Land and democracy, according to Detroit

If you follow the Google trail related to the Hantz farm deal in Detroit, several times you will come across the statement about how this land sale is transferring public land into private hands, and only those private hands will profit from it. It may have been public land (the Hantz deal squeaked by City council approval a couple of months ago), but it needed a healthy dose of capital to turn it into anything useful to the public. The non-profit sector may not have enough to do this on a large scale, all by itself – the City sure doesn’t.

Robert Anderson, the relatively new director of planning and development, supports Hantz Farms because, he says, it will help increase property values and much-needed tax revenue for the City, and while this isn’t a slam-dunk solution, “the key is to find ways to have good things start bleeding into neighborhoods.”

As I waded through the internet reading more about Hantz Farms (Hantz Woodlands now, actually), I thought about Dan and Ben Miller again – the ones who established the working framework for local residents to invest in their own neighborhood’s real estate (“The Real Estate Deal that Could Change the Future of Everything,” The Atlantic Cities). What if Hantz started a crowdfunding scheme and sold shares in his farm to the local residents?

Can Detroit at least get more democracy and community involvement out of this deal, while keeping it a for-profit (tax revenue-generating) venture? The answer is yes.

Shea Howell of Detroit has asked for the City to develop Community Benefit Agreements, already used by other cities, which would democratize private land sales by, for example, requiring that a certain percentage of the work done on the land be contracted to local companies.

There are also other opportunities to mold the project into something that can benefit the larger Detroit community. Michigan State University might initiate research projects on Hantz’s land that could lead to job creation. The City could develop an ordinance within a few years that could allow for growing food on the land. Hantz is a long way from owning all the blighted Detroit land that is available at rock-bottom prices – the City could still put some into a public land trust, and there is still plenty of vacant land available for non-profit groups. Another idea becoming reality: a non-profit urban farm (including fish) that would train and employ ex-addicts and ex-convicts.

All said, my opinion (outsider that I am) is that the Hantz farm deal has already been a good thing for Detroit, if only for this reason: it has clearly sparked a collection of new, creative ideas for what to do with the vacant land, and created a much-needed sense of urgency around the issue. And the rest of the country is watching.

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