One of the loudest arguments against the Hantz Farms land sale, which City Council approved Tuesday, is that land equals power. The city, the argument goes, is giving up power if it sells off significant acreage to John Hantz or whomever.
That argument raises this question: If land equals power and since the government of the city of Detroit is the largest landholder in Detroit, then why isn’t city government more powerful? I mean, it can’t even keep grass cut and the streetlights on. The latter issue being an especially incredible feat considering the city owns its own lighting utility.
The truth is land is only powerful or valuable or useful if its owner has the vision and ability to do something productive with it.
One thing made absolutely clear over the last 50 years is that the city lacks both the vision and ability to make city-owned land productive. Forget the vacant east side plots for a second, the city can’t even properly manage legitimate public landholdings like parks.
Now a small chunk of the city’s vast land holdings belongs to John Hantz. He will pay the city $300 a lot for the real estate and then pay property taxes on his newly purchased land.
The irony, likely lost on the dead-enders who live to shout “LAND IS POWER” during City Council public comment sessions, is by selling city land that land now has real value—both the upfront cash and the long-term tax revenues—for the city.
Increased tax revenue from now productive land creates real power for the city—power to put more cops in the street, power fix pot holes, power to keep rec centers open and parks maintained. Plus it takes the expense of maintaining that dormant property off the city’s books.
This brings us to the other, more legitimate, complaint about Hantz: It’s fundamentally unfair that one wealthy investor can purchase so much city land when average citizens have trouble acquiring side lots and other vacant properties in their neighborhoods.
You know what? The critics are 100% correct—it is unfair. It needs to be easier to buy city land. Tired empty rhetoric about power aside, the city as its own largest landlord has been a disaster for Detroit. It’s time to radically change that policy.
Now that Council has made the right decision regarding Hantz, the city must use this precedent to expedite the sale of more of its land inventory.
Start with expanding the pilot side lots sale program citywide so residents can ($200/lot) purchase vacant properties in their own community and build from there.
The rules should be simple. Show up to city hall with cash in hand and, so long as you pay your property taxes and keep the property up to code, you can do whatever you want (assuming it complies with zoning rules) with the land you buy.
Maybe then we can finally see just how powerful Detroit’s land surplus can be for the city and its residents.