Urban Farming, Anyone?

I’m too swamped with work these days to do much but skim headlines, but I couldn’t resist clicking through and reading this story. Seems that some foreclosed properties in the City of Detroit are in such bad repair, and owners are so desperate to get them off the books, that houses are actually being let go for just one dollar.

The sale price of the home may be an anomaly, but illustrates both the depths of the foreclosure crisis in Detroit and the rapid scuttling of vacant homes in some of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods.

The home, at 8111 Traverse Street, a few blocks from Detroit City Airport, was the nicest house on the block when it sold for $65,000 in November 2006, said neighbor Carl Upshaw. But the home was foreclosed last summer, and it wasn’t long until “the vultures closed in,” Upshaw said.

“The siding was the first to go. Then they took the fence. Then they broke in and took everything else.”

Tuesday, the home was wide open. Doors leading into the kitchen and the basement were missing, and the front windows had been smashed. Weeds grew chest-high, and charred remains marked a spot where the garage recently burned.

Put on the market in January for $1,100, the house had no lookers other than the squatters who sometimes stayed there at night. Facing $4,000 in back taxes and a large unpaid water bill, the bank that owned the property lowered the price to $1.

On Tuesday, Realtor.com listed one other single-family home, one duplex and one empty lot at $1 in Detroit.

Dollar property sales are the financial hangover from the foreclosure crisis, said Anthony Viola of Realty Corp. of America in Cleveland.

Lenders that made loans to unqualified buyers during the height of the subprime market now find themselves the owners of whole neighborhoods of vacant, deteriorating homes.

“No one has much sympathy for these banks that made subprime loans,” Viola said. “And in some cities like Cleveland, judges aren’t letting them sit on the properties — they’re ordering them to tear them down or sell them.”

So desperate was the bank owner of 8111 Traverse Street to unload the property that it agreed to pay $2,500 in sales commission and another $1,000 bonus for closing the $1 sale; the bank also will pay $500 of the buyer’s closing costs. Throw in back taxes and a water bill, and unloading the house will cost the bank about $10,000.

“It doesn’t make sense in some neighborhoods to keep paying costs and costs,” Colpaert said. “It can make more financial sense to give it away.”

This got me thinking: I wonder if it’s possible to acquire one of these urban properties, tear down the house, and somehow use the land for food production? The property must have city water and power. Some remaining portion of the house could be used to store garden tools. I doubt that livestock would be possible, but I bet a person could establish a large market garden and get away with a keeping a pen of laying hens. You could move the pen up and down the unused portions of the garden as a tractor, using the hens to destroy the weeds and return fertility to the soil. (You’d need someplace to move them in the winter time, though.) Chickens are probably technically illegal in the city, but who’s going to report you? Hens are quiet, and any nosy neighbors could be bought off with free eggs.

The key, I suppose, would be to put a secure fence around the perimeter. If neighbors have stripped the house of everything valuable, just imagine what they’d do to a market garden.

Anybody know of anyone who’s tried doing this kind of thing with an abandoned city property? Could be an interesting way for someone stuck in the city to acquire some gardening skills, and prepare for a move to the country.

4 thoughts on “Urban Farming, Anyone?

  1. The concept is both intriguing. It also offers solutions for urban blight. I seem to remember a fellow in Chicago doing something similar to what you are getting at. I’ll “dig” and get back to you if I find anything.


  2. I know that vacant lots in rough urban parts of Chicago have been reclaimed as community gardens. Would be interesting if someone had actually purchased a lot for that purpose.


  3. Commercial farming is taking root in U.S. cities, and what is enabling it is SPIN-Farming. SPIN is a franchise-ready farming system that makes it possible to earn $50,000+ from a half-acre. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm commercially, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them. By using backyards and front lawns and neighborhood lots as their land base, SPIN farmers are recasting farming as a small business in a city or town and helping to accelerate the shift back to a more locally-based food system. You can see some of these entrepreneurial farmers in action at http://www.spinfarming.com


  4. We could really use SPIN here in our town. They just reopened the farmer’s market in a central (and poor) location one day a week. The farmers sell out within an hour. Totally serious! There are also possibly hundreds of empty lots across the area with no real ownership. I heard of one lady in our state who rents a flood prone strip of land from her town for $5 a year and grows cut flowers. City beautification + profit=win/win/win! [We are in Oklahoma]


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