Home Real Estate Selling vacant lots to help revitalize Englewood. Will this spur economic development?

Selling vacant lots to help revitalize Englewood. Will this spur economic development?

Empty Spaces to Thriving Places: The Potential Impact of Lot Sales on Englewood's Growth

Englewood vacant lot
Courtesy of R.A.G.E.

Empty Spaces to Thriving Places: The Potential Impact of Lot Sales on Englewood’s Growth

Disclosure: This article was supported by funding from the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN). SJN is a non-profit organization that promotes and supports solutions journalism, a reporting approach that focuses on constructive and evidence-based solutions to societal issues. The funding received from SJN helped facilitate the research, reporting, and production of this article.

It was a cold Friday evening in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side when tragedy struck.

17-year-old Camerie K. Crawford was standing alone in a vacant lot when three unknown males jumped out of a silver sedan. In a matter of seconds, her life was cut short as one of the men, dressed in a black puffy jacket, black pants, and white shoes, began firing shots at her.

Crawford was pronounced dead at 7:55 p.m. on January 17, 2020. Once again, the community mourned the loss of another young life to violence.

“Englewood was a wonderful and safe place to live in the 1950s,” says Midge Kimberly, an 81-year-old former resident of Englewood. “Then, gangs started sprouting up everywhere and it changed everything. Black businesses started moving out and community treasures were boarded up.”

Over the years, Englewood has seen a decline in its population, as well as disinvestment and high crime rates, all of which have contributed to the increase of vacant lots.

The city of Chicago has taken a bold step in addressing its vacant lot inventory by launching ChiBlockBuilder, a brand-new website aimed at making it easier for people to buy vacant lots.

The application process for the purchase of the first round of 2,000 Chicago-owned vacant lots, about 20% of its total inventory, closed on February 3rd, 2023. The applications submitted are currently under review and processing. Applicants should receive notification of their application status by the end of April.

“This is an opportunity to bring much-needed infill housing to neighborhoods,” Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Commissioner Maurice Cox said in a statement. “The new, centralized interface eliminates the confusion that we heard from a lot of would-be buyers about how to purchase City land, how much it costs, and what environmental work may be needed.”

Applicants must disclose how they plan to use the land they want to purchase. For example, the land can be used to build affordable or market-rate housing, community gardens, parks, side yards adjacent to one’s home, stores, restaurants, and other improvements that would benefit the community.

Most of the vacant lots reside in economically depressed communities, such as New City, West Englewood, Englewood, Roseland, and South Chicago. The number of vacant lots for sale in these areas accounts for approximately 50% of the total 2,000 vacant lots available for purchase during this round.

Englewood, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas, has 252 city-owned lots for sale. The community is part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, which is designed to funnel more city funding and resources into 10 blighted Chicago neighborhoods. The mayor hopes that initiatives like INVEST South/West and ChiBlockBuilder can help reverse decades of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

“Our goal with ChiBlockBuilder is simple: to put vacant land to productive use in a community-driven way,” said Mayor Lightfoot in a statement. “Vacant land presents an opportunity for our residents and businesses to create the change they want to see in their communities.”

Although ChiBlockBuilder may sound like a good idea, some residents are skeptical about the long-term impact of the program.

Asiaha Butler, a longtime Englewood resident who cofounded the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), worked with residents to design the Large Lots program in 2014. ChiBlockBuilder replaces and eliminates the former $1 Large Lots program which was part of the Chicago’s Green Healthy Neighborhoods planning project.

Image Credit: R.A.G.E.

Butler worked diligently with city officials, urban planners, community organizations, and residents to design the $1 Large Lots program and she believes ChiBlockBuilder is a “slap in the face” to community residents. The Large Lots program gave homeowners an opportunity to purchase city-owned lots for $1. In contrast, residents who apply for vacant lots through ChiBlockBuilder will have to pay 10% of the market price for city-owned property.  

“This looks like a fast track to gentrification,” Butler told Chicago Southsider. “If housing is a priority of this community, why have these vacant properties been ignored for so many years?”

Before Englewood gained notoriety as a dangerous, low-income, and depopulated neighborhood, it had a bustling economy filled with department stores and local businesses.

The Englewood community was originally populated by German and Irish immigrants. They worked for truck farms and railroads, and later made a living at the Union Stock Yard, which opened on Christmas Day in 1865. The stock yard became the center of the country’s meatpacking industry.

The Cook County Normal School (now Chicago State University) was opened in Englewood in the 1860s. The school paved the way for more development and middle-class homebuyers. In the late 1880s, the First National Bank of Englewood was organized.

By 1920, Englewood’s population increased to over 86,000 people. Thus, by the 1930s, nearly 99% of its residents were white. Moreover, the shopping district at the 63rd and Halsted commercial corridor became the busiest shopping district outside of the downtown Loop shopping area. It brought in an estimated $30 million a year, according to historical documents. But like many other parts of the country, Englewood’s small businesses and banks closed during the Depression, while housing values took a nosedive.

Furthermore, by 1940, Englewood’s population had grown to just under 93,000. More African Americans had started to live in the neighborhood, making up 2% of the total population. As a result, the immigrant population dwindled to less than 20%.

In 1950, the population trend shifted in Englewood as white families started fleeing communities that Blacks started inhabiting. To explain, an influx of African Americans seeking to escape harsh conditions in the South continued to flock to Chicago in search of opportunity. In fact, Englewood’s Black population rose to 10%. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which spanned from 95th Street to 71st Street in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, displaced many Blacks, forcing more of them to move to Englewood in the late 1950s.

In the 1960s, Englewood’s population hit a high of nearly 98,000 people, with over 67,000 Black residents living in the community. The average median annual income for Englewood was $5,579 (adjusted for inflation in 2022, this amount equates to roughly $55,000), which was lower than the city’s median of $6,738.

By 1970, Blacks made up 96% of Englewood, with more than 20% living below the poverty line. From 1970 to 1980, the population of Englewood declined 34%, leaving roughly 59,000 residents in the neighborhood. As the prevalence of drugs, gangs, and violence began to surge in the community, the population continued to fall, from 48,434 in 1990 to 40,222 in 2000. The predominantly Black community was experiencing a steep decline in population and resources. To eliminate this blight on the neighborhood, the city responded by demolishing dilapidated buildings.

Thus, disinvestment and demolition in Englewood led to vacant lots.

In 2010, Butler was experiencing the effects of the vacant lots in her community and was tempted to relocate to Atlanta, where most of her father’s family lived, to escape the harsh realities of living in an economically depressed community. Englewood’s crime rate had soared as the community hit rock bottom.

“I was extremely terrified of the activity that was happening,” said Butler. “Honestly, I felt like a prisoner on my own block.”

One Sunday morning, Butler looked out at the vacant lot across the street from her house and noticed girls who were wearing dresses while playing in the dirt surrounding the lot. At that moment, she knew she had to stay in Englewood and create the change she wanted to see in her community.

Courtesy of R.A.G.E.

Therefore, Butler started volunteering at community organizations like Teamwork Englewood and Imagine Englewood If. She also participated in city and planning meetings to have a say in what happens in her community.

Then, Butler came up with the idea to start an association for residents, called Resident Association of Greater Englewood, to create solutions to the problems that residents were facing in Englewood. The members of this organization later became the pioneers of the 2014 Large Lots Program in Chicago. Butler was able to purchase a vacant lot for $1 through the program. She used the lot to create a safe space where residents could host healing circles, graduation parties, and movie showings, and enjoy African drumming. She also turned the space into a job site.

Courtesy of R.A.G.E

By 2019, Butler saw fewer shootings on her block and more positive activity taking place in the community space she had created. For her, this is one step towards community development.

“Community development is not just brick-and-mortar. It’s really creating a culture. And these spaces that our members were able to, myself included, transform on these dangerous blocks is vital to community development.”

As alluded to earlier, Englewood has been struggling to tackle gun violence for decades. The decline in gun violence that Butler witnessed and contributed to bringing about on her block was significant, because, presently, Chicago Police Department statistics show that 2021 was the most dangerous year in the city, with 797 homicides reported in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, a number not seen since the mid-1990s. In Englewood alone, 45 victims were killed in 2021, up from 39 victims in 2020 and 24 victims in 2019, according to the Chicago Sun-Times homicide database.

The city hopes that ChiBlockBuilder can be a tool for community development on more blocks in Englewood and other impoverished areas in Chicago. There were over 670 homicides in Chicago in 2022, including 28 victims killed in Englewood.

Butler believes that ChiBlockBuilder doesn’t address the most pressing needs of the community. She suggests a more equitable framework to revitalize Englewood’s community and create a safe space for residents.

“The city should be gifting the land to many of our homeowners just because of the historical economic disinvestment they have done through redlining practices,” says Butler. “As we are the pioneers of the Large Lot program, we are asking that our city take our community off the land sale list for now until we figure out a more equitable and reparative solution for legacy homeowners. I don’t know what all the incentives are for developers to build new homes here, but I do know that new home plots on top of vacancies and vacant land are not an opportunity to retain our homeowners or give them access to assets.”



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