Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Show her how much you care by purchasing an empty plot of land, on which you are required to build and reside as a couple.
Still need Valentine's Day plans? Are you in New Jersey and hanging out for a while?
Then Newark has you covered. On February 14, the city is selling off plots of land for prices low enough to curl your toes. There's a catch: You must be a couple, and you need to be looking to build your love nest on a Newark lot.
The city's Live Newark program is selling lots for just $1,000 to people who are looking to build homes, start families, and settle down (and pay taxes). The lots will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis to couples who show up with $500 to put down and proof that they can pay for in-fill construction to build a new house on the property. Dozens of lots are up for grabs.
Newark's sale may be the most romantic program of its kind around. Other land banks are more clinical. The Detroit Land Bank Authority, for example, has been auctioning vacant homes since last summer, selling off distressed properties through its Building Detroit website. Two every day, like clockwork. The city recently introduced a plan to offer a 50 percent discount for city employees and retirees. A solid idea, but does a mere discount make the heart race?
Never for money, always for love—that's how Newark feels. Committed love, too: Not only does the city insist that the buyer be a couple (straight, queer, or platonic), the house must be owner-occupied. The couple has to plan on residing in the home for five years after the city issues a certificate of occupancy, a higher bar than most land banks erect for these kinds of property sales.
Newark is essentially giving property away. By setting a fairly low financial bar ($1,000 between two people, plus closing costs, plus the creditworthiness required for a loan to build a house) but a high personal bar (some kind of partnership—not necessarily romantic, but stable and long-term), the city is ruling out institutional or all-cash investors in favor of people actually looking to build family homes.
In Newark, this strategy might mean starter homes for minority families. According to the U.S. Census, minorities are the majority in the city (52 percent of residents are black and 34 percent are Hispanic or Latino), and the homeownership rate is low (23 percent, much lower than the statewide average of 66 percent). Median household income in Newark is half that of New Jersey at large, while the poverty rate in Newark is three times the state average.
The lots that sell on Saturday will likely host single-family homes. (There's nothing on the rules page explicitly forbidding construction of multi-family homes on properties purchased through the sweetheart sale, though.) In Newark, sales for single-family homes took a hit during the Great Recession. But more recently, prices have rebounded.
At the same time, Newark's unemployment rate has fallen sharply. Unemployment in Newark fell from 15.1 percent in 2010 to 10.2 percent in 2014, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city is reducing unemployment at a rate that only barely trails Jersey City, and Jersey City is outpacing the state and nation on unemployment reduction.
While the unemployment rate might have finally fallen in line with pre-recession figures, 10 percent is still high. Even a rebounding Newark can afford to give away vacant properties if that leads to families staying, improving them, and paying taxes on them. There's a lot to love about this plan.