No one owns more empty lots in Akron than the city.
Based a review of county property records by the Beacon Journal, City Hall owns 1,341 empty lots in Akron — a figure the city says roughly matches its count. The Summit County Land Bank, formed in 2012 in response to the housing foreclosure crisis, owns another 572.
These 1,913 empty lots, appraised at $34.1 million, are worth more to the city than their taxable value.
If sold to responsible developers or neighbors or families who would build new homes on them, the lots could advance the city’s mission of equitable growth, using stable owner-occupied homes to help drive Akron’s population from 200,000 to 250,000 by 2050.
But as it stands, the city can’t get rid of these lots much faster than it gets new ones. With every home that is condemned, demolished, foreclosed on by banks and tax collectors or left on the public auction block, the portfolio of publicly owned and distressed properties grows.
It’s a problem that’s decades in the making but one that took off in 2005 at the beginning of local housing crisis, then accelerated with the ensuing foreclosures and demolitions. And now the city and the land bank have asked a tech company to help them return these dormant properties to productive use.
This month, the city launched a new website curated by Tolemi, a software company used for years by the land bank to understand and visualize its property data.
Work in progress
The website is a work in progress. The 156 city-owned lots populating the map so far represent less than 12% of all the city owns.
The land bank also is double-checking its properties on the site. Despite having 489 of their 572 empty lots pre-loaded onto the website, or more than 85% of their portfolio in Akron, Summit County Land Bank Executive Director Patrick Bravo said his staff will need the rest of February to ensure properties that the city published haven’t already been sold.
Once the hiccups are sorted out, the new tool promises to help developers, builders and families with the menu of programs offered by the two agencies, and filter for properties that fall under each program’s unique guidelines.
Each agency’s programs strive to revitalize vacant property. Some overlap more than others.
Akron’s Lot for a Little program, created with the onset of the Great Recession to sell discounted empty lots to local residents, and its Mow to Own program, launched in 2020 to give free vacant lots to neighbors who cut the grass all summer, are similar to the land bank’s Side Lot program. The land bank’s initiative launched in 2015 after three years of aggressive demolition left the newly created land bank with a surplus of empty residential lots.
The city’s newest program includes 46 empty lots under the Welcome Home Akron banner.
“These are the top sites where we feel the market will have an interest in purchasing for new home construction,” said James Hardy, deputy mayor of integrated development.
The program includes a $25 application fee. Buyers agree to begin building a home within three months and complete construction within a year. They must then live in the home for five years.
This new program is not to be confused with the land bank’s own Welcome Home program, which has resold dozens of foreclosed homes in Akron since 2017. Another land bank program rehabs old homes as the quasi-public agency, which includes a board member from the city, rethinks the last decade of residential demolitions.
The city has loaded and color-coded its Lot For A Little, Mow To Own and Welcome Home Akron listings onto the interactive map. But it’s the other 1,185 city-owned lots missing from the map that caught the attention of some in the community.
Plans for Summit Lake?
“As I expected, Summit Lake was not included. And that’s been pretty consistent with the city’s land acquisition pattern so far, in that they don’t want to do Summit Lake yet,” said Joe Tucker, director of South Street Ministries and a leading advocate for a community-driven, equitable redevelopment of the low-income residential neighborhood east of the lake.
Despite having 305 empty lots owned by the city, more than any other Akron neighborhood and nearly 100 more than the next highest count in Middlebury, Summit Lake has nothing listed in any of the city’s programs. Other than Chapel Hill, every Akron neighborhood is sprinkled with at least a few property ownership opportunities.
Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority secured a $450,000 planning grant in January from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a housing development plan for Summit Lake through community engagement over the next two years. Tucker is meeting in March with City Planner Jason Segedy to discuss the plan. Hardy said a steering committee involving community members will be announced in the next two months.
“I am over the moon to work with the city on a comprehensive development plan that establishes what’s good in the neighborhood, allows existing residents and existing landlords to improve their properties, move things forward in some positive ways,” Tucker said. “There is a lot of space for potential development, and I recognize that. I just always want to be one who says let’s be sure as we move forward that we’re also maintaining opportunities for people who live here.”
The collaboration will be modeled after ongoing community input through the Akron Civic Commons process, which is guiding the first major public investments in Summit Lake since post-World War II urban renewal programs cut a highway through the neighborhood, displacing residents and separating those who remained from economic opportunities.
More properties will be added to the city’s Welcome Home Akron program, Hardy promised.
But in Summit Lake and other areas, like around Laird Avenue where Middlebury meets Goodyear Heights, the city is “strategically” holding clusters of empty lots for bigger plans, perhaps to be used as pocket parks.
Hardy said he’s open to putting every city-owned empty lot on the new map so people can see what’s not publicly offered. Council President Margo Sommerville, whose Ward 3 includes Summit Lake, said she understands the city’s strategic position.
There’s nothing to hide, she said.
“If someone is interested in purchasing a lot [that isn’t listed], let them know, reach out to us,” she said. “We are working with people on an individual basis.”
General inquiries can be made by calling 311, 330-375-2311 or visiting https://311.akronohio.gov/csrsite/csr/eula.
The first 46 properties in the city’s new Welcome Home Akron program are being offered at 50 cents per square foot. That works out to about $2,700 for a 1/8-acre lot. By comparison, the land bank’s Side Lot program, which has some properties with the 50 feet of frontage required to build a home or close enough to request a building variance, is charging $200 for per 1/8 acre.
Bravo said there are some exceptions. For example, property beside a major hospital, which could be purchased as an investment that stands in the way of a hospital expansion, would not be sold that low.
Hardy said Welcome Home Akron properties can be financed for a buyer who lack cash upfront. The city would put a lien on the property and collect the price, which is negotiable, as part of the property tax bill over a period of up to 20 years. That works out to between $10 and $15 a month for most properties currently listed.
Flexible pricing doesn’t fully alleviate equity concerns for some.
Councilwoman Tara Samples of Ward 5 was surprised to see that a lot in East Akron at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bulger Street near South Arlington is listed at $1,000 more than another Welcome Home Akron lot in Highland Square, one of the hottest housing markets in the city.
Homes on either side of the East Akron lot are appraised at $27,000 and $36,000. The Highland Square property near King Elementary School neighbors $91,000 homes. The Highland Square lot is 9% smaller with a 36% lower asking price than the lot in East Akron, where stronger incentives are needed to resuscitate the local housing market.
“I see what they’re trying to accomplish,” Samples said of the city’s efforts to negotiate prices and help buyers with installments if they lack cash or access to a loan. “However, we clearly have equity issues as it relates to Ward 5. If there’s going to be an intention on rebuilding our neighborhoods, Ward 5 — all of Ward 5, not just a few pockets — has to be included not just in the conversation but in the actual revitalization.
At the other end of her ward, which borders on Ward 3, residents are watching from afar as developers and homebuilders pounce on city tax breaks and low mortgage rates. Here, residents could wait years before the city sells its empty lots.
“At the end of the day, even with Akron’s housing boom, Summit Lake’s values are still sunk,” said Tucker. “You go across the lake to Kenmore, you go down the street to Firestone Park, we see property values [improving]. But within the Summit Lake radius, that trend has not been effected yet.”
Reach reporter Doug Livingston at [email protected] or 330-996-3792.