Laid In Detroit

DETROIT —  I've always wanted a simple life on a swathe of land where I would subsist by my own ingenuity and creativity. It is such an innate need, almost an inalienable right, which in my life would be expressed through the simple art of homesteading.

In 2004, I started a business and bought a house in a stable neighborhood on the east side of Detroit.  My new house wasn't by any means a “homestead,” but it was a nice house with a small backyard. There wasn't much room for a garden, but I was so busy running my business, I didn't think I would have time for projects. I just needed a place to live.

Soon it was 2009. In five years, my house with the tiny backyard expanded into a “compound,” two houses and a lot. I bought the house from the bank when the previous owners walked away. I essentially traded a bathroom tile job for the lot in between the houses. I now had a nice spot to garden, and I had some success growing vegetables, but found the yard was full of slugs.

This issue ignited a desire for some kind of poultry, perhaps chickens. They would eat the slugs, and they would also produce eggs and great manure for the garden. I wasn't crazy about chickens, and I didn't even eat very many eggs, but being lactose intolerant, it made more sense than a cow.

As I was researching breeds and coop designs, I came across a few paragraphs in a homesteading book about ducks, mentioning that there were some breeds that laid as many eggs as chickens, and the eggs were bigger. Not only that, but the ducks were more tolerant to Michigan winters, and more resistant to disease.

Ducks! I love ducks! I've never eaten a duck egg, but who cares! Let's get ducks!

In August 2010, I received four little Gold Star Hybrid ducklings in the mail. Twenty-two weeks later, they were laying eggs. By the following Spring came four more ducks, all beautiful Welsh Harlequins.

I've always wanted a simple life on a swathe of land where I would subsist by my own ingenuity and creativity. It is such an innate need, almost an inalienable right, which in my life would be expressed through the simple art of homesteading.

By the spring of 2012, my little house in the 'hood had transformed into a real homestead. Fruit trees flourished. A rooftop strawberry garden draped over the duck coop. Across the street, where three burned out houses have been demolished, the NEFF (Neighbors Eating Fresh Food) Community Garden was established, thanks to some motivated neighbors.

Before it would have been nice to have the vacant lot adjacent to my compound, but now I needed it.  My little farm was flourishing. The ducks needed more land to graze, and the different breeds wanted some separation from each other. I was also turning my rental house into a vacation rental and event center. I could use that property for urban agriculture classes and natural building courses, as well as a garden area.

I also just wanted control over that lot so that I could ensure that nothing happened there that would harm my farm or my business, or my peace for that matter.

The lot officially became the property of Wayne County, and I picked up the paperwork to purchase it under the Adjacent Lot Program. But I heard from many people that the program is problematic. There were some hoops to jump through — proving that you occupied the adjacent house, and getting together property tax records to show that you have them paid up to date, etc. There was also the chance that city planning could flat out reject your application.

36There was also a new program to lease a lot from the city for $50 a year for gardening purposes, but they put so many restrictions on it as far as how the property can be developed that it looked impractical.

For instance, one wouldn't be allowed to add any new soil to the property. Almost every urban farm I knew used raised beds, or at least augmented their soil with compost. Oh, and one couldn't compost either. Also, the city also reserved the right to take back the lot at any time should they need it. Knowing how much work it takes to cultivate a decent garden, I didn't feel comfortable with those stipulations.

The advice I got from many around town was to maintain the lot in spite of not owning it, and through adverse possession (basically squatter's rights) have some claim over it should the issue come up in a court of law.

This whole situation made me nervous. The life I had always wanted—gardens, animals, self-sufficiency--was miraculously taking shape in the ruins and rubble of crime and economic hardship, and if things didn't workout in my favor, I wouldn't be able to sell my property and start over without taking a substantial loss.

This spring, a new adjacent lot program was launched in some targeted neighborhoods. For $200, one could buy an adjacent lot in a streamlined process, and even get a gift certificate toward new fencing. This program was operating in Southwest Detroit, but would soon be available in other neighborhoods. I was encouraged by this news, and anxiously waited to see if this opportunity would come to the northeast neighborhoods as well.

But nothing happened, and it was becoming blatantly apparent that my ducks really needed more pasture. They had nibbled the grass to nubs, and buying them extra feed was expensive, so I put some money toward new fencing, in spite of not having a deed to the lot.

In the meantime, I had made my farm an official business. I named it Laid In Detroit, paying homage to Detroit industries famous slogan “Made in Detroit,” while acknowledging our progression into urban agriculture. My original house became a vacation rental and event center, that was playfully named “The Duck 'n' Roll Inn.”

I was going from being a homeowner with a job, to someone who could have a major, positive impact on the future of Detroit. Now, more than ever, I needed that lot to complete the picture!

As Spring progressed into Summer, as usual, my life became a whirlwind of activity. I collected the paperwork, but didn't have much time to pursue purchasing the lot, but, as luck would have it, I caught news of a special Wayne County property auction.

Is there a chance that my lot, which is now fenced in beautifully with happy ducks grazing on succulent plants is on that list for auction?

I checked, and indeed it was!

I was going from being a homeowner with a job, to someone who could have a major, positive impact on the future of Detroit.

This was a good news/bad news situation. The goods news was I finally had a definitive process to purchase it with little to no red tape. I didn't have to prove I lived next door to it. I didn't have to have proof that I was up to date on my property taxes. I didn't have to worry about my application to purchase being rejected or lost by city planners. All I needed was a name, an address, and an email, and I could bid online. The bad news—so could everyone else.

So I put in my minimum bid for an empty lot--$200. Then I searched the site to see if anyone else bid on it. As far as I could see, I was the only one who wanted it. But I had an uneasy feeling, so I reread the terms and conditions. Sealed bid? What was that?  I had never bid on an auction before now. Then I found out that a sealed bid meant I could not see the other bidders, nor could I see how much they bid.

What? Immediately I wished I had bid $300, just for insurance. But who would want that corner lot, and what would they do with it? Not only was it clearly fenced in as part of my property, but it connected with no other properties that would make it worth developing.

So I hung all my hope on the pure undesirability of it all, and waited until the day the winning bidders were announced.

That day came, and to my shock and dismay, I lost the bid!

There was no way to describe how I felt, except that I was completely flattened with disappointment. I imagined this other bidder, this other person with a name, an address, and an email, and what possible, if any joy, they must be getting out of winning this lot. Most likely, it was an out of town investor who had never even seen the lot, who probably bid on dozens, if not hundreds, of other properties.  This lot would only exist as a piece of paper, a file, a bit to pay taxes on once a year, along with a huge batch of other properties.

But to me this lot was food, sunshine, pasture for my flock. One day it would be a pond, a array of fruit trees, and the foundation for a greenhouse that would provide food and passive solar heat. It was the view out my window on a sunny morning, and it was the buffer between my property and the outside world, the reason why so many visitors described my property as peaceful oasis in the city.

And once again, this little strip of heaven that didn't mean a thing to anyone else, was in the hands of an indifferent and remote entity.

At the bottom of the email, Wayne County added, “We hope that this process helps to stabilize our communities.”

I could have blamed the city, but the city was in a violent tailspin before this administration took over. I am sure there are some bad intentions in this shuffling of land, but I also think that there area lot of good intentions working at cross purposes to one another, with one hand unaware of what the other hand is doing.37

I could have blamed the investors. But they are just doing what investors do—they make money from investments. They are like bears raiding a campsite. You share their territory, and they do what they do out of instinct and survival. You just have to be smart and hang your goodies up and out of their reach, which I failed to do.

But I did blame myself—for not understanding the auction process and for not taking action to purchase the lot before it went to auction.  In spite of the warnings and red tape, I should have at least applied to purchase it so there would be no question that I wanted it.

My only hope was that if the bid was tied, I could rightfully win the tiebreaker if I demonstrated that I currently occupied the property. I sent a message to the county explaining that I was maintaining and using the lot, and that it was a fenced in, integral part of my property. They told me that I could contact the new owner via the Registrar of Deeds.

Not a tie? The only thing I could do now was wait to see if this bidder actually went through with the purchase. They had three business days to complete this transaction. If they failed to do so, I would gain the right to buy the property.

So I rationalized everything. I figured one of two things would happen. Either this person was buying up the neighborhood with plans to redevelop it. In which case, when new townhouses cropped up next tome, my property values might go up enough to sell without taking a loss, and maybe I could look for a more ideal homestead elsewhere. Or perhaps they would realize that this loss was worthless to them, and already occupied, and not worth buying.

Then, after rationalizing, I totally put it out of my mind. I figured there was no way this was going to be resolved quickly. There was only a remote chance that the winning bidder wouldn't buy it. It will probably take weeks to months before the Wayne County records would reveal the new owner. Then there was no telling whether this person would relinquish the property to me. I braced myself for a long wait and a long struggle.

Only a week went by, but out of curiosity, I called the Registrar of Deeds. They directed me to their online database that would have the most up to date information. I logged on, but found absolutely nothing on that property. I assumed the records were not updated yet. Once again, a feeling of despair swept over me. It was all in the hands of government, or an anonymous investor, and any information I could use to try to help my situation was unavailable.

Then, another email message from the auction titled “Wayne County Property Auction—You Are Now The Winning Bidder!”

Then, another email message from the auction titled “Wayne County Property Auction—You Are Now The Winning Bidder!”

What? Just as I had been blindsided by the loss, now I am equally surprised by a win! I was a raging inferno of joy! It was a miracle!

The process of buying the lot then became very simple. I filled out a form online giving them the information I needed on the deed. Then I went downtown and paid $200 cash. The cashier handed me an official folder with my receipt and other legal notices. My deed would come in the mail. That was it!

I will probably never know how I came to win the lot. Perhaps Wayne County did a drive-by, and saw that I was indeed already occupying it. Maybe it was just some crazy who was bidding on properties with no intention of buying them. Most likely, the winning bidder inspected the property, and saw that it was basically useless as an investment and didn't follow through on the purchase.  But either way, it didn't matter. I got the lot!

That evening, I traversed that corner property on my way to the community garden. It was a tangle of Queen Anne's lace and chicory, with tunnels formed by foraging ducks. I set foot on it a thousand times before, but this was the first time I walked it as the owner.  I suddenly felt something that was rare in the city of Detroit—a sense of security.

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