After Renee Basick moved in to her Woodlawn condo in 2008, she soon noticed problems centered on an empty lot owned by the city of Chicago.
Like the day Basick says “we were looking out our window, and we saw a kid running from a police officer. We watched him grab a gun from his pants and toss it into the vacant lot next to our building.”
Basick and other condo owners on the block worked together to turn the city-owned lot into an urban garden.
And she ended up buying the property in the 6400 block of South Ellis in 2014 during the first round of the city’s Large Lot Program, known as the dollar-lots program. It lets homeowners and not-for-profit groups buy vacant, city-owned residential lots on the South Side and the West Side for $1.
“The process to purchase it was very easy,” Basick says. “The transaction of a dollar was almost amusing.”
The city program aims to give people more control over vacant land in their neighborhood, get property back on the tax rolls and increase nearby home values. Buyers have to hold onto the properties for at least five years before selling.
More Chicagoans are about to join Basick as owners of dollar lots. The program’s seventh round of applications concluded this summer, with the sales to be processed over the next several months. The city is currently examining nearly 2,200 applications for about 4,000 properties it put up for sale — about the number of applications they expected.
Through the six previous rounds of sales, 1,246 vacant lots have been sold. Based on county data, 791 of them returned to the property-tax rolls for a combined yearly total of $531,657 in taxes.
The key requirement to take part is that a prospective buyer must own other property on the same block.
“The closer you are to your property, the more you are going to take care of it, the more your eyes are on it,” says Kathleen Dickhut, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Planning and Development.
New owners aren’t required to do anything with the properties they buy, and often they remain vacant. Through Sept. 1, only 16 building permits have been issued to properties sold through the program since 2014. Most of the permits were to put up chain-link fences. Three were for garages.
The permit for the biggest job so far was for a lot near 64th and Maryland in Woodlawn, where the Preservation of Affordable Housing is building a three-story residential project. The nonprofit agency also owns other residential property on the same block, as well as elsewhere in the South Side neighborhood.
In 2014, during the first round of the program, which focused on Englewood and nearby neighborhoods, 10 lots were sold in the 7200 and 7300 blocks of South Harvard Avenue. Today, the majority of these lots have no fencing or the lawns remain untamed.
Once a property is sold, the city doesn’t check to see how the lots are taken care of, according to Dickhut.
“We are not policing what [people] do with their private property,” she says. “They have to do whatever is mandated by code, or they will get a ticket.”
Whether a lot remains empty or a home is built there, the program helps empower the surrounding community, according to Stacey Sutton, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“If a resident can buy a [lot], they have to pay taxes, and those are taxes that the city hasn’t generated in a very long time,” Sutton says. “If the lot has been sitting for decades, now the city gets it off its books as a deficit and can start generating money from it.”
Basick says that maintaining her lot has been tough but has helped the neighborhood. She says the fence has been damaged several times and that people have stolen from the garden. But the garden also has brought together older Woodlawn residents with younger ones.
Basick rents plots in the garden for about $80 a season, though someone living on the same street can get one for free. She says she puts the money into maintaining the garden.
“It really did help bring our block together a little bit,” she says. “We didn’t solve world peace or fix all of Chicago’s South Side crime. But we did find that the kids in the neighborhood were interested in what we were doing and were super excited when we invited them in.
“The garden was a signal that showed people some of us were trying to do good,” she says.