Detroiters Rally to Stop ‘Corporate Land Grab’ of Vacant Lots

Yvonne Yen Liu

The Detroit Black Food Security Network opposes a land deal that it says could jeopardize grassroots urban farming initiatives like the D-town farm, pictured above (Photo courtesy of Detroit Black Food Security Network).

The eyes of the food justice movement are turned towards the Motor City, where the local city council will vote Tuesday on a corporate investor’s proposal to purchase nearly 2,000 city-owned lots. Millionaire money manager John Hantz, who first proposed the scheme in 2009, says that the land will be used to create the world’s largest urban farm, returning Detroit to its agrarian roots.” But community activists fear the sale will displace residents of the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood, most of whom are low-income black families. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (of which this author’s employer, WhyHunger, is a member) has issued a statement calling for transparency and full public debate of the deal. 

Grassroots organizers in Detroit liken the Hantz deal to a land grab, when corporations purchase land owned by sovereign nations. This is a problem erupting across the global south, with two-thirds of land grabs occurring in Africa. Once purchased, land that was once used to grow food is often utilized for biofuels or other cash crops. The net result is less food available for people to eat, and accelerating displacement as small farmers lose their land and livelihoods.

Across Africa and Asia, corporations have swallowed as many as 50 million acres of land—the size of all of France’s farmland. Now, food justice organizers charge, investors’ sights are set on the periphery within: urban, postindustrial cities primarily composed of low-income communities of color.

Hantz is offering to purchase the lots at $300 a pop, which breaks down to a mere eight cents a square foot, for a total of $520,000. Critics of the deal charge that Hantz has received special treatment in his quest to buy up the land, and argue that the city should be looking to grassroots solutions rather than corporate investors for Detroit’s redevelopment. Over the weekend, actor Danny Glover joined a protest against the deal organized by residents who say that the land could also be used by a local school.

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The land in question, moreover, is not completely vacant: About 100 people live amongst the empty lots and abandoned houses. The city promised that the residents would have the option to buy lots adjacent to their homes for $200 each. However, when community organizers from the East Michigan Environmental Action Council canvassed in the neighborhood, they found that many residents were unaware of this opportunity, as well as the public hearings dedicated to the Hantz deal. Most of the homeowners in the area were already concerned about losing their homes to foreclosure. 

Though the deal was first proposed nearly four years ago, Hantz’s intentions for the property remain ambiguous. First, he made a splash in the national media with a 2009 Forbes magazine profile about his plan to create a for-profit industrial farm within city limits. Noting that Detroit was plagued with block after unoccupied block, Hantz told the reporter, We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” Fearing just how much scarcity the plan would create, the urban agriculture community in Detroit opposed it. Hantz then pitched the idea for a tree farm, which morphed a third time into a beautification project.

Local organizers believe the devil is in the details. Hantz is definitely linked up to the gentrification of the waterfront,” says Lottie Spady, associate director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. The land up for grabs is adjacent to Indian Village, a white upper middle class neighborhood filled with grand Tudor and Beaux Arts homes, where former auto barons once made their home. (Incidentally, it’s also where Hantz currently resides.) It’s also a mile away from the Detroit International Riverfront, which underwent development to become a tourist destination and now hosts waterfront luxury condominiums. A major city planning effort underway shows a green way running through the land to connect to the river,” adds Spady, Hantz and the city are in cahoots, and the people are losing out.” 

Public opposition to the plan won a delay on the city council’s vote, and food justice groups are urging supporters to pack a public hearing on the matter tonight. If the deal goes through, organizers warn that residents will soon be displaced by rising property values. Already, Detroit has seen a mass exodus of over 200,000 black families in the past decade. Therefore, the city council’s decision may have national implications: Spady believes that Detroit is like the canary in the coal mine, a harbinger of a new wave of corporate land grabs in the U.S.

Land, water, housing, and education: all of these things are under constant attack in Detroit, being disemboweled and dismembered. Now, they’re trying to corporatize our land and privatize our schools,” Spady explained. Detroit is ground zero for resource grabs. As Detroit goes, so goes the nation. We’re dealing with the stuff that the rest of America will deal with when we’re all faced with industrial decline.”

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Action Alert: Hantz Off Detroit!

The Detroit Food Justice Task Force is asking for support to halt the land grab by John Hantz. You can help out in three ways:

1) Call Detroit City Council representatives and ask them to vote no to the Hantz land grab. You can find their phone numbers here.

2) Sign onto the Statement of Solidarity by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance: http://​bit​.ly/​h​a​n​t​z​o​f​f​d​e​troit

3) Share this with your friends and networks, and help trend the following hashtags: #Hantzlandia #LandGrab #HantzOff #DetroitFuture.

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Yvonne Yen Liu is the Director of Global Movements at WhyHunger, which is a member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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