In January, me and 50 or so other Re-Imagining Cleveland grantees signed a four-year lease with City of Cleveland for our subsequent Land Bank properties. This four-year document feels pretty good and secure at first. Then I start thinking about my current paw paws and the future chestnuts that I want to plant. It will be at least four years until I see any real fruits from these plantings. However, beyond the four year lease, Cleveland is being eerily, attorneyalistically quiet about its plan for the properties.
If you look at those photos above, it's pretty easy to see that my farm is located on a major Cleveland street near two major highways. Thousands of cars drive past every day. To shorten the verbiage and get to the point, my farm would make a kick-ass spot for a BP gas station. Then when you consider that these funds for Re-Imagining Cleveland came from the Federal government and technically not directly from Cleveland itself, it's also pretty easy to understand that these green spaces might just be only a holding pattern for the City. In four years, it's clear that Cleveland believes there might just be some corporate investing again. Maybe?
It is this complete lack of being "all-in" that terrifies many of us new and would-be Cleveland urban farmers. Admittedly, some of the folks in the urban foods and sustainability movement are total flakes, either having only heard these terms through Oprah and Martha, or just being a little too liberally extreme with what is acceptable for city land usage.
At this point, it feels as if we've reached an impasse. Cleveland farmers want what every farmer in the world wants: land security. Whereas, the City wants to protect itself from flakes/liability, while keeping its door open to a better economic opportunity. In all actuality, who could really blame Cleveland?
Being the solution-maker that I've been becoming, I have a solution. That solution is Cleveland Urban Homesteading Laws. These laws, or ordinances, or whatever they'd technically be in terms of legal jargon would be modeled after the Federal Homesteading Laws of yesteryear. I've often likened the land availability in Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt to what the early American settlers must have felt. It's just that this time there's no American Indian Genocide or African Slavery to taint (understatement) the historical record.
For those unaware, back in the day, up until about the 80's, the American government would give away large tracts of land to adventurous/rugged individuals to "homestead" the land. Basically what this meant is that the individual/family had a prescribed amount of time (often five to seven years) to prove to the American government that they could make a living off of the land (think trapping, fishing, mining, logging, farming, and very earlier tourism). If at the end of the allotted time frame, the individual/family could prove that they had earned a living from the land, then the family would be granted that tract.I propose something in lines with this methodology as a way to create a formalized mechanism to grant land rights to Cleveland farmers. I would further suggest to even lower the bar from "earning a living" to "making quantifiable supplemental income." Being that all land bank lots are not created equally in terms of size, it may be necessary to put dollar amount standards on various lot sizes. For example, a Cleveland urban homesteader, working an eighth of an acre may need to show $3K of revenue earned; whereas, another Cleveland urban homesteader, working an acre may need to show revenue of $24K in order to be granted the land.
Cleveland's already way on the map and making its mark on the world in terms of urban food production and land re-use. However, being the first city in the United States to create urban homestead laws would be nothing short of revolutionary. It would empower people. It would help stabilize neighborhoods. And "gulp," it may even attract people to the city. And when I say people, I mean non-Ohioans.
Of course, I encourage all other cities to create their own urban homesteading laws. It's just that being that I farm in Cleveland, I would like Cleveland to do it first. Something like a homegrown revolution.