St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay recently announced a “Mow to Own” program to help the city rid itself of vacant land held by the Land Reutilization Authority's (LRA). The program, similar to programs in Baton Rouge, Memphis and Columbus,
allows City residents to take immediate ownership of LRA-owned parcels adjacent to their property for just $125 if the resident agrees to continually maintain the lot. The City will give away the land itself for free. The $125 covers the title transfer and lien, should the new owner fail to maintain his/her new property. After 24 months of regular maintenance, the lien will be lifted and the property granted free and clear to the new owner.
The city has no interest in paying to maintain these lots. Why not do whatever it takes to get them off the books and into private hands? This effort is similar to the Kansas City’s Land Bank Side Lot Program, where resident landowners may purchase adjacent vacant lots from the city for prices ranging from as little as $1 for lots under 2,500 square feet, to $.08 per square foot for lots between 6,000 and 6,500 square feet. The program has had some success. The city sold 50 side lots in 2014, 63 in 2015, and 9 so far in 2016.
The comparative strengths of the KC program, according to the Land Bank’s executive director, Ted Anderson, are that it does not require the program management of Mow to Own, and that liability insurance is less of an issue for the city because the buyers own the land outright. Furthermore, selling the land outright means there is less need to oversee the diligence of dozens of different people mowing city land.
The incentive to buy city land will still be affected by the distortionary effect taxes have on behavior. I know of one landowner in Kansas City whose office building, due to street layout, abuts a sizeable greenspace that is otherwise inaccessible. He maintains the space by cutting the grass. He’s aware of the Side Lot program, but he has no interest in assuming the additional property tax, especially when he currently has the option of enjoying the green space without being taxed on it. Saint Louis should expect to see cases like this on occasion, but to the extent that the Mow to Own program can relieve the city of unproductive property, it will be a step in the right direction.