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Farming Urban Wastelands  RSS feed

 
gardener
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Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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I watched an interesting documentary on the housing crisis in Cleveland Ohio. The city has become the proud owner of many abandoned properties and they are demolishing thousands of decrepit homes in an attempt to maintain property value so that neighborhoods don't decay further.

This has created an excellent farming opportunity. It is quite likely that these lots will be sold very cheaply or even given away to anyone who can come up with a better plan than having them become vacant lot dumpsites. In the mid-80s I investigated hundreds of abandoned building lots in Niagara Falls and Tonawanda New York which were available for $25-$100 each. My investigation proved to me that there was no way I could make money building anything on these lots.

During the course of investigating the properties I met an old man who was making a part-time living as a market gardener. He lived in a neighborhood of mostly elderly people since most others had moved in search of employment. His home was completely surrounded by vacant lots. He was shocked when I told him how much this land was available for. It had once been a nice neighborhood and in some ways it still was since many others were keeping their homes in good shape. But many burned out and abandoned structures also blighted the street. We talked about the possibility of him and his wife becoming the owners of these lots and they were very enthusiastic. I spoke to a woman at City Hall about his situation and the fact that he was willing to look after these lots. The price was very reasonable but I knew that the taxes could become a problem. She asked me "how old does he look". I told her maybe 65 or 70 and then she said, "I'll see to it that he gets 25 years tax-free if he agrees to keep those lots in garden or well landscaped". I didn't make any money in Niagara Falls New York but I made some friends,so it was not time wasted.

My initial plan had been to bring houses from the Love Canal toxic waste district which was probably not a very good plan when I think of it now. The houses hadn't yet been condemned but the land had. Economics and some fast acting bureaucrats derailed my bright idea.

I could see a similar outcome for anyone willing to put in a small investment and the time into developing a market garden or aquaponics system in similar neighborhoods. The prices being asked are token and the it's possible that you could receive not only tax relief but also government grants. The urban nature of the project would mean that every thing you produce is needed locally so there would be no need to transport very far. People from the neighborhood could become your labor force. Any decent housing on the plot of land could house the owner and workforce along with a day care or whatever else is necessary. There is likely to be plenty of good houses in the $10,000 range.

In any urban situation it would be wise to have the soil tested for toxins but toxicity problems are much less in residential neighborhoods than they would be in formerly industrial sites. Houses which have been abandoned for many years will have leached out most pesticides and such.

Cities like Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo and many others have run down areas that simply don't contain enough population to warrant rebuilding even if the economy would allow for that which it won't. I believe the highest and best use for this land would be to produce food on it. Formerly tightly built neighborhoods would become more suburban in nature and those neighborhoods would thrive again.

Sometimes opportunity lies at the bottom of the pit of despair.

I'm going to make some calls now to the municipal offices of some of these places just to shop this idea around. I'll post the results in a few days along with any contact information relevant to each city.
 
Posts: 28
Location: Portland, Oregon
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I have been thinking about doing exactly this in Portland, Oregon but I am very overwhelmed by the thought of being the front person on a grassroots movement like this. My other concern is city zoning, I heard rumor that Portland is going to start addressing urban farming by re-zoning areas of the city for small urban farms. It would be a shame to invest in a handful of properties only to find that in a year or two you can't have a garden over a specific size (or chickens, or bees, etc)
 
Dale Hodgins
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Your first stop should be City Hall. There will be someone, or in a city the size of Portland there should be a group of people in charge of urban renewal initiatives. They will have information on what is currently allowed, what is likely to be allowed in the near future and they'll be able to tell you about any municipal, state, or federal money available. If I were doing this I would avoid turning it into a charity or any other entity which requires decision by committee. There's no reason why it can't work as a private farm where things get done instead of talked about.

Does Portland have land which is being virtually given away as it is in northern industrial cities? Generally the more depressed an area is, the more likely City Hall will not oppose your plan. I live in a city where your average building lot is worth $350,000 so nothing like that would make sense here. In many depressed areas municipal governments are overwhelmed with properties which have a negative value, meaning that the cost of removing decrepit buildings and garbage is more than the land is worth. In most cases it would be wise to allow the city to do a complete cleanup and only purchase the property after this has been done. An environmental survey could be done to ensure that you are taking on a huge liability created by past owners.

Houses slated for demolition may contain valuable resources which could be used to fix up those being kept. T-G flooring and bricks are completely recyclable. Patio door glass is the most abundant and efficient product you are likely to find which would make sense to reuse in green houses.
 
Tiffani Nute
Posts: 28
Location: Portland, Oregon
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Dale Hodgins wrote: If I were doing this I would avoid turning it into a charity or any other entity which requires decision by committee. There's no reason why it can't work as a private farm where things get done instead of talked about.



As much as I would love to have a food bank/charity-based farm, there is truth in your statement about things getting done instead of being talked about by a committee. You've given me more to think about, the idea about waiting for the city to clear the land is a good idea. And reclaiming materials from run-down properties, excellent idea! There is a Sustainable Development Commission through the City of Portland that might be able to help. Thanks for all the tips
 
                        
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Another REALLY good point he made was to have the land declared free of any toxic wastes before you get into it. You don't want to get some really cheap land then a year down the road find you are responsible for having all the earth dug up and carted away!

What Growing Power has done could well be used as bargaining chip when dealing with city bureaucrats. Although (I believe)it's a registered non profit, it is very definitely tied to Will Allen in everyone's mind, I think, and there's nothing to say that you can't get a very satisfactory stipend as the head honcho if such things are set up properly. I know a couple of nonprofit organizations which support families, if not in affluence, certainly in comfort, which is as it should be, since they are contributing mightilly to their communities. Non profit doesn't = a Gandhi lifestyle but then it shouldn't mean Paris Hilton's either or people get restless.

There are some advantages to a non profit set up. The main and crucial thing is to make sure you get a board which is supportive of what you want to do and will be an asset and a resource rather than a hindrance. It can/does happen (though certainly not always!) and then it's not such an isolated situation trying to figure everything out by yourself. OTOH some people prefer to do it that way, depends on how you want to go.
 
Dale Hodgins
gardener
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I like the idea of a neighborhood advisory committee which has no real power. They can ask you to do this and that and the other thing and whenever something makes sense, you adopt that idea and they get to tell themselves that they've had input. In that way you can have more than one head working on the problem without giving up veto power.

Sometimes I see businesses which have chosen a name which makes them look like a charity when in fact they are not. I like to see things named accurately. This has been done with thrift stores and with garden developments. At one time I donated a huge number of plantings from my demolition jobs to a community garden. Later it turned out to be a private garden. He put up a few signs inviting people to stop for a look through the chain-link fence. But when I donated, I assumed that this would be a place completely open to the public with park benches etc.. I also know of a thrift store which had a very charitable sounding name. In fact all revenue went to the lady who operated it. A big donation box sat in front of the place and I'm sure the name was helpful.------------------------------------------------------------- one day later.............. In many impoverished areas it may be necessary to market to whatever is left of the middle class. It's an unfortunate reality that many poor people don't eat fresh fruit and vegetables very often. So a certain amount of education about what is healthy and good will be necessary. Many people have not tried vegetables which don't come in a green giant bag. And they've only tried half a dozen fruits. Given the choice and opportunity I think many people would greatly expand their diet to include new foods. This is one of the advantages to having an urban farm. It can serve as an educational facility on diet as well as farming practices.

When my grandmother was young they ate many domestic and wild fruits but by the 1960s she was down to eating apples oranges bananas, strawberries and grapes. That's what supermarkets carried. But now in most affluent areas there are dozens of different fruits and vegetables available and people have expanded their choices to include these. So it's more about availability than affluence or social class. A healthy variety of fruit, vegetables and fish would help to reduce the percentage of fatty red meat, pork and factory chicken which is currently consumed to excess in America's poor neighborhoods. This would do more to combat obesity than any public education campaign on the TV.
 
Dale Hodgins
gardener
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RESULTS

I made a few calls to Cleveland and quickly determined that the land bank has many programs which attempt to put all of this property into some sort of usage. From what I was able to gather the vast majority of properties which have been sold were purchased by neighbors for a nominal fee ranging from $100-$400. Although some tax relief was given I was told I would have to search that out on a property by property basis.

Many more demolitions are scheduled and many properties are being boarded up in anticipation of some future use being found for them. I would be very surprised this doesn't lead to fires started by kids or squatters, break-ins and other problems associated with abandoned buildings. So it is highly likely that many of these perfectly good buildings will be available for next to nothing. Some of these are commercial type buildings which could have their roof removed and replaced with glass to create very inexpensive greenhouses. I would assume you could collect some of the projected demolition cost on these buildings. It should be possible to salvage quite a bit of material from homes slated for demolition on a given plot of land and to have all of the waste diversion credited to you in some way, whether it be through tax relief or purchase price.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I'm a demolition contractor and a beginning farmer. If I were doing a few blocks of Cleveland I would only agree to it if I could work out a way to put at least $1000 per house in my pocket over and above expenses and own the land for free. Considering their housing market and the housing markets of other cities in a similar position, this would not be unreasonable. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp.
323 W. Lakeside Suite 160 Cleveland OH 44113
I've gotten rid of the phone numbers in the hope that this was why the post was rejected.

Strategic Land Assembly

The population of Cuyahoga County’s has declined from over 900,000 in the 1950’s to 397,000 today. The decline in population has been a major contributor to lack of demand for existing housing and subsequent loss of value and abandonment.
The land bank cobbles together numerous properties into usable size parcels for urban agriculture and green space uses. They do environmental surveys and handle all title issues so that anyone wishing to redevelop does not have to deal with these as individual parcels with individual histories. They deal with specialists in asbestos abatement and soil contamination. The results of all surveys are available for new purchasers to view. By having these properties already joined together new owners won't experience huge legal costs or other paper cost that would be associated with the acquisition of many small properties.

No one was able to give me specifics concerning what arrangements have been made regarding tax relief or waiver of purchase price but it appears that the mission of this land Bank and others is to find some reasonable future use for unwanted land. Any money they get for it is a secondary consideration. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

No one I talked to was able to point out big success stories specific to urban farming. They have created many parks and public gardens and they've enlarged many single-family yards. They state urban agriculture as an important component of future plans. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If I were seriously shopping for this land I would offer them one dollar per lot and ask for many years of tax relief. I would agree to create a facility of a given size which employs a given number of people. These neighborhoods need employment above all else so it shouldn't be a hard sell.

I have several young relatives who are landless so I'll shop this idea around to them. I would agree to handle all matters concerning acquisition and demolition and salvage work since that is my specialty.

If there's a better way to get a good piece of agricultural land right on the doorstep of the marketplace while spending little or no money, I'd like to know what it is.

Thank you: Dale Hodgins--- Big-time developer, if you give me the land for free.



Work for the Land Bank
The Cuyahoga Land Bank is actively seeking contractors If you are in any of the following fields and would like to work with them, call --- Removed to meet publishing standards.
 
Dale Hodgins
gardener
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Pam Hatfield wrote:

What Growing Power has done could well be used as bargaining chip when dealing with city bureaucrats. Although (I believe)it's a registered non profit, it is very definitely tied to Will Allen in everyone's mind, I think, and there's nothing to say that you can't get a very satisfactory stipend as the head honcho if such things are set up properly.

It's funny that Pam mentioned Growing Power here. I had seen some of Will Allen's YouTube videos but didn't know the name of his organization when I posted this thread. Two days later I was writing an article on Will Allen and Growing Power after doing some Internet searches for urban farming and aquaponics.

One idea leads to another and another.

I wrote a nice blurb on Will Allen in the permaculture section, titled---Will Allen Urban Farmer, Aquaponics Researcher.

Had I paid more attention to Pam's posting I might have put all of that information here instead of on a separate thread since they are definitely related.

I think for most large plots of land used in urban agriculture it would be best to work with the seasons provided by nature rather than try to do everything in artificially heated greenhouses. Those greenhouses do have their uses and provided they can be heated in a sensible manner, they're an important component of urban agriculture.

We often hear of the urban heat island effect. In the North this is not necessarily a disadvantage, since spring starts a little earlier and fall comes a little later to the city. This along with greenhouses gives the urban grower a distinct advantage when growing certain warm weather – long season crops.

I tried to add this comment to the bottom of my last one. I'm not sure if adding the quote automatically leads to creation of another posting or if there's something I'm not doing right. Any ideas on this?
 
pollinator
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Location: Federal Way, WA - Western Washington (Zone 8 - temperate maritime)
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Watch "Urban Roots" asap.... about city farming in Detroit, in abandon properties, etc. Very inspirational. Also, it didn't take long for a venture capitalist to see the opportunity for big profits and get a leg up with the bureaucrats looking for tax revenue. Also, "Farm City" by Novella Carpenter is fun read about farming in the ghetto.
 
Dale Hodgins
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It looks like a good program for anyone wishing to operate on a charitable basis.

For myself, I would employ those kids and make an allotment of healthy food part of their payment. It could also be worked out that a portion of their pay is saved so that they can purchase some of these vacant lots themselves and operate independently after a while. With vacant lots going for less than $100 in some areas, their ownership is within the reach of productive 12-year-olds. So this is a huge opportunity for poor families who want to teach their children about self-determination.

I think they would learn much more from a program where their income is directly related to their production and where there is no requirement to give any of the produce to those not involved in its production. A kid involved in a program like that could emerge into adulthood as owner or part owner in a viable, for-profit business. If they move on to other things they could sell their interest in the enterprise. In neighborhoods where lots of houses are being cleared out, those living in the neighborhood are given first dibs on lots adjacent to their own. Any child living in one of these houses could have a good part-time job literally at their doorstep.

I've employed many young people raised on farms and I've employed many raised in the welfare system. Those who develop useful skills early tend to continue to outperform those who rely on others for their sustenance.

On my own farm I'm offering kids the opportunity to work off everything from rent to camping vacations on my bus. There will never be a requirement for them to give away any of what they produce. Anything they earn will be 100% theirs and only they will determine how it is spent.
 
Dale Hodgins
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I've checked into this some more. There is definitely resistance to many proposals which aren't tied to group decision making and sharing with those not involved. When you consider that there are plenty of farms available outside of these cities , it's hard to justify purchasing land which is subject to outside control. Generations of looking to government for help may have poisoned the locals against those who operate outside of that mindset. When a city looses 60% of it's population, those who remain tend to not be titans of industry.

I think there is bound to be resistance from people who paid good money for their homes in years past when they see neighboring properties sell for a pittance. Conversion to farmland at $100 per lot would leave no doubt as to the value of remaining houses. In reality, some of these places may still be overpriced.
 
                        
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A different mindeset perhaps, but seems to me that it would enhance the value of the homes in the neighborhood to be in the middle of a green belt of living plants instead of vandalized buildings. I am wondering how much of the resistance rests on the idea that people will come in and pick up lots and tax breaks and all sorts of perks for a quick chorus of Ï've got a Lovely BUnch of Coconuts and then do nothing at all with them until the land value goes up again at twhich point they sell them for pots of money.

I would think if you could get the neighborhood involved then it might stand a better chance of acceptance, but that's only speculation I haven't looked into it as you have. I just know that in the village where I live, the council has become very suspicious of people who arrive with big plans as our experience has not been a positive one with any of these people. So now people who MIGHT be bringing Good Things to the village are not treated with any great deal of sympathy or cooperation. Unfortunate, perhaps, but the way it is when so many people are really shysters talking a good line but just looking for a chance to make a quick buck and go on to the next sucker....
 
Dale Hodgins
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The land is sold as agricultural with tax relief attached to that use only. It's quite simple to register usage covenants and to stipulate a revised purchase price should a different use be found for these properties. This isn't something that speculators have been jumping at. Neighbourhood committees have chased good development away. The fact is that nothing is going to return these cities to their former glory and tax from now rural land can't begin to fund the social programs envisioned by those who grew up when a solid tax base existed. For development to move forward those not involved need to get out of the way. This land cannot support them all. It would make no economic sense for a farmer to do anything if they are parisitised by the neighbors. The new owner's responsability should be the same as for a rural farmer. Pay the taxes, don't pollute the land etc.
 
Dale Hodgins
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You probably noticed that I deleted phone numbers in order to meet publishing standards. This was not the problem. It turns out that I had put in long dash lines which make the page too long. I reported myself 2 years later, then went back and figured that I had breached some rule.

Thank you moderators for letting me fix the many old threads where I made this mistake of separating thoughts with these lines. I've also had a problem with posting anything from Google Images. This also makes the page too wide.
----------------------------------------------------------------
Now let's talk about getting vacant lots for free and farming them.
 
steward
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A concern was made early in this thread about 'What happens when the city rezones the area?'

Perhaps a solution would be to have the city/county put a covenant into the deed that would 'grandfather' in existing practices.

For example, if you are raising egg layers (with roosters), and the city changes the chicken laws to exclude roosters (which most cities do), as long as you have an existing laying flock with roosters, you would be exempt from new changes.

All farming practices which are already in effect would be protected from future changes with 'grandfather' rules incorporated into the deed.

Most city councils & zoning commissions are heavily populated by developers and wealthy landowners. Once they feel that their lands are once again valuable, they may wish to push you out of their way. Having such a covenant in the deed would give you some relief from future greed by the decision makers.

 
Dale Hodgins
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I would love to take on dozens of lots at $25 each and have the city grow to the point where it all gets zoned residential or industrial. In the case of this sort of lottery win, I'd be too busy counting unhatched chickens, to care much about roosters.

I knew a guy who bought many $100 and $200 houses in a closed uranium town. 25 years later, he was ready to retire and the mine re-opened. He went from crazy guy who is tossing his money to the wind to crappy house tycoon in a week.
 
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