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Mass Urban Land Sale in Detroit Must be Dropped
(Photo: Matthew Berggren / Flickr)

Mass Urban Land Sale in Detroit Must be Dropped

(Photo: Matthew Berggren / Flickr)

After a couple of years of Hantz Farms’ President Mike Score proposing a meeting between myself and John Hantz and discussion on the terms of such a meeting, early this year, I agreed to meet with Mr. Hantz, if Kathryn Underwood were present. Kathryn is the City Council’s representative on the Detroit Food Policy Council and a planner with the City Planning Commission. She has led the urban ag workgroup that developed the proposed ordinance on urban agriculture in Detroit.

Kathryn and I met with John Hantz and Mike Score at the Russell Street Deli one morning in late February. I wanted the chance to look Hantz in the eyes, ask him questions directly and not only hear, but feel his responses. One of the things I asked him about was his statement that he is trying to create scarcity by purchasing city-owned land.

He affirmed his previous statement that he is trying to create scarcity by “removing the abundance” of unused land. But then, to my surprise, he shared that the idea for Hantz Farms came about only after he proposed — to three city administrations — that he fund a homesteading office that would facilitate Detroit residents quickly and easily acquiring ownership of vacant city properties. I told him that his original proposal that would put land in the hands of Detroiters is something I could get behind. He expressed that he still would be willing to pursue that strategy.

A few weeks later, in a discussion with Eric Holt-Gimenez, director of Food First, I shared a summary of the meeting with Hantz. Eric suggested that perhaps there was some common ground for a strategic alliance with Hantz and that there are historical examples of cooperation between opposing forces.

While continuing to be involved in efforts to mount opposition to the ill-conceived Hantz deal, I suggested to a group of activists that we draft a letter to John Hantz encouraging him to withdraw his current proposal and meet with us to develop a more equitable strategy. The group agreed. In late July, I mailed the letter to Mr. Hantz on behalf of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Feedom Freedom Growers, Greening of Detroit, The Boggs Center, People’s Kitchen, Andrew Newton and Stephen Boyle.

The letter read in part:

“Over the last few years, on the heals of the community-based urban agriculture movement, a new development has happened. Proposals for larger scale, for-profit farming or forestry ventures have been presented to the city. Many of us have opposed those proposals because we think that their scale is inappropriate and because they are not grounded in the social justice values that guide the current community-based urban agriculture movement. “

Certainly one thing that we all wish to see is that Detroit’s ‘vacant’ lands develop greater value and be put to productive use. The details of how this land use happens are where our differences start. From our perspective, having a large amount of land in the hands of any one person or corporation continues the centuries old legacy of inequity. We want to see the publicly owned land in the city of Detroit utilized for the common good. Land ownership provides the opportunity for wealth creation, community development and pride.

“You have shared that your real objective in purchasing large tracts of land in Detroit is to create scarcity, and that the idea for Hantz Farms evolved only after your original idea of funding a homesteading office that would facilitate Detroit residents being able to acquire land did not gain traction with city officials. We think that this provides the opportunity for us to find common ground. We are asking that you drop your current proposal to purchase 1,900 city-owned lots to plant hardwood trees, and that we work together to develop an alternative proposal that allows Detroit residents to acquire ownership of land.

“The eyes of the nation are on Detroit. We have the opportunity to help create a new paradigm that models cooperation between seemingly opposing forces. Rather than put our time and energies into a battle to discredit each other’s viewpoints, we could work together to create land use and ownership policies and practices that work in the best interest of us all.

“We would very much like to meet with you to discuss how we might cooperate for the common good.”

Mike Score responded to the letter on Aug. 9. Excerpts from his letter appear below.

“As we advanced our proposal for establishing Hantz Farms, through an enterprise we call Hantz Woodlands, we have continued to quietly promote the establishment of a homesteading program in Detroit. In addition to integrating advocacy for homesteading within our negotiations to establish a larger scale agricultural venture we found many allies who have agreed to work with John Hantz to advocate and help fund this type of work. Back in 2010 John Hantz publicly offered to work with a broad range of interest groups, including nonprofit organizations, but many scoffed at the idea of partnering with the Hantz Group and rejected this invitation.

“At this point you have approached us with the interests in collaborating to create land-use and ownership policies/practices that work in the best interest of all. We have no interest in receding back into the negative relationships of the past, but we are not simply able to scrap the collaborative network that we have built for the purpose of pursuing a citywide homesteading initiative. Also our proposal for establishing Hantz Woodlands is based on agreements we’ve reached with dozens of block clubs and neighborhood associations on the city’s lower east side. Local residents have pinned their hopes on our venture for repurposing a large area of city-owned blighted land. We are not able to set our agreements with our neighbors aside.”

In spite of Mike Score’s comments to the contrary, there is still an opportunity for Mr. Hantz to drop his ill-conceived project and to change the course of history by cooperating with community activists to co-create a more just, equitable and vibrant Detroit. Of course, we’re not waiting on Hantz to see things our way. We are continuing to actively mobilize community opposition.

What about these neighbors, with whom agreements can’t be set aside? Many neighbors are saying they are not aware of the Hantz deal or the proposed terms that would give him first rights to land within a one-mile radius. Are the “dozens of block clubs and neighborhood associations on the city’s lower east side” who have agreements with Hantz Woodlands so vested in Hantz Woodlands that they are not willing to consider more equitable approaches to using and developing vacant land for the public good?

The City Council agreed to postpone voting on the proposed Hantz deal until Dec. 11 in order to allow time for a public hearing to be held. At this writing, details of such a public hearing have not been released. Needless to say, when the hearing happens, it is critical that Detroiters, particularly those living in the footprint of the proposed Hantz deal, show up en masse to voice their opposition to this land grab.

Increasing numbers of us stand for a radical break with the unjust policies and practices of the past, and will struggle relentlessly for self-determination and to establish food, land and social justice. This isn’t personal. This is about principled differences in how we see the world and the future development of our city. Those differences are shaped in large part by history, race and class. Seize the time!

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