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Gone to Seed

County Turns Empty, Foreclosed Lots into Urban Gardens


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SCATTERED AROUND Multnomah County are 384 vacant lots that stick out like little scars of a lousy economy. For years, the county has been trying to figure out what to do with these lots—empty land seized through property tax foreclosure. But now the county has finally hit on a new idea to bring life to the abandoned lots: turning them into urban gardens.

Joanne Green pointed to the freshly planted seeds that occupy one corner of the Northeast Portland vacant lot where her home once stood. Green lived in the house at 800 NE Emerson from the mid-1970s to the early '80s, but after she moved, the house hit some hard times: It burned down and its owner stopped paying property taxes.

After entering property tax foreclosure, Multnomah County eventually took over the derelict patch and, under the new County Digs program, donated it tax free to nonprofit Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust (OSALT) who let Groundwork Portland turn it into a garden.

The vacant lots that County Digs is turning into foreclosure gardens aren't properties caught up in the national foreclosure crisis—there are no banks with bad loans or mortgage defaults directly involved. Instead, these vacant lots are green spaces whose owners haven't paid property tax in six years or more.

The properties could potentially be sold off to developers. But most are oddly shaped or poorly located strips leftover after the county either sold off or gave away more desirable properties to county offices, government entities, or affordable-housing groups. The smallest is a 62-square-foot triangle running along SW Hewett; another is a 566-square-foot strip bordering 12 homes along NE Beech and Failing that remained vacant because of a state mapping error. The largest is a 16,000-square-foot railroad spur on NE 87th.

Since 2005, Multnomah County has donated three plots, all in North and Northeast Portland, to the nonprofit OSALT to turn into gardens. The nonprofit gets the land for free, under the condition that it will always be used for agriculture. This month, the county is kicking the program into full swing, opening up 16 new properties that nonprofits can apply to start farming.

Someday soon, these tax foreclosures could be coming up roses.

Green and her neighbors planted their little garden, lined with hay bales and covered in a plastic tarp to keep off frost, this past summer. The fledgling Emerson Street Garden is part of a citywide Groundwork initiative to transform unused land into neighborhood resources. A team of Blazers Boys and Girls Club kids helped plant seeds last summer in the garden, after volunteers had stripped off the topsoil, which was contaminated with lead.

Now, plastic knives stuck into the soil read "potatoes" and "carrots"—Green even planted a cute little kale next to the garden water spout. "For the slugs," she says.

"There was good times and bad times here, but I think the garden will be an improvement," says Green.


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