There are 1,500 vacant lots in the city of Dayton. Fifteen hundred?!? Let that sink in for a moment. These aren’t boarded up homes, vacant homes, abandoned homes, these are vacant lots that the City of Dayton has to maintain, somehow. It’s staggering to think about. I see plenty of these lots, and you do too, but to think about 1,500? So the question of what we should do with these lots comes with some urgency behind it, but also some promise and potential. Dayton now has Jonathan Cain with the Lot Links program and several months ago he took some time to talk to me about Lot Links. Mr Cain, like Leah Werner, is a true champion of the potential in Dayton. He’s excited about the possibilities and the opportunities the Lot Links program could represent, if we really thought about it, and he’s open to discussion and willing to help, and looking for a chance to spread the word about this program to clubs, churches and any organization that wants to learn more about it.
You may know that Lot Links is an inexpensive way for Dayton residents to purchase vacant lots that are owned by the City of Dayton. Jonathan told me that most purchasers are neighboring home owners who want to expand their yard space to create a play area for the kids, or a garden, or to put up a garage. Useful purposes all, and those lots would fit well into an established neighborhood without much distraction or disruption in neighborhood aesthetics. You can purchase a lot for as little as $235.00, although a buildable lot is $635.00- still cheap land ownership and the city guarantees clean title without liens. The problem, as I see it, is that land ownership has to be profitable somehow. It doesn’t do any good to simply own a lot. Either you have a house and all the positives that can potentially come with home ownership: Freedom, independence, stability, or you have property with which you can create income: Food production, rental space of some sort, a business.
Ohio is often considered the “Mother of Presidents” with eight Presidents who thought of Ohio as their home (seven if you don’t count William Henry Harrison who was born in Virginia, but was raised and is buried here). Ohio has an extraordinary and rich history and no small part in shaping our country. One of my favorite quotes is from Ohioan and President William Howard Taft “Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution and the one which, united with that of personal liberty, has contributed more to the growth of civilization than any other institution established by the human race…”
Back to those fifteen hundred empty lots? That’s a lot of property. But we also now have the opportunity to offer people, for dirt cheap, the chance to enjoy one of the most “important right(s) guaranteed by the Constitution”. How can we use this opportunity to its best advantage? I have a few ideas. We can, and probably should, have a community garden every few blocks- gardening is good for us, but that’s not likely to be an income-producing or highest and best use of land. Expanding your lot size adds value to a house, as does a garage, so for a neighbor to acquire a lot for their own use, that’s a good idea. We tend to think of these lots as either private residential, or some sort of community property, but I think it might be beneficial to start to consider business uses and allow room for developing the lots in profitable ways- I’ve begun to think of this as “micro-development”.
If we want to promote the “growth of civilization” in Dayton Ohio we might do worse than making room for unique uses for all these vacant lots: Allow someone to build a garage and rent it to a neighboring homeowner; pave an empty lot and rent out off-street parking; true urban gardening including chickens for income producing fresh eggs. In other words, we open the land for micro-development, for someone to use for a small business. It’s weird, perhaps. It’s certainly not what we signed on for when we decided to plant roots in Dayton, but the only constant in life is change, and the strong adapt. Momentum builds momentum and rethinking highest and best uses for what we have in abundance is a possible way out of our current situation.
We can flourish, if only in small ways at the start, by reveling in our right of property, which is one thing Dayton has plenty of right now- inexpensive and available property. San Francisco doesn’t have it, nor does Oakwood for that matter. Dayton has an opportunity to celebrate what President Taft understood was crucial, integral, part and parcel to what makes America such an extraordinary place- our right to own property. It would be a shame for us to ignore such strengths.
Photo: Teri Lussier
Correction: Initially this article stated there were 15,000 vacant lots; it has been corrected to 1,500.