The Vacant Lot Next Door Could Be Yours — Maybe — But First You Have To Clean It Up

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on May 3, 2021 3:11 pm

Several seemingly abandoned lots sit side by side on Clouet Street in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward. Here, the grass is overgrown and the weeds stretch several feet high. There’s shattered glass and discarded trash — a pile of tires and a busted mattress with rusted springs.

The lots look largely the same, but one of them is different. It’s currently up for grabs as part of the newly launched Mow to Own Good Neighbor Program which allows residents to purchase vacant lots adjacent to their homes after they’ve cleaned them up.

Each year, New Orleans incurs considerable expenses caring for blighted properties, and officials have said the city’s blight problem dwarfs available resources.

Overgrown lots pose public health risks and abandoned structures can “become a nexus for bad actors,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a recent tweet.

At a press conference Monday, Cantrell and other members of city government laid out the specifics of the program, which applies to a select number of empty lots with unpaid property taxes.

In addition to saving the city money in maintenance costs, Cantrell said she expects the program to generate wealth by bringing some properties back on the tax rolls.

She also said the program has the potential to create new housing by remediating currently unusable land, and will provide residents with the opportunity to acquire transferable wealth.

Dawn Hebert, president of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, spoke in support of Mow to Own at Monday’s press conference. She said property owners in her community had already stepped up to care for abandoned lots and she expected them to benefit from the program.

Cantrell has been referred to as “the blight tsar” and helped pass an ordinance laying the groundwork for Mow to Own when she served as a city council member. The city’s code division has surveyed more than 2,500 vacant lots since she became mayor in 2019.

This isn’t the first time the city has offered residents the opportunity to purchase neighboring lots.

In 2007, the New Orleans City Council established The Lot Next Door which provided property owners with the opportunity to purchase adjacent New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) property at fair market value. The program sold 1,000 lots by June 2011.

Despite the encouraging number of sales, researchers found the program had more impact in higher-income neighborhoods “where residents were more likely to have the means to acquire an additional lot.”

In Detroit and Cleveland, owner-occupants can purchase a side lot from the city’s land bank for $100. Philadelphia’s Land Bank sells residents plots adjacent to their homes for as little as $1, though they’re still responsible for closing costs.

Compared to these three cities, New Orleans’ program is more costly and restrictive. In Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, residents who share a rear border with a vacant lot can apply to purchase it. In New Orleans, residents are only eligible if they are directly adjacent to the lot on the same side of the street.

Kevin Hill, a deputy attorney with the city’s finance division, told reporters Monday afternoon that he’s expecting the program to face some hurdles and that leaders are willing to “tweak [barriers] to improve the effectiveness of the program.”

How Exactly Does The Program Work?

The city’s newest blight abatement program allows residents to purchase vacant lots adjacent to their own homes after caring for the property for one year.

Participants must live directly adjacent to the lot on the same side of the street, be in good financial standing with the city, and provide a $650 deposit. Applications can be submitted through the city’s One Stop app.

Which Lots Are Available?

The program is in the pilot stage and a limited number of lots are available. Properties were selected based on their adjudication status, title history and size. They must also be free of physical structures.

More than 100 properties were initially available, but that number has dropped to 78. New Orleans City Spokesperson LaTonya Norton said in an email that some residents have stepped up to take care of their properties and pay back taxes since the program launched on April 16.

“They recognize that they could very well lose their properties,” Norton said, explaining the reduction in available properties.

Norton said the number of available lots will be updated daily and that additional lots could be added at a later date.

“I want it to grow as large as it needs to be,” Cantrell said Monday, describing the program. “We also understand that there are residents that have maintained abandoned lots for a mighty long time and may have the appropriate documentation.”

She encouraged anyone caring for lots that aren’t listed to apply for the program, and said the city will do its best to offer additional properties when possible.

Is There Any Guarantee I’ll Actually Be Able To Purchase The Land?

There isn’t. Even if you care for the land for the entire year, the owner could still step forward to claim it before the sale process is completed. By participating in Mow to Own, residents must be willing to assume the risk.

While it’s a “win-win” for the city, the process could be tumultuous for residents, especially since there’s no guarantee they’ll be reimbursed for the money they’ve spent improving the property if the legal owner steps forward.

Are All The Properties On The City’s List Viable?

Right now it’s unclear whether all of the properties on the city’s Mow to Own list have potential buyers. For example, the lot on Clouet Street sits in between a vacant lot (no buyer) and a residential property with unpaid taxes (owner-occupant is currently not eligible).

Norton said in an email that the city sought only to list properties with potential buyers and believes each lot has a viable path forward. In the case of the Clouet Street lot, the resident could conceivably pay back taxes and then apply to purchase the neighboring property.

At the same time, Norton said the list may be imperfect since it was compiled based on computer images of the properties and not in-person visits.

“We reasonably anticipated some outliers in the search for properties, but the application process will allow for a closer evaluation of each,” she said.

Applicants must provide a $650 deposit that will go toward administrative costs for the program including legal fees associated with the adjudication process and site research.

How Much Will I Pay For The Land?

The value of the land will be assessed at the time of application, and applicants are expected to pay the full amount at the end of one year.

$650 deposit will be deducted from the purchase price as well as an $875 credit for successful property care. Applicants must also pay closing costs, which can range from $1,000 to $3,000 as well as title insurance.

The value of each available lot can be found on the Orleans Parish Assessor’s website by entering the address or tax bill number. At the time of sale, the lot will be free of taxes and any other expenses owed to the city.

Will The City Track My Progress?

Yes. The Office of Code Enforcement plans to monitor upkeep and can terminate the agreement at any time. If an applicant fails to uphold their end of the agreement their deposit will be forfeited.

Lateefah Harris, a deputy attorney with the city’s code enforcement division, said residents should document lot improvements by taking photos and should also plan to provide affidavits from neighbors who witnessed the process.

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