Inner-city suburbs?

Enterprising homeowners are changing the landscape of ailing neighborhoods in big cities through ‘blotting,’ a term coined to describe homeowners taking possession of adjacent abandoned property.

By Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate

Shelina Gethers, left, and her granddaughter Kaili stand in Gethers’ New Orleans yard. Gethers added to her yard via a process called “blotting.” Photo courtesy of Gethers

When Buck Harris and his partner, Mike, bought a 145-year-old Italianate house to restore adjacent to Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood two decades ago, the neighborhood ambience included drug shootings and corner prostitutes.

“It was a war zone,” Harris says. “The neighborhood was in dramatic decline at the time. It was known as where you go to get heroin.”

Now, as Harris and other intrepid homeowners have gobbled up the vacant and foreclosed lots surrounding their houses over the years and worked to wipe out drug-related crime, the area has been transformed. Many of the nearly block-long lots, or “blots,” they have created look as if they were lifted from a verdant suburb, with mature trees and a wide expanse of lawn.

Harris’ neighborhood is just one example of how enterprising homeowners are changing the landscape in many depopulated cities, bringing the look of spacious suburbs to abandoned urban neighborhoods.

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For less than the cost of an airplane ticket, in some instances, owners can acquire lots next door to create their own oasis, complete with pools, courtyards or even orchards. Cities, meanwhile, are spared the upkeep of these properties.

“I think it’s a good strategy” for our 60,000 vacant lots, says Marja Winters, deputy director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department. “In a lot of them, there’s no interest, so why not put them in the hands of citizens that are going to own it and care for it?”

This type of side-yard expansion, once expensive and time-consuming, has taken off in recent years as cities have foreclosed on abandoned properties, putting them in a land bank to be sold to interested parties. As the price and process have improved, the number of blots has swelled by the thousands in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and New Orleans, as well as other parts of the Rust Belt and Northeast.

In Detroit alone, the city approved 139 of these side-lot sales last fiscal year, and 123 in just the first part of this fiscal year. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has signed purchase agreements for more than 1,000 properties abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, according to published reports.

As the number of blots has grown, so have concerns about the effect they will have on future growth in these shrunken cities. Is it wise to create suburban spaces just outside of downtown? Or are these cities shortchanging future growth?

That depends, experts say, on how much demand there might be for some of these properties in the years ahead. “There are residential areas where there could be little to no demand for decades — places where I cannot foresee a future in 50 years,” says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who has studied blotting.

Moreover, she says, in many of these areas, the small, narrow lots (think 30 by 100 feet) and homes without driveways or other modern amenities are not as appealing to future residents. “Having a driveway and a garage is a big improvement in one’s property,” Dewar says, and a feat that can be accomplished in most cases only by adding the lot next door. “It makes (these blocks) a better 2012 area, as opposed to 1912 (when many were developed).”

How blotting works The process of acquiring vacant lots around an owner’s property is different in every city and can take anywhere from 90 days to nine months, depending on the process and approvals necessary.

Owners, in most cases, must demonstrate ownership of their own property and prove that it is up to code and that they have the means to maintain it. They also must inform the city of their plans for the lot they wish to acquire. Many cities require these lots to be fenced in, and some will provide fencing material.

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Under the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s Lot Next Door program, purchasers may also qualify for a grant that provides up to $10,000 in landscaping materials and plants to improve the look of these spaces.

The cost of gaining title to these extra lots is only a couple of hundred bucks in some areas of Detroit and Cleveland. In New Orleans it can cost $4,000 or more, after a city rebate. If both neighbors want the lot, cities simply divide it and split the cost. Because most of these blots do not hold a separate structure and property values are low, the tax impact is minimal.

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“There’s not a lot of value in these properties,” says Tobias Armborst, a partner in the Brooklyn design firm Interboro Partners, which coined the term “blot” almost a decade ago in a research paper. “Their greatest value is in their use.”

While this type of land grab has been going on for decades, the past few years have seen many owners making big investments in the lots next door, as Harris did. That’s because it has gotten a lot easier for people to gain clear title to these abandoned properties through city land banks.

For decades, cities did not pursue tax foreclosures on vacant properties and could only give neighboring owners quitclaim deeds, which did not convey clear title but merely released the city’s interest in the property. Others were squatted on and fenced in with a neighbor’s yard — a kind of urban homesteading. The land banks have made it easier for residents to claim title quickly and to gain financing from banks for meaningful improvements, rather than simply fencing the lots in to keep vagrants out.

What does a blot look like? These blots run the gamut from two small lots to four or five, and can take up most of a city block.

For some, the extra space has provided a place to put in a wheelchair ramp or a raised garden bed, or allowed for the planting of trees for privacy. Others have prompted large additions such as a new wing or a move to change the orientation of the house to face away from the street and to a central garden.

Harris, a yoga instructor, and his partner installed a pool in their backyard, and added Zen-style landscaping, including a large wooden arch, statue of Buddha and groves of bamboo. Harris’ half-acre compound has been featured on the Ohio City garden tour four times in the past two decades.

“As a result of our salvaging this house, we have really changed the whole neighborhood,” says Harris, 63. “There’s a lot of new construction going on. It’s hard to believe it’s the same neighborhood.”

Shelina Gethers, 48, who lives in the historic Gentilly neighborhood in northern New Orleans, has created her own beautiful retreat after purchasing the abandoned corner lot next to her from the city for $4,000 in late 2009. She put a concrete fence around both lots and added a pool and a gazebo, while keeping the mature trees on the lot she acquired.

“It really is a little outside oasis,” she says. “When it’s hot, my granddaughter is in the pool every day.”

The process was easy, she says, despite its nine-month time frame. And because she had such an easy time of it, her neighbor across the street decided to purchase the lot next door to her, and has since added a gazebo and a half-dozen fruit trees, further improving the look of her street.

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