WEST ENGLEWOOD — For decades, Gwendolyn Evans has had vacant lots for next-door neighbors.
Like other West Englewood residents, Evans said vacant lots bring problems like litter and loitering. They're a neighborhood eyesore, the 64-year-old said.
And many vacant lots, like the ones next to Evans on South Wolcott Avenue, also cost the city money. Currently, there are about 13,700 city-owned parcels which do not bring in any property taxes.
But an initiative announced earlier this year aims to change that. The city's Large Lot program, which is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's larger five-year housing plan, is offering residential vacant lots for just $1.
In March, the city launched a pilot program to sell lots in a 13-mile pilot area that includes Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park and Woodlawn.
Of the 3,500 parcels available in the pilot area, the city received applications for about 550 lots, according to records from the city's Department of Planning and Development.
Evans applied for one of two lots next to her home, and her neighbor applied for the other. She learned about the program near the April deadline and was "running all over" to make sure her application met all the requirements.
"Up and down stairs. Go here, go there, get this notarized. ... It took a whole day, but it was worth it," Evans said. "If the opportunity comes along to get the lot for next to nothing, why not take advantage of it?"
The city is sifting through the 550 applications to determine which meet the requirements, and the Planning and Development Department is expected to present qualified applicants to the City Council for approval as early as July, said department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco.
Strazzabosco said the program is far from the first time the city has sold land for $1.
"It is unusual for the city to sell hundreds of parcels at the same time for a dollar. That's what makes this program so unique," he said. "This is the first time we've ever done it specifically for people who own property on the block to be able to pick up land either next to their house or down the street."
The greater Englewood area in particular struggles with vacant lots and vacant properties. Roughly 20 percent of all city-owned land — about 13,700 lots — is located in Englewood and West Englewood, according to city data.
Between 2000 and 2010, the area lost more than 19,000 residents, about a quarter of its population, according to Census figures.
The city has tried a number of ways to get land back into private hands and on city tax rolls, but has been met with varying degrees of success.
Take, for instance, 6041 S. Wolcott Ave., located next door to Evans' home.
In 1986, the home there went into foreclosure and was sold the following year at public auction. With no private buyer interested, the city purchased the land for $4,298.41, records show.
Soon afterward, the house on the lot was torn down, and the land remained vacant for years.
Then in June 2010, the Council agreed to sell the lot, along with 13 other in the neighborhood, to a private developer for $1 apiece. The plan was part of former Mayor Richard M. Daley's "New Homes for Chicago" program.
The idea was to sell the lots to a private company, Chicago Area Developers, which would then build single-family homes and receive city subsidies to sell them at a reduced cost. The development deal, which was named the "Englewood Estates" program, passed the Council with a vote of 48-0, records show.
But just three months after the deal was approved by the Council, the development company's owner, Frank Dimperio, filed for bankruptcy, and the deal died before the city could officially hand over the land.
But that didn't stop Daley from touting the project months later at a news conference in Englewood.
Today, all 14 lots in the program are still owned by the city and remain vacant.
'More skin in the game'
There are success stories when it comes to selling lots for $1, though, and the city points to the many deals done by the NeighborSpace Land Trust to establish things like community gardens.
The "Large Lot" program will allow neighborhood residents and nonprofits to buy vacant lots to develop them or create side yards or gardens. Annual property taxes would vary by lot, but estimates are $300 to $600, according to a city spokesman.
Even if nothing is built on a lot, neighborhood residents said they believe the program will address some of the problems that come with vacant land.
Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, said people in general tend to care for property when they have "a little bit more skin in the game."
"There's something about putting your own money on the table — even if it's a dollar but also the taxes — that I think people take a little bit more pride and ownership because it's actually a deed that's in their name," Butler said.
Some residents, like Evans, already take care of the vacant lots next to their homes. Evans has fenced the parcel in and planted some flowers, but Large Lots would allow her to add that land to her property value if she ever wanted to sell, Strazzabosco said.
"It serves the purpose of giving people the opportunity to give a bigger footprint to their properties or picking up a property down the block," he said. "They can add to their own property values."
Butler, who said RAGE was consulted and helped shape the program, said residents do have concerns about buying the $1 lots. Most are worried about fines from the city that come with owning the lots or the fear that property taxes could increase on the land.
Overall, although far from being a silver bullet, the program is a promising way to approach the problem of vacant land in Englewood and West Englewood, Butler said.
"It's a lot of inventory," Butler said of city-owned land in greater Englewood. "We have to deploy a lot of different strategies to really try to cure the vacant lot issue in Englewood and West Englewood, as well as in Washington Park and Woodlawn."
Evans said she believes the dollar lot sales will "help the neighborhood," but after seeing past programs fail to pan out, she is waiting to see what happens.
"Let's see what the property taxes will be," she said. "I can only afford so much. If it's more than I can afford, you can take the lot."
The city plans to reopen the Large Lot program July 1 to target vacant parcels in East Garfield Park.
-Tanveer Ali contributed reporting.
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