Starting a fund to purchase urban farmland in Ypsilanti

I’m not suggesting that anyone run out and invest their hard-earned money in this, but our friend Amanda Edmonds, the executive director of the Ypsi-based not-for-profit Growing Hope has what I think is an intriguing idea. She wants to buy up cheap Ypsi land that’s being sold at auction, and repurpose it for urban agriculture. Her thoughts are outlined in the note below. If you’re interested in getting involved, leave a comment, or send me an email, and I’ll pass your contact information along to Amanda… Here’s her note:

The Washtenaw County Tax Foreclosure auction is going on now and ending tomorrow morning. There are a number of vacant lots in Ypsi with minimum bids of $350 with no one currently bidding on them. I see these as potential opportunities for land to be used by urban gardeners & farmers. I’ve looked extensively into most and explored the true costs (beyond purchase price). Seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

The properties are listed at I’ve attached the spec sheet from there for a property at 473 Jefferson— it’s the lot at the farthest east end of Jefferson– behind the Hwy 94 wall… It’s a triangular lot that once had a house on it but no longer does. There is an adjacent vacant triangular lot that will likely go up for foreclosure auction next year, and because this spot is less desirable for development, there could be a good chance that it could later be acquired. There’s good sun, a decent amount of protection, and it’s in fairly low-trafficked area.

Past delinquent taxes are waived for these properties, though the current year tax is due. This property has $527 due in taxes. The property’s current value is $12,600.

If a $350 bid was accepted, the other expenses in the immediate to acquire the land include the $527 in taxes, in the $250 range for title insurance and related fees, and possibly up to a few hundred in other expenses (potentially attorney fees to acquire a quiet title, unless those can be donated). We estimate $1000-$1200 for total acquisition costs. I talked to a title person today and have additional questions for them in the morning to better understand some of that. (I would still love to talk to an attorney who has some real estate knowledge in this area.) It seems like a bit of a leap to do this, but a few of us have been doing what we can to talk to the right people, read all the fine print, etc.

I’m looking for people who want to contribute to purchasing this land. We may later want to talk about how to create a fund or legal entity if necessary for urban ag land holdings in Ypsi (and I’m talking about doing this as me personally right now– not Growing Hope, just so everyone is clear!). Maybe that would or wouldn’t be necessary.

In the meantime, if you want to go in on this, the idea is that we’ll figure out a way to allow the land to be used by one or multiple local urban farmers, whether collectively or individually, for some affordable amount that covers the cost of having the land (e.g. taxes, maybe insurance if necessary). Those answers of how that would work don’t yet exist yet. If you want to contribute and be a part of those next discussions, great. If you want to contribute just to help make it happen but don’t need to be involved after that, great.

So, let me know if you’d like to contribute anywhere from, say $50-$350 to this endeavor, and we’ll see what wild ride happens from here if we get it! If you know others, pass this along…

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  1. anonymous
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    I vaguely remember something about soil in lots near highways having higher levels of lead in it than most other soil, due to decades of leaded gasoline use. Sorry I don’t have a reference handy on that. Something to consider before purchasing land to farm on?

  2. Posted October 18, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    @anonymous – in a community the age of Ypsilanti, assume all the soil has some sort of contamination, even if just from leaded gas fumes / lead paint chips.

    Not a huge problem, though, since to grow anything, you’re probably going to want to bring in new soil anyways–not just because of concerns of contamination, but because the stuff that’s been built on, torn down, parked on, re-built on, etc. for half a century or so probably sucks to try to grow stuff in anyways. At the Frog Island Garden, we brought in a couple of truckloads of compost and sand the first year to fill the raised beds, and I know I was pretty amazed at how much better/faster things grew there than in my backyard.

    Depending on what the soil contamination is, there’s also the opportunity for phytoremediation–certain plants will take up certain contaminants out of the soil at good rates, and a few years of planting will leave the soil pretty clean. That takes some work, though, to understand what exactly is in your soil and what the right plants are for that substance–and, you end up with concentrated contaminant in your plants, and have to be sure to dispose of them properly.

    tl;dr – yes, you’re right.

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    This is a great idea, though it would not be surprising to see resistance from those still holding out for that new Burger King.

  4. kjc
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    so has the auction already ended?

  5. K2
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of a local fund started with the purpose of seeding local farming operations. I assume, even if we missed out on this opportunity, there will be others down the line. If someone could raise four or five thousand dollars, we could probably pick up a few acres to start leasing out to food entrepreneurs. It could be kind of exciting. It also seems like the kind of thing that could be done under the umbrella of Growing Hope.

  6. j
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I did quite a bit of research into the tax auction properties, going so far as putting in a $1000 deposit, before finally deciding not to bid this morning.

    There are a few $25k houses that suffered $50k fires that would cost more to rehab or tear down than they’re worth, but for the most part they are good investments with healthy returns of >25%. Unfortunately, it’s 25% on a small number and many people with the means can’t be bothered. After taxes (close to a third of the monthly rent) and other expenses it’s just not worth the headaches.

    So we end up with so many shitty shitty landlords. Spend $1000 to fix the damn roof and prevent $10000 in water damage you fuckwits! Pay for insurance so you can rebuild when a fire guts it! New construction costs more than new construction is worth so it’s essential that what is already built is protected. Some of these landlords never paid the taxes since the time they purchased them, even when they had paying tenants, and have long lists of maintenance charges from the city. A lot of these houses are in decent neighborhoods like 453 Ainsworth—Apn-11-11-39-425-003-CITY-OF-YPSILANTI-MI-48197.html. From what I can tell from public records, the estate of the deceased owner sold it to an investor in 2008, who let it fall apart, not once paying taxes. Almost feel obligated to bid on it just so the neighbors don’t get stuck with another fuckwit.

    Community gardens are probably the only economically viable use of most of these empty lots. They are worse than worthless. Tear downs will not be rebuilt. It costs $50k to build a house worth $25k. Taxes and lawn/sidewalk maintenance will slowly bleed you as you wait for an economic recovery that may never come.

    A downer of a comment, I know, but it could be a lot worse. Detroit has something like 13,000 properties that made it to round 2 of their auction with starting bids set at $500. Almost all of ours are getting bids, but I doubt Detroit can give away half of theirs.

  7. Mr. X
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    What about starting a bigger fund and actually buying up houses, fixing them up, and renting them out artists and entrepreneurs? I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but it would be cool to have a collective that essentially worked as a landlord. I suspect it would be incredibly difficult to manage, and may be more of a headache than it would be worth, but it might still be worth thinking about. You could offer really low rents to entrepreneurs from other parts of the country to come in and do things in Ypsi, or, for that matter, give residencies for artists.

  8. Posted October 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    F the new Burger King. People need to fight for the right to grow their own food before Monsanto and the US govt. take that right away too. I wish I was in a position to forget my current life and start over as a farmer.

  9. LisaD
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to hear how this goes!

    Mr. X – I’ve wanted to create a community land trust for quite a while. I suspect if I had any home maintainance skills/interests whatsoever, I would have already!
    ( for info about what land trusts are). If you could combine that with green collar jobs in demolition and green building training to rehab the houses, that would be so awesome. Triple points if you make it some sort of a loose intentional community. Yeah, I think about stuff like this too much.

    I’ve also wanted to do one for locally owned businesses that provide a common good to the community(particularly in a place like ann arbor where rents are unaffordable to many types of businesses), but I haven’t seen that model done nationally.

    And David, if the world continues as it is, you might soon be in an accidental position to start over and be a farmer…

  10. Posted October 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Ypsilanti is a growing community of people who see the value in naturally produced food outside of the commercial food industry. I honestly think that Ypsilanti should pass a Food Sovereignty ordinance like they did in Sedgwick, Maine. Federal Government agencies are getting out of control with their regulations on food. I mean once they start raiding the harmless Amish people over selling raw milk, that’s when we know it’s time to secure our community rights, right?

  11. Eel
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    David, Glenn Beck can get you started. Just send in money and he’ll send you magic beans.

    Sorry, he actually doesn’t call them magic beans. He calls the Survival Seeds.

    Best of luck, brother.

  12. Posted October 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Note, too, that what’s up for sale in the current round is the leavings from the first round auction — about 7 houses sold in the first round, for higher prices, so what j is looking at are the less desireable props to begin with.

  13. anon
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I love the food sovereignty idea ~ there are cities now that have gotten far more permissive allowing backyard/urban goats and other animals ~ and certainly cities that don’t have restrictions on honeybees.

    It was very sad to see the dismantling of Peter Thomason’s urban farm… and I was surprised not to see more local organizing for support. for a moment there ypsi was really the happening place, am all for more progressive ordinances on local urban backyard farming… we will need this.

  14. applejack
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    It’s too late for this round, but next time set up a project on Kickstarter. It makes it easy for people to support the idea financially without any risk if the funding goal isn’t met. Jerry Paffendorf of started inchvesting in Detroit as a Kickstarter project back in the day. he also did the Robocop statue project too, but in any case this seems like it could work well for a community garden idea

  15. Erv
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I think we should pool our money, start a charter school that is agriculture based, put the kids to work in the field, and then start selling product. It’s free labor and we’d make money on both the school and the products. We could get a 3x payout in 3 years.

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  1. By Funding local startups on November 1, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    […] development could even extend beyond the realm of food service and retail. We could, if we wanted, band together to buy foreclosed properties and then lease them to individuals involved in urban agri…… The possibilities are endless, assuming, of course, we have local men and women interested […]

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