Urban Homesteading

People willing to invest a little time, effort, and money are getting some great bargains on buildings in urban homesteading programs.

| September/October 1980

A hundred years ago, "go west, young man" was good advice. After all, the western sky was big and clear, and land was free for the taking. Well, the Homestead Act was repealed in 1976, and there isn't any more undeveloped "free land" to be had in the United States. But—as many people are discovering—it's still possible to homestead ... in the heart of many American cities! And in these days of fuel shortages and transportation problems, folks with urban jobs are finding out that "citysteading" can be energy-efficient and—in general—not a bad idea at all!

Urban homesteading programs—which allow people to purchase (for a dollar down!) and renovate decaying urban properties—came about as a response to the metropolitan housing crisis of the late 1960's. About that time, the middle-class flight to the suburbs had led to an increased need for city services on the part of the poor who remained behind ... and taxes rose as the tax base fell.

Many landlords—neglecting required maintenance—squeezed the last penny from their properties and then walked away from back-tax bills. The abandoned buildings began to blight entire neighborhoods, more and more property dropped from the tax rolls, and the cycle of vandalism and arson took hold.

The original citysteading programs—which started in 1973 in Wilmington, Delaware ... Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ... and Baltimore, Maryland—were begun to help break the cycle of urban decline. Then, in 1974, the federal government entered the picture with the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act ... and the stockpile of federally owned homes (most of which resulted from defaults on FHA mortgages) joined the numbers of municipally owned tax-delinquent buildings. By 1975, demonstration programs were underway in 23 cities ... and now, nearly 90 urban areas participate!

How It Works

MOTHER EARTH NEWS recently sent staffer Peter Hemingson to Baltimore to observe the workings of what's generally considered one of the best urban homesteading programs. Both city-owned and federally repossessed houses are included in the Chesapeake Bay city's setup, and—while some requirements differ from one piece of property to another—the general homesteading procedure is the same.

The Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development selects—from a pool of tax-delinquent homes, FHA foreclosures, and buildings acquired in urban development programs—houses that are suitable for renovation. The list of properties is announced, and the public is invited to apply for their purchase. (The Baltimore program has no residency requirements, but some city programs do have such limitations.)

1/11/2008 10:26:53 PM

Thank you for the bottom line, straight shootin info. I appreciate level talk when in a crisis and I surely don't need any spiced up, dreamboat, mis-----information! A good day to you all. Allen

11/30/2007 3:42:15 PM

Is the program working in new York City at this time. I live in the Bronx,put i also have friends in Brooklyn that are looking at the program. please sent me information about the other cities.

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