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Standing on the shoulders of kings: Urban land reclamation conference wraps

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/20/10 @ 2:48pm

The third and final day of the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference had an almost festive atmosphere that you find at the end of a long conversation about weighty issues, such as, how are cities faring and what will make them vital again?

The morning leading up to the keynote luncheon by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan began and ended (for me) with sessions that exemplify the beauty and bounty of urban land reuse. They provided examples of what Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson calls the "self-help economy": growing food, gardens that act as healing spaces, and one super cool bi-racial couple in Flint, Michigan who parlayed a karate studio into urban farming under the pretext of a self-defense regimen.

In the "Activating Vacant Land and Preserving Urban Green Space" session Miriam Avins highlighted the important work of Baltimore Green Space, the nonprofit she heads and which is systematically conveying publicly owned land already used as community space (through a self-help nuisance abatement) to land trusts for permanent preservation. The results are stunning: The Duncan Street Miracle Garden is a 20-year-old organic community garden on what was a site of trash dumping and violent crime. Today, Avins says, while flipping through slides of lavender coreopsis beds in the shape of a cross and rows of greens against a backdrop of low-rise public housing, 50% of the food produced at the garden goes back to the community through food pantries, soup kitchens and the gardeners.

Feeling buoyed, I dip out and catch the tail end of the "Vacant Properties Clinic: Diagnosing Problems and Finding Practical Treatments." It's the Q&A and the panel has been asked to respond to the issue of finding the responsible party on Real Estate Owed property.

"The problem with county records is the company who owns the lien could be a multinational," says Jennifer Leonard at the Center for Community Progress. "By the time a citation hits their desk, it could be three months, and who knows if it's going to the right person."

One possible solution is to tap the powerful industry database of Mortgage Electronic Recording System (MERS) which assigns a number to every loan that stays with that loan regardless of who buys it. The database makes available the individual within the multinational who is responsible for that loan and their contact information.

I ask the panel how a city could encourage block clubs, as we've seen in Cleveland, tp do more guerilla gardening on tax delinquent property.

David Park says his employer, Kansas City, MO government has an "adopt-a-lot" policy that will pay neighbors who are interested in mowing or gardening on a vacant lot next door out of their general maintenance fund.

Dora and Jacky "grandmaster" King are taking a streetfight to the vacancy issue with the Harvesting Earth Farm (click to see the awesome video "The Kings of Flint").

"We're trying to build a local place-based economy that can't pick up and leave like the auto industry," Jacky, an 8th degree blackbelt in Karate said during the "Beyond Community Gardening: Building a Local Food Economy" session. "It's a holistic approach on how to defend yourself."

With support from the Ruth Mott Foundation, Dora and Jacky set up a homesteading operation ? their house is across the street from their city farm where they spread the gospel on growing and eating fresh food, working with kids on building their bodies and self-esteem.

"You have to be part of your community before you can change things," Dora says.

"Land isn't something you can grow," Jacky adds. "They took all of our jobs, but the (Genessee County) land bank has land for $1. Now we have chickens, bees, goats and a tractor. We have distribution and value-added products. We have to recreate our economy and leave seeds to the next generation."

At the keynote luncheon, Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced a $4.25 million grant to the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) to promote the creation of a regional smart growth plan. It is one of 45 Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grants issued by the Obama administration, totaling $100 million. One of the primary reasons NOACA was approved for a grant, Donovan said, was because it is a multi-county, multi-stakeholder agency that stands to impact thousands.

"It's the biggest federal planning investment in a generation," Donovan said. "We're going to invest in this generation and the next to have more transportation choices, energy efficiency and jobs."

"We're going to turn neighborhoods around because of you who are committed to the cities that make this country great," he continued. "It's appropriate that we're here in Cleveland. Ohio has felt the pain longer with population and job loss. The problems we face keeping people in their homes we will root out and stop. We cannot stop every foreclosure, but we plan to partner with state's attorney general to help servicers get it right."

Donovan pointed to efforts like the Cuyahoga County land bank and HUD's new agreement to give "First Look" priority to the land bank before tax delinquent properties face foreclosure.

"We should be creating wholesale strategies," he added, pointing to Montgomery County and Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton that faced 30% decline in housing values with 1-2 vacant houses on every block. The county targeted all of its NSP funds to acquire and rehab 35 homes to high energy efficiency standard. Property values have stabilized.

"As serious as the challenge is you face, you have a federal partner ready to help you make tough choices ahead."

During the Q&A, Bobbi Reichtell of Neighborhood Progress, Inc. asked Donovan if HUD could revise the guidelines that tie the use of Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants to the built environment of vacant properties, to expand the program to include green space creation, urban gardening and stormwater solutions.

"We tried mightily to not have it be a one size fits all solution," he replied, "but without a statutory change it's not going to change. There are more flexible funds such as CDGB. We realize its hard to find funding for catalytic ideas that change land use, so we proposed the Catalytic Program because work around brownfields is too often siloed."

A Cleveland Building Department official asked Donovan if HUD was committed to tearing down blighted properties in its portfolio, adding "when HUD is the owner of a vacant property, the normal rules don't apply."

The Secretary (showing an impressive grasp of the statistics on the ground) shot back that HUD holds only 5% of the vacant properties in Cleveland, and that it's working with the county land bank on properties that it controls to give them a first look. "Where there are problems, we'll demolish our own properties on our dime," he promised.

U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response Mathy Stanislaus wrapped up with an announcement of the winners of EPA's $4 million brownfields planning grants. Among the 23 pilot projects, the road building project through Cleveland's Central neighborhood dubbed "Opportunity Corridor" received $175,000 to "Develop strategies for facilitating the reuse of existing infrastructure, including taking into account potential infrastructure investments needed to accommodate alternative future uses of brownfields properties."

* * *

As a resource to begin framing a conversation around solutions, conference host Center for Community Progress released a report, entitled Restoring Properties, Rebuilding Communities: Transforming Vacant Properties in Today's America, outlining successful strategies for reclaiming vacant properties, featuring case studies of specific cities that have found innovative, successful solutions.

"We need to focus on vacant and abandoned properties not just as a problem, but as a resource," said Dan Kildee, president of the Center for Community Progress, "Vacant houses can be turned back into homes. Obsolete factories can become incubators for emerging technologies. Even older cities that are losing population can maintain strong downtowns and neighborhoods and also replace blighted areas with green space."

Go here to download the report.

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