Empty Series: In Detroit, it's not squatting … it's blotting (Part 2)

Nov 9, 2011

We’re looking at the challenges of the region’s empty places this month.

For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.

They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence.

They’re not squatters … they’re blotters.

Blot isn’t a bad word.  A design firm coined the term several years ago.  Academia ran with it.

“Blotsare properties between the size of an entire block and just a lot.  So, they are consolidations of multiple lots,” says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who’s mapped blots.

So, families are creating compounds of multiple lots.  Big deal, right?  Well, keep in mind Detroit was built tightly packed with working class homes.  It sliced up blocks with a very quick knife.  So as the city lost 60 percent of its population, it left these gaping holes in the genetic makeup of neighborhoods.  Blotters aren’t waiting for the city to fix that.

“I call it an everyday remaking,” Dewar says.  “It’s every day there’s a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible.  But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city.”

People like space.  Margaret Dewar sampled tax-reverted properties resold by the city, up to 2005.  She found more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.

Still, the easiest way to find blotters in Detroit is to look for a very long fence on a lonely street.

Behind one of them is the house Paula Besheers’ grandfather bought in 1925.

“This has been here in the family for four generations,” she says.  “So it’s like 86 years.”

And then, also fenced off, the four empty lots.  Well, not exactly empty…

“I planted in some cherry trees and two apple trees,” says Besheers’ son Paul Browne, who lives a few blocks from the family home.  “I’m attempting to grow some grape vines.  I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get that going good.”

The little orchard, the raspberry patch, the gardens — they’re a relief from the pit bulls, the burnt house and the emptiness across the street. But there’s a catch.

It turns out, the only lot the family actually owns is the one farthest from the house.  HUD sold it for about a hundred bucks.  Browne says the last he checked, the city owned the next lot in, the county the next one, and the city the one after that.  He says the family tried to buy the middle lots years ago, but were told no.  He says it’s probably time to try again.

“They want to sell it, more than willing to buy it off of them,” he says.

So why go to all this trouble?

“’Cause we live next door to it,” Browne says.  “If you go up the next block from here you’ll see what it would look like.  Just overgrown brush piles.  Trash.  Car parts.   And it’s only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.”

So should cities like Detroit make it easier for residents to take over the vacant space around them?  Detroit’s new planning director Rob Anderson says, basically, yes.

To be clear, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, even post-Katrina New Orleans all have adjacent lot programs on the books already.  In Cleveland, a homeowner can buy the lot next door for as little as a dollar.  In Detroit, two hundred dollars.  Chicago, a thousand.

Rob Anderson says, most importantly, when a homeowner buys the lot next door, they’re taking responsibility for the neighborhood.  They’re also putting land back on the tax rolls.

“Then that’s one parcel that we can rely on a citizen to take care of that the city really can’t afford to take care of,” he says.

Anderson says Detroit has sold about a thousand of these lots in recent years.

Still, the city owns a staggering 60,000 plus parcels of land, most of it vacant.  So the planning department just started reevaluating the adjacent lot program in southwest Detroit, to see how to expedite and promote it.

“We think it’s a tool that really is well suited for this area that we’re working in,” Anderson says.  “And if we can get it right here, it’s easily transferred to the rest of the community.”

Has the tool been underutilized in the past?

“Looks like it to me,” he says.

The program has inherent limitations.  The scale of abandonment in Detroit means many homeowners aren’t just worried about the lot next door.  It’s also the one after that, the one after that, and, in Paula Besheers’ case, the one after that.  But only the vacant parcel right next door meets the guidelines of the city’s current adjacent lot program.  Residents can still buy multiple lots, but they have to go through a different process.

Then, there’s the time factor.  As I was leaving the planning department, an aide mentioned it can take years for residents to get through the bureaucracy of buying the lot next door.  Rob Anderson was shocked.  He said the department’s new goal will be 30 days.  That would bring Detroit in line with cities like Cleveland and Chicago, where it only takes a few months to expand your yard.

*Inform our coverage: Have you taken over empty or abandoned land near you-or know someone who has?