Extend Large Lots across Chicago

The city is littered with more than 15,000 vacant lots, predominantly located on the South and West sides, which are often hotbeds for crime and gang activity. To address the issue in Englewood, the city launched a program allowing residents to repurpose the abandoned areas—a plan that is flawed in several ways but could be a model for reducing empty lots across the city.

From March 20 until April 21, the city piloted the Large Lot Program, which put more than 5,000 empty lots up for sale in Englewood and the surrounding areas for $1 to encourage locals to turn the blighted areas into community resources. To be eligible to purchase the land, applicants must already own property on the same block and be current on their property taxes. Buyers can’t open businesses on the plots because they are residentially zoned, according to the city’s description of the initiative, meaning they are intended for nonprofit community efforts. While the program would help restore a blighted neighborhood, the requirements are too narrow and hinder an otherwise hopeful initiative.

Englewood is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods: The median annual household income is $19,623, which is less than half of Chicago’s median income of $47,408, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. While the hyper-local nature of the Large Lot Program was intended to allow residents to take their neighborhood into their own hands, most low-income residents do not have the necessary resources to develop the land. Furthermore, 71.6 percent of Englewood residents are not homeowners, which severely limits the number of eligible applicants. 

Another questionable aspect of the application process is it did not require applicants to present a plan of action. The only stipulation for owning one of the lots is that buyers must own it for five years before selling it to prevent them from purchasing property and then flipping it for a profit without considering its effect on the neighborhood. Requiring a plan of action would eliminate the potential for applicants to buy the land just to flip it for a profit. 

Some community members may develop the lots into urban gardens or community spaces, a move that would only benefit the neighborhood, but the lots would better serve the community if they were used as sites for modernized housing. Nearly half of the residential buildings in Englewood were built before 1939, according to the Census Bureau, and many are dilapidated, so constructing more contemporary units would update the neighborhood.

However, because the city limited the buying availability to nonprofits and residents who live on the same block, the buyers who could most effectively build on the lots were excluded from purchasing them. 

Should the city implement such a program on a larger scale to address its 10,000 other empty lots, it should open the bidding process to businesses and residents within a one-mile radius rather than only one block and require them to submit a plan of action with their application. That way, business owners looking to expand their enterprises could purchase the lots and apply for re-zoning, allowing them to open up shop and encourage new jobs in economically depressed areas.

The city should carefully study the results of this initiative and adjust accordingly before attempting to replicate it elsewhere. If it proves successful, expanding it to include neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Garfield Park and Pullman would help reduce the city’s stock of unused land and thereby reduce crime. Filling the empty lots in blighted neighborhoods requires communication and careful consideration, and though the city’s main goal is to get abandoned properties off its hands, it should provide residents with the resources to use them in the most productive way possible.