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Valentine's Day Vacant Lot Sales in New Jersey Didn't Go As Planned


Five years ago, Newark, N.J., came up with an idea for Valentine's Day. The city would sell vacant lots to lucky couples at a discount - a win-win. But the sweetheart deal for people looking to build their dream homes ended for many of them in heartbreak. WNYC's Karen Yi has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Happy Valentine's Day.

KAREN YI, BYLINE: In 2015, couples braved the bitter cold, lining up behind city hall barricades for a deal that seemed too good to be true - a piece of land for $1,000. People camped out for 17 hours. They brought blankets and warmed up in their cars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I burned about a quarter of, you know, the tank, but that's OK.

YI: Until finally...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through loudspeaker) Number one.

YI: Newark made national headlines. Here was a predominantly black, high-poverty city on the rise, trying to develop its blighted neighborhoods. Five years later, only three homes have been built. Another eight are in the permitting process. Most of the 100 sold lots are still empty, and nearly half were returned to the city. That includes the corner lot Joseph Bodden purchased when he planned to move from New York.

JOSEPH BODDEN: We occasionally drove by it like, oh, this is our land (laughter).

YI: Bodden paid $4,000 to design his home, but he struggled to get the right contractor. He didn't get much help from the city, and things fizzled out. The lot is now littered with trash and a dead cat. Neighbors say they wish somebody would move in to keep drug dealers from gathering there. The idea for the sale came from Baye Adofo-Wilson. He no longer works for Newark, but he says he considers the program a success.

BAYE ADOFO-WILSON: A lot of these neighborhoods didn't become poor overnight. And so the notion that it can be fixed in one year or two years, three years is not realistic.

YI: Gilber Gomez is an exception. For him, the deal is finally paying off.

GILBER GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: Gomez said it was a rare opportunity to get cheap land. This month, he finally got the OK from the city to start building. Allison Ladd is now leading Newark's development. She says the city learned from the experience. They're still trying to develop those lots, along with another 2,000 abandoned properties. As for a future sweetheart sale, maybe for Mother's Day?

ALLISON LADD: That's an interesting idea (laughter).

YI: For NPR News, I'm Karen Yi in Newark, N.J.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) You're my... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Yi