Peaches and pears grow in an orchard across the street from Larry Adams' home in one of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods. A garden has been planted a few lots down, and another parcel serves as a nursery for a landscaping business his nonprofit is nurturing.
Adams, his wife and Walnut Way Conservation Corp., their community development organization, have been buying homes and other properties on surrounding streets, creating a local renaissance by renovating buildings, expanding urban agriculture and encouraging others to do the same.
The couple's success has inspired Milwaukee leaders, overloaded with abandoned and foreclosed properties, to turn land over to residents who want to grow gardens, create parks and establish food-related businesses. The goal is to revitalize neighborhoods and cut costs while improving residents' access to healthy food.
Many cities have looked to urban agriculture as a way to use open space and improve residents' diets. Milwaukee borrowed some of those ideas, such as New York's licensing of food carts that sell fruits and vegetables. The city also is updating zoning and other regulations for urban agriculture.
But the most attention-grabbing part of Milwaukee's plan is selling tax-foreclosed properties, perhaps for as little as $100, to people who promise to produce food. The goal is to create radical change by focusing resources — at least initially — on one neighborhood, and to have residents lead the way. In other words, they want to make it "Home GR/Own."
The seeds have been planted in Lindsey Heights, a neighborhood just northwest of downtown. Adams' home is less than three miles from City Hall, but economically, the areas are worlds apart. The median household income here is $22,838, half that of downtown, and the unemployment rate is six times higher at nearly 24 percent, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Venice Williams runs a community garden that serves as an incubator for food-related businesses on the Lindsey Heights border. She sees Home GR/Own as an opportunity for many gardeners to get land and strike out on their own.
"If Home GR/Own does not impact the income of families in the neighborhood where we expand, it has failed," Williams said.
She plans to buy lots to expand her business growing and selling fresh herbs and products like herbal teas, and she has trained two women from the neighborhood to help her. Williams envisions uses for buildings too, such as a seed bank or food-processing facility.
Williams has no shortage of ideas, but she said, "I don't have $15,000 to $20,000 to buy a home and then rehab it for production."
Home GR/Own project manager Tim McCollow said the program may provide money for grower training, small business training and some upgrades, such as for stormwater management. The goal, he said, is "creating a catalyst in that neighborhood."
The program also could reduce Milwaukee's long-term costs. Since the recession, there's been a tenfold increase in tax foreclosures of homes and other buildings — 775 in 2012 compared to 79 in 2007, said Martha Brown, deputy commissioner of the Department of City Development.
Even with increased foreclosure sales, the city has about 4,100 buildings and lots on its hands at a cost of millions to taxpayers. Many buildings are in poor repair, so the city must renovate or demolish them. And vacant lots cost thousands of dollars each year just to mow.
The city budgeted $4 million to handle foreclosed properties this year, and Mayor Tom Barrett has proposed nearly tripling that amount next year, to $11.7 million, largely to catch up on demolitions.
Milwaukee hopes to raise $3 million in city funds, grants and donations for the first three years of Home GR/Own, McCollow said. The goal is to launch five to seven projects this year, including a corner produce store and a community garden.
Adams is in talks with the city to take over a house that sits next to a lot used by the 4-H club sponsored by Walnut Way.
He sees urban agriculture as "a tool to socialization," noting that drugs and drug-related violence moved out of the neighborhood as trees and bees moved in. He leaves gardens unfenced so hungry people can graze. The result, he said: "There are challenges, but for the most part, good neighbors."