Cock O' the Lots: Detroit's Residents Fight Back a Land Grab

John Hantz still wants to close the biggest urban land grab since the Dutch bought Manhattan. He has his sights on 1,956 lots (177 acres) owned by the city of Detroit... at 8ȼ a square foot.

Mr. Hantz, a real estate developer, has been clear about his motives, if not his means. He believes that the city's land is undervalued and he wants to raise its market price by buying it up cheap until it becomes "scarce." This, he claims, will bring economic development to the rust-belt city that has been devastated by the collapse of its auto industry.

The notion that real estate speculation results in urban economic development involves a fair amount of Republican thinking, which explains the resistance on the part of the lower-income residents actually living in the areas where John Hantz wants to buy.

So, Mr. Hantz keeps dressing up the package. First he proposed converting the land into the largest urban industrial farm in the world. The drawings looked great. However, Detroit's growing community of urban farmers (who supply a growing of Detroit's fresh produce) wondered why their livelihood strategies were being sidelined to make way for a single-owner mega-farm.

Neighborhoods pushed back, forcing the city to consider an urban agriculture ordinance before proceeding. This may be one reason why Mr. Hantz abandoned the idea of growing food and announced he would be establishing a giant urban tree farm instead.

As the city moved closer to closing the deal, residents demanded transparency and public dialog on what is potentially the largest (and cheapest) transfer of public property in Detroit's history. In an open letter to the City Council, members of the citizen-run Detroit Food Policy Council pleaded with the city to hold off on the deal until the urban agricultural ordinances were passed. Large land deals like Hantz' Woodlands should be subject to a transparent review process and public hearings. "Governance," they said "is the issue at the heart of this land sale."

In a letter to the City Council dated Nov. 13, the Detroit City Planning Commission also strongly questioned the land deal on social, political and economic grounds, warning that,

It would be premature to authorize the... land sale at this time; tree farming on the lower east side, if that is really the goal, is better ensured by sale by development agreement, authorized subsequent to adoption of an urban agriculture ordinance... only 5 jobs are anticipated to be created. This is not a land development deal, it is a land purchase with no guaranteed performance by the developer. This is land speculation and land banking.

Detroit residents will soon find out if they have stalled the deal or not. Mr. Hantz is still pushing hard. His persistence -- to bring in an agricultural metaphor -- reminds me of my first encounter with roosters when I was seven years old.

My mother had bought me a box of cute, yellow chicks to raise into laying hens. I fed them and watched them grow. Unfortunately, half of them turned out to be roosters. They started fighting and got mean. Every time I crossed the yard to the barn they would rush after me, talons flying. I was terrified.

"Too many roosters," said a neighbor, "They won't stop fighting 'till the last one's standing."

We got rid of all but one -- a handsome bantam named Charlie. Good old Charlie had somehow remained aloof from all the fighting. and now treated me as nicely as any hen. He even let me pet him.

Peace returned to the yard.

Then one day it happened. Charlie jumped me when I wasn't looking, pecking and beating his wings. I screamed and ran into the house crying and holding my leg where he'd clawed me good.

"What happened?" asked my mother. Between sobs, I recounted Charlie's heartless betrayal, pointing to my wounded leg.

My stepfather smirked at me over his cup of coffee, "Is your boot full of blood?"

I shook my head.

He got up and handed me a broom. "Go feed the chickens," he said.

Charlie was waiting. He sprang at me. I batted him half way across the yard. He popped up and charged. I knocked him away again. He bounced back again. He had decided that the yard was his now and that I was a trespasser. He was going to eliminate me.

I ran back in the house.

"Those stupid chickens can starve!" I bellowed. My mother looked at my stepfather long and hard.

That night, Charlie joined us for dinner. Chicken never tasted so good.

The moral of the story?

John Hantz may not be the last real estate speculator in Detroit, but he's decided the city is his yard. He won't stop grabbing at the city's empty lots until he owns them... or until he graces the supper table.