By Matt Johnson
LITTLE ROCK - A proposal by the Little Rock Land Bank Commission would hand over vacant lots and houses to city employees for free, as long as there is a commitment to revitalize the property.
The Board of Directors will vote on Tuesday whether to approve the plan that would essentially give away 61 properties to eligible city and Little Rock School District employees. Those employees would be obligated to make the property their permanent address and develop within a year.
"It is a giveaway if you want to build your primary residence there and you want to be a homeowner in those neighborhoods," said Redevelopment Administrator Brittany Jefferson. "We would be more than happy to help give it away if people are actually interested in getting involved in the program."
The intent of the program is to revitalize what Jefferson calls "transitional neighborhoods" that are often plagued with eyesores in the forms of abandoned, boarded-up houses and empty lots.
One of the properties owned by the Land Bank is a dilapidated house at 1701 Dennison Street. Neighbors point to a collapsing roof, mold-infested interior, and sinking porch as reasons why it should be torn down.
The average cost of tearing down a vacant home, however, can be around $3,500.
"It makes the community look run down," said resident and LRSD employee Towanda Ruffin, who lives next door to the Dennison house.
Ruffin worries about the rodents that crawl from underneath the house and frighten her two children. Vacant house also pose significant fire hazards due to their appeal to arsonists.
She hopes to have the property signed over to her so she can expand her current home and tear down the vacant house that currently occupies the land.
"W would transfer the property to them at no cost but they have to develop their primary residents on that property," said Jefferson.
She has been instrumental in moving the project along through the Land Bank Commission. Property owned by the Land Bank is typically located south of Interstate 360 and acquired after it has been foreclosed on.
Still, some look at an empty lot and only see empty promises.
"Nobody ever wants to give anything away that's worth something," said Robert Webb, a community advocate.
He says a commitment to better infrastructure and parks in his hard-hit community would make others want to actually pay to live there.
"We could have taken that money and done other things," said Webb. "If we could have done those other things we wouldn't need the Land Bank.
He also voiced concerns about whether the city would be able to enforce its policy of requiring potential Land Bank property owners of making the property their primary residence.
Jefferson knows there will be skepticism when the board votes on it on Tuesday but she's optimistic.
"I think the location is a really good place," she said. "I don't think there's any concern for citizens who want to live in those areas."