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Inside an Unsuccessful Effort to Turn Vacant Lots Into Urban Farms

A tax incentive aimed at getting landowners to allow their unused lots to become urban farms has generated little interest in Los Angeles County.

In Southern California, an effort to turn vacant lots into urban farms is struggling to take root.

In 2014, the California legislature approved the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act. Three years later, the policy was implemented in the City of Los Angeles and unincorporated cities in Los Angeles County.

Supporters of the policy were optimistic that many owners of more than 8,000 eligible lots in the city would jump at the tax break. It would be a compelling incentive for them to turn unused parcels of land into something productive for the community.

The reality has been different: So far, only four lots have received a tax break under the program.

"We assumed that, by having this policy on the books, all of a sudden, all these vacant property owners would come out of the woodwork and say, 'Yeah, I'll take this $5,000 tax break to have my property used [for agriculture],'" said Breanna Hawkins, policy director at the non-profit Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which championed the legislation.

The UAIZ program allows owners of plots of up to three acres to claim a property-tax reduction if they use or lease the land for agricultural purposes for a minimum of five years. The land is re-assessed at a lower rate, based on the average per-acre value of irrigated cropland in California. But Hawkins and other urban-farming advocates believe property owners are apprehensive about giving up their vacant land, likely because many are holding it for future development. Or owners might be concerned that if they convert the properties to small farms, they'll get pushback from neighbors when they replace the farms with something else.

Cyndi Hubach was one of the first recipients of the UAIZ tax break. She converted a parking lot to the Elysian Valley Community Garden, which is home to a beehive and serves as a compost hub. Hubach is also a co-chair of the urban agriculture working group at the LAFPC.

As the policy is written currently, owners who receive the tax assessment must continue lending their vacant property for a minimum of five consecutive years, with the option to renew for another five years at the end. "It seems like a long time," Hubach said, "but a lot of these lots have been vacant for decades, so five years shouldn't be that much of a deterrent."

While she doesn't plan on developing her garden into anything else, she does see why other property owners may be disincentivized by having their land tied up for five years at a time. Landowners have the option of ending their contract whenever they wish, but state law requires them to pay back the amount they've received in tax benefits, unless their municipality determines that the cancelation was "caused by extenuating circumstances despite the good faith effort by the landowner," as the code states. Hubach said the process may seem like an unwarranted headache for owners who don't understand it well enough, especially if their taxes just aren't that high.

Despite its relatively fruitless first run, the state legislature voted last year to extend the UAIZ beyond its original sunset provision. The ordinance will expire in 2029 rather than 2019.

Advocates claim the city was insufficiently prepared to implement the program. "In order to really make the UAIZ successful, you have to invest in it," Hawkins said.

In an email to CityLab, staff members in the office of L.A. Councilmember Curren Price, who introduced the local legislation, said that the planning department continues to promote the UAIZ on social media and at local events. Price's staff said the office has "encouraged many local property owners, including faith-based organizations and business owners, to verify whether their lots can qualify for the UAIZ program."

Elliott Kuhn is a property owner and grower in the San Fernando Valley. His urban garden has been approved for the UAIZ, but he says he has not yet received a tax assessment and does not know when or how that process will unfold.

Doritt Ragosine has multiple beehives on the green vacant space next to her property. She was one of the first two people to apply for the UAIZ in Los Angeles, but even after multiple trips back and forth from local governing offices, she wouldn't learn that she did not qualify for the program until she got to the very last step of the application process.

The state's UAIZ policy supports a tax break for various agriculture-supporting activities, including composting, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. In the city of L.A., however, there must be at least some food-growing on a parcel for it to qualify for the tax break.

"That was a huge blow for folks who really envisioned using the policy for [supporting] uses," Hawkins said, adding that broadening the definition of "urban agriculture" under the city's legislation could potentially help the effectiveness of the UAIZ.

Jessica McBride, a land-use and zoning consultant, noted that growers and eligible property owners simply aren't connecting. There are no formal means of linking growers to people whose land they might be able to use. Growers have to seek out landowners themselves, first by locating vacant lots throughout the city, and then by using public records to obtain owners' contact information.

Advocates have suggested tweaks to make the city ordinance more effective. In addition to offering a tax break for property owners who do lend their land, L.A. could penalize property owners who don't. The City of Long Beach, for example, fines owners $53 a month to encourage them to convert their vacant lots into urban gardens or farms.

Price, the council member, said in an email that he is proud of the work done so far and hopeful for the future: "As we all know, implementing a new program comes with challenges and opportunities for growth."

One UAIZ project is a micro-farm in Price's district, on a formerly vacant lot in the area of a new affordable housing development. The project will likely help dozens of families in the area grow their own food. But advocates wish the impact could be measured in the hundreds or thousands instead.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.