About 15,000 parcels will change designation in the first batch and other properties will be switched in the coming months. From now on, the Land Bank will make new vacant lots in their inventory available to purchase as side lots for six months before neighbors are given the chance to purchase them.

According to London Scott, community initiatives program manager for the Land Bank, 6,760 lots that aren’t adjacent to homes are currently listed in the Neighborhood Lot Program. So far, 187 have been sold with another 280 currently going through the applications process.

With the weather improving, you may be looking at that empty lot on your block and imagining what could be done with it. This may be the best year to gain ownership of one and help beautify your neighborhood. 

Here are answers to most of the questions you might have about that process, from purchasing to activating vacant land. Have a question we didn’t answer? Email aaron@detourdetroiter.com.  

Field Temple. Courtesy Detroit Future City

Wait, why would I want to buy a vacant lot in the first place?

You might consider buying and taking care of a vacant lot for any number of reasons. Maybe you just want to have a bigger yard for your kids to play in or to grow some vegetables. 

But vacant land presents a number of opportunities for you and your neighbors. Building something beautiful or useful can improve the health of residents, creating places of rest and activity. It also discourages illegal dumping and raises property values. 

“Detroit has so much vacant land,” Sarah Hayosh, director of land use and sustainability for Detroit Future City, told Detour Detroit. “We’re currently working on refining data, but there’s approximately 19.5 square miles of structure-free land, about half of which is owned by the city. There’s a huge opportunity for the city and all sorts of stakeholders to improve the land, make it more beautiful and productive and add to the quality of life for residents.” 

There’s a vacant lot near my house. Can I buy it? 

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine ownership. A straightforward way to do that is through the city’s parcel viewer, which identifies the owner of every parcel in Detroit. Just type your home address into the search bar and find the nearby lot you want to buy. 

If it’s a private owner, you’ll have to find a way to contact them and see if they’re interested in selling. But if it’s owned by the city or Detroit Land Bank Authority, then there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to buy it. 

If the lot is one of the two next to a house you own or one of the three behind yours (but not across the street), then it might be listed as a Side Lot. Enter your address into the Land Bank’s Side Lot Sales page and see if it comes up. If it does and you own the home, then you can buy it for just $100. 

If it’s within 500 feet of your house, approximately the length of half a city block, then you might be eligible to buy it through the new Neighborhood Lot Program for $250. Parcels in this group are all non-adjacent vacant lots and side lots that went unpurchased 180 days after being listed. 

Once again, type in your address to the Neighborhood Lot page and see if anything is available. There are a few additional requirements to buying a neighborhood lot. The nearby home must be your principal residence (in other words, you must live there), and you have to get an endorsement from an approved Land Bank partner (more on that below) and you can only buy a maximum of two lots; if you want to buy others you’ll have to pay fair market value. There’s also a three-year compliance period during which the Land Bank can regain possession of the parcel if you incur blight violations. For vacant lots, you can be given blight citations for infractions like untended weeds and grass or improper bulk waste disposal.

Community organizations should also consider becoming a Land Bank community partner. Because there is a limit to the number of side lots and neighborhood lots you can buy, additional parcels will have to be purchased at “fair market value.” But community partners can get a 20% discount on all market-rate lots and structures. 

Salim Lodhi bought side lots along his home in Banglatown to start a garden and mini-orchard. Courtesy photo

How do I find someone to endorse my project?

The Land Bank will accept the endorsements of the following people or groups:

If you have a connection to one of these endorsers or know how to reach them, you should be proactive and ask. But even if you don’t, the Land Bank automatically sends out an email to eligible endorsers after you apply for a neighborhood lot. 

What if a lot is owned by the city but not listed on the Detroit Land Bank’s website?

There are several reasons why this might happen. According to Alyssa Strickland, spokesperson for the Land Bank, there could be issues with paperwork or a lien after a demolition which is slowing down the listing process. 

In some cases, the city puts a hold on parcel sales in a particular area where there’s a planning study or development in the works. You can see all those areas here

Residents can call 313-974-6869 or email inquire@detroitlandbank.org to ask about the status of a lot. If it isn’t currently for sale, a client services representative can put in a purchase inquiry — make sure to include your name, contact info and addresses for your home and the lot you want to buy. This may expedite the process of moving the lot towards sale and you’ll be informed when it’s listed. 

What if two people want to buy the same lot?

After receiving the first complete application, there is a 10-day holding period. If another application is submitted and the two potential buyers can’t work out an agreement, then the Land Bank will award the lot to whoever lives closer, or to the person who submitted an application first if they’re equidistant.

Great, now I own a vacant lot. What should I do with it?

Lots of people have simply fenced in their side lot to grow their yard and property. But there are many creative, useful and communal options for your lot which you might consider exploring. 

Detroit Future City, a nonprofit think tank and policy advocate, provides lots of resources to help you determine the use that best fits your and your neighborhood’s situation. Its Working With Lots Field Guide provides a step-by-step process to activating your lot, with sections on organizing your neighbors, taking stock of environmental factors and budgeting for the project. Perhaps most helpfully, it provides 34 potential designs with information on how much money, expertise and upkeep is required for each. 

Sarah Hayosh of DFC also encourages neighbors to work on these projects together. “These sorts of projects are always going to be way more successful and sustainable in the long run if you have a group of people helping to implement it,” she said.

Can I get funding to fix up my vacant lot?

Over the last five years, Detroit Future City has awarded $400,000 to 50 organizations to help with lot design installation. While it isn’t issuing grants in 2021, it is still providing technical assistance

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers grants ranging from $500-$20,000 for community forestry projects. 

Some groups have also crowdfunded to support vacant lot rehabilitation; the platform Patronicity allows solo crowdfunding and offers matching grants in partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. for some public space activation projects led by nonprofits. 

Canfield Consortium lots. Courtesy Detroit Future City

Can you give me some examples of successful projects?

Canfield Consortium, a community and economic development nonprofit on the east side, has undertaken several multi-lot projects using vacant parcels purchased from the Land Bank. It’s built two flower gardens and is currently working on a community pavilion. The nonprofit is also hoping to buy more land that’s frequently used as a dumping spot and replace it with tree plantings and a bus stop.

As a Land Bank community partner, it’s gotten discounts on bulk purchases over the years. It’s also received multiple grants from Detroit Future City and used designs from its Field Guide. 

Salim Lodhi, a Wayne State University student majoring in computer science, went through the Land Bank to buy several side lots around his home in Banglatown just this year. So far he’s planted a mini-orchard and some garden beds for produce. 

“I just wanted to do something for the neighborhood and inspire people,” Lodhi said.

He also wants to expand the garden and is looking to buy seven more lots across the street. Two of those he’ll be able to purchase through the Neighborhood Lot Program. 

Anything else I should know?

Get started now. Organizing your neighbors, taking an inventory of the land and determining your budget take time. Buying a lot from the Land Bank is not instantaneous, requiring an application and waiting period. Before July 1, you should check and see if there’s a side lot available that may become a neighborhood lot. 

Buying a lot at fair market value can also be challenging. Rhonda Theus of Canfield Consortium has run into problems, saying that working with the Land Bank on individual purchases has sometimes been “a very arduous, laborious and frustrating process to go through.” She cited issues like shifting price policies and availability of land.

“A few times we were in the process of purchasing land and suddenly they said it wasn’t available,” Theus said. “That said, as arduous as the process was, we are grateful that there was that vehicle by which we could go and purchase property in order to make the community better.”

Correction: This article originally stated that 1,500 side lots would become neighborhood lots on July 1. That number has been corrected to 15,000.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.