Solutions for securing rights to vacant lots stewarded by residents may include community land trusts, purchase programs
This story is published in partnership with Outlier Media.
Last summer, Sherrie Smith was confused and upset when she received an email saying the garden she’d been tending for three years would be destroyed. She had started growing at the Focused Hands Community Garden, on Detroit’s west side, as a way to provide food and do something positive for her neighborhood. But she never owned the garden’s land—the nonprofit Focus: HOPE did.
Smith’s story is far from unique among Detroit’s urban gardeners. Many residents start gardens to make the most of abandoned lots being used for dumping and illegal activity in their neighborhoods. Often, they start growing on land they don’t own, leaving their gardens at risk when property owners decide to develop or sell that property.
In Smith’s case, she came across the land in 2018 when she began working for Focus: HOPE as a neighborhood fellow, a position that allowed her to work on community planning and outreach for the Hope Village Farmers Market.
She said the property was “an overgrown garbage dumping ground” when she found it – a garden had been built on the property about a decade earlier but had been neglected. Neighbors told her the property was owned by Focus: HOPE, so Smith asked Focus: HOPE CEO Portia Roberson if she could garden there. According to Smith, Roberson agreed verbally but was clear the organization couldn’t pay her for the work on the garden.
Roberson said there was never any agreement between the organization and Smith.
Between 2018 and 2021 Smith said she invested time and money into the garden, which had already been named Focused: Hands. She wanted to purchase the land but said repeated attempts to contact Roberson went ignored.
Then in August 2021, Smith received an email from Focus: HOPE’s facilities manager informing her that the garden would be demolished by the end of the month. She published an open letter on social media, prompting the community to call and email Focus: HOPE on her behalf. After several weeks, Smith was finally able to discuss the garden’s future with Roberson.
Smith said Roberson verbally offered her a low-cost, long-term lease at around $2 per year for 50 years, which she declined because she feared the agreement wouldn’t be honored if new leadership came to the organization. Smith decided to stop investing resources in the garden and rebuild elsewhere.
“We have let Ms. Smith know that the land on which the garden is located is available for purchase at fair market value,” Roberson wrote to Outlier Media/Planet Detroit in an email.
City farming advocates say it’s time for Detroit gardeners to gain a stake in that land in exchange for their investment—because those gardeners shoulder the cost of materials, time, and labor to clean up and beautify abandoned lots left unkempt by their owners. Situations like Smith’s have prompted Detroit’s community gardeners to begin experimenting with solutions for securing land tenure for their gardens.
Some options for establishing land tenure include purchasing land, often through the Detroit Land Bank; forming a special fund to support community gardeners in purchasing their land; and launching conservation land trusts. These solutions aim to avoid a situation where a gardener’s investment of time and money is at risk because they don’t own the parcel of land they work on.
Land ownership and community gardens
Disputes over land between owners and community gardeners are not unique to Detroit. A symposium hosted by Equity Trust in 2014 brought together a group of more than 35 urban agriculture organizations throughout the northeastern U.S. and found many of them were facing similar issues. Common themes were insecure land tenure, strained relationships with landowners, unviable short-term leases and destroyed gardens.
“I would be shocked if you could find an urban farming organization that didn’t have those kinds of conflicts,” said Jim Oldham, director of Equity Trust, who sees land as a community resource. “Communities should be able to make use of it for their needs,” he said.
Detroit growers who see vacant, often blighted and neglected properties as opportunities to feed and beautify their neighborhood share those sentiments.
Understanding Detroit’s economic landscape and history is an important part of the conversation. For decades, abandoned and overgrown properties have created eyesores that can make residents feel unsafe.
“When we experienced the housing collapse in Detroit, within years I could stand on my porch and see 20 different vacant properties,” Rushdan said of her neighborhood on Detroit’s lower east side, where she has lived for 12 years. “It becomes a nuisance. People are coming in and scrapping materials. The grass is up to your forehead. There’s a person on drugs in a vacant house. I feared for my kids riding their bikes in our neighborhood.”
But Alyssa Strickland, spokesperson for the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), emphasized that gardeners must find out who owns the land before they start gardens, even if the property appears to be vacant. Otherwise, they will continue to risk losing their hard work.
Part of the DLBA’s mission is to restore the more than 63,000 vacant parcels in its inventory to productive use and “to establish more land ownership opportunities for residents.” But many applicants of the land reuse program complain about confusing applications and a lengthy, unclear process.
Gardener Alice Bagley said she tried for six years to purchase the DLBA-owned land she had been growing on since 2014. She was met with a litany of bureaucratic barriers while trying to buy the land in Virginia Park at Clairmount Avenue, between Third Street and the Lodge Freeway.
“You can apply and never hear back,” she said. “It’s always on the resident to do the follow-up with the Land Bank to check if anyone has even seen the application.”
Finally, in 2021, the DLBA informed Bagley that all land sales in the area were on hold because the Planning & Development Department (PDD) was conducting a planning study for the Clairmount-12th Street neighborhood of the Herman Kiefer development project.
Strickland acknowledged that otherwise qualified applicants could be prevented from purchasing parcels when the city’s revitalization departments issue a project hold for the neighborhood. But PDD’s Deputy Director Katy Trudeau said land holds for development studies are a thing of the past and that PDD has “almost entirely lifted all of those land holds.”
But DLBA project manager Sara Elbohy explained that the city’s other development agencies could also issue project holds. A land review area map is available on the DLBA’s website to help potential purchasers determine if a parcel is subject to a development hold, but it has not been updated since 2020. The map is color-coded with light tan sections representing “project coordination” areas and darker orange sections for project holds. According to Elbohy, project coordination areas require projects to complement the city’s determined priorities for use, whereas project holds completely restrict sales based on the property type and the use.
During the planning study preventing her land purchase, Bagley attended several stakeholder meetings, attempting to make her case to keep the garden she had been running for more than five years. Ultimately, she lost the garden to a deal between the City of Detroit and New York-based developer Ron Castellano.
Erin Bevel is an urban farming activist, interim board president for the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund. She said these experiences illustrate a disconnect between the wants of residents and what local officials think is best for Detroit.
“You have these government institutions whose values and things they’re trying to don’t align with the values of the community they are supposed to serve,” Bevel said. “How are they gonna come in and tell you what’s best for you?”
You’ve heard this story before
Bagley’s and Smith’s stories are just two of many in which residents in Detroit have lost gardens they’ve tended for years because they didn’t own the land. In 2011, a dispute between Birdtown Community Garden and doggy daycare business Canine to Five resulted in the destruction of a community garden. Birdtown had been operating in a vacant lot on Cass Avenue in Midtown for eight years before Canine to Five opened up shop next door and wanted to buy the lot to expand its business. This meant demolishing the garden, forcing Birdtown to relocate.
The City of Detroit owned the lot. The City Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee sided with Canine to Five, citing the thousands of dollars the city would receive annually in taxes. Then-Councilmember Ken Cockrel Jr. said, “I’m a huge supporter of urban gardening and urban farming, but the other hat I wear is chair of the council’s Budget, Audit and Finance Committee, and it should not be a news flash to anyone that this city is broke.”
Vacant land disputes in Detroit go back even further. The first time one of Tuka Rivers’ gardens was demolished was in the late 1980s.
“My first community garden was at John R. and Canfield. It’s now a parking lot for the VA Hospital. Then, I had another garden that I did with a bunch of women on Second and Hancock. It used to be the garden stage for Dally in the Alley. Well, now that’s a parking lot, too,” she said.
After that, Rivers built Spirit Farms in North Corktown on five parcels of land behind Trinity Episcopal Church, which is now known as Spirit of Hope. She said she had been guerilla gardening there since 2002, poking holes in the ground with a stick and dropping seeds in.
In 2007, the church and garden became a multipurpose gathering space where Rivers operated a soup kitchen. Though the church did not own the land behind it, Rivers said she befriended the leadership at the church who supported her efforts. She said she was operating under the impression that the church would purchase the lots, but they never did. The church closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, the North Corktown Neighborhood Association owns one of Spirit Farms’ lots. Treasurer Will McDowell said a few years ago the organization bought several vacant lots. They operate these lots as “community-managed open spaces,” completely maintained by neighbors and volunteers who have a stake in the land. McDowell said the association would be open to exploring a partnership with Spirit Farms, perhaps by developing a low-cost, long-term lease agreement.
An agreement like that would require “trust on both sides,” said Elbohy, who hasn’t heard of a successful partnership like that between a landowner and farmer in Detroit. However, she says it’s theoretically possible.
Faith-based or nonprofit organizations in Detroit can register with the DLBA as a “community partner” and purchase land on behalf of a farmer. The nonprofit obtains the deed in their organization’s name and then transfers it to the grower after the DLBA releases its ownership interest in the property.
Bagley, the Virginia Park gardener, said her community partner application with Central Detroit Christian was denied because she operated as a for-profit business.
Although other community partners have purchased land on behalf of block clubs with LLCs, Elbohy explained the DLBA created the rule to prevent “straw buyers” from buying properties for investment. She said block clubs operate within the spirit of the rule. A preexisting garden could operate with a similar intent.
The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund offers resources to help guide its award recipients through the DLBA’s often-perplexing purchasing processes. Eighteen of the fund’s 30 awardees from 2020 have closed on their purchase agreements with the DLBA so far. The remaining awardees, including the 40 grant recipients recently awarded in 2021, are in various stages of the process. One of those awardees is Sherrie Smith, who decided to take her expertise from Focused Hands to start a community garden even closer to her home; this time, on land she owns.
While the DBFLF sets a precedent of putting land ownership into the hands of local Black farmers, a conservation land trust can ensure long-term land preservation. In a conservation land trust, a nonprofit organization acquires development rights to a parcel and commits to working with the community to preserve that greenspace.
In 2006, Miriam Avins established a conservation land trust called Baltimore Green Space in Maryland after her community garden faced a threat from a developer who wanted to turn it into a parking lot. Avins and her network of gardeners worked with the city’s planning department to establish the trust. City-owned, community-managed spaces that have existed for at least five years can apply to join the trust. Once accepted, the city transfers ownership to Baltimore Green Space, and the land cannot be sold to developers.
Baltimore Green Space Director Katie Lautar advises Detroit gardeners to find allies within the city government and be patient.
“The language that city officials understand and the language that gardeners use is different,” she said. “Land is eternal, so all things attached to preserving land take time. You have to move at a steady pace and really develop how you want to put this together for your city.”
In Detroit, Jerry Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Farm and co-founder of the DBFLF, worked with the Detroit Justice Center in 2021 to develop the Detroit Cultivator’s Community Land Trust. It’s the first of its kind in the city. The nonprofit has begun purchasing “as much land as possible” in the North End neighborhood and depositing it into the trust. An interim board has already decided to dedicate 3.5 acres to food production for 30 years.
Hebron said she sees the combination of the land trust and the network of DBFLF farmers as a vital resource for building a sustainable agriculture infrastructure in Detroit. “For the next 10 years of farming particularly, there is still a lot of growth, and there are opportunities where we can really be impactful in terms of food sovereignty moving forward.”