Land Use in the United States and Mexico | Great Land Giveaways
The Great
Land Giveaway
R. R. Doister

Salvadore is twenty-two years old, just married, father of a son (named after me, his presumptive godfather).

Recently, and on his own, Salvadore has built a house --- complete with walls, roof, doors, small fireplace, and a tiny garden.

The land was supplied to him by the city he lives in. The ten-by-thirty lot cost him eight hundred dollars, payable over the next seven years, with an interest rate of 3%.

Although the home has no running water yet, Salvadore is proud of it because of the many months that he has devoted to building it --- building a place for himself, his wife Maria, and baby Carlos. Part of the miracle of this is that he did his building over weekends instead of hanging out on the streets, getting zonked, fighting and showing off, like he used to do.

This all took place in one of the most primitive parts of Mexico, in the town of Pochutla, State of Oaxaca. I find something very humane in the fact that a government --- state, national, or local --- would think so highly of its poorer citizens that it would offer them tiny parcels of land so they could have a place to live, a place to raise a family, a place to be proud of. I suspect some of Salvadore's recent maturity and calming down comes from having his own place to build, on his own land.

This starts me wondering what it is about my own country --- the land of the free, the home of the brave --- that prevents it from undertaking such kindly acts on behalf of the underprivileged and the dispossessed.

For you know and I know that if Salvadore were living in Los Angeles, or New York, or Chicago --- he would be offered a condo for $25,000 down (which he couldn't afford) or a small apartment with first and last month's rent of $2,000 (which he couldn't afford.) The only other place available to him would be a two-room apartment to share with ten or twelve of his fellow Mexicans. No one in California --- or Illinois, or New York --- would ever offer him a low-cost bit of land to call his own, on which to build his own dream cottage.

§     §     §

Recently, the Los Angeles Times told us that there was a fine plot of land lying across the street from City Hall. It has been lying fallow for enough years to create a place for people to do drugs without being unduly disturbed by the police or neighbors (who are the police).

There seems to be some question as to when the city can get around to leasing it out for the construction of yet another fifty-story high-rise to increase the bottom line of some mega-corporation somewhere. The city fathers have certainly not given a thought --- not a one --- to you and me and the Salvadores of the world, those of us who don't own a public corporation, much less have a place to live.

Let me offer a plan --- a simple plan, a revolutionary plan; a humane plan. Let's take this glorious site --- and others like it around the country --- and offer them to the people. Not the corporate people; not the politically proper people; not the wealthy. Let's offer it to The People. That's us (remember us?)

We'll call them The Mayor's (or Councilmember's, or Alderman's) Free Land --- in memory of their present owners who, as we know, want nothing but good for all of us.

The city will do some minor improvements: lay pipe for water and sewage, tear down the parking garage, make some streets --- two-lane byways (not those twelve-lane behemoths that have destroyed the pedestrian life of our suburbs).

The city will divide the land into tiny plots: say, twenty by thirty feet. There'll be a lottery to qualify people who live below the poverty line, who need a place to live. As an especially valuable present, the City will not allow the Building Department nor the Planning Department to have anything to do with Mayor's Free Land. For this project the city will eliminate all those wretched building codes that were designed by and for "developers," codes that have been strangling our gentle land for the last forty years (remember: the older and more humane parts of our cities were built before 1950, when there were no building codes whatsoever, when the concept of Planning Departments did not, mercifully, exist.)

The new denizens of the Mayor's Free Land will not only construct their own homes, but they will also set up their own land-use rules. If the people want to build small stores onto the fronts of their houses, it's their right (remember --- it's their property). If they want to stick in a TV repair shop, a hand-laundry, a garden supply house, a shoe repair --- it is their right. The only rules will be: no hotels; no buildings over one story tall; no parking garages, no Jack-In-The-Box, none of those murderous 7-11's. Only small town people who will live in (and love) their own neighborhoods.

The monthly cost to buyers will be minimal. Property taxes waived for ten years. City loans --- up to $1000 --- will be offered for building materials (recycled walls, windows, and doors preferred.) No land-use hocus-pocus allowed, which means no renting out to strangers, no hoarding, no speculation. Gardens encouraged throughout --- acres of gardens, with acres of flowers and vegetables. No parking areas, though. We favor denizens who prefer to walk, or use public transportation. Free mini-buses, though: this land is to be set up for people --- not for GM or Toyota or Chrysler.

The coming of Mayor's Free Land will help to change the rules that have been ruining our cities for so long. It will put an end to the drab sameness that now sprouts like a gross weed to the north, to the east, to the west and to the south of us --- homes built on speculation of fantastic profits for the builders --- a sameness that offends so many of us, that might well be the end of us.

The Mayor's Free Land will offer something you can't find in suburbia. Eyes. what Jane Jacobs referred to as "The Eyes of the City." People, in small houses, with large windows, watching the world go by outside.

No great profits, for sure: just thousands and thousands of affordable housing units --- each original, each alive, each different. And it will cost the city --- us! --- next to nothing.

The local governments and the electric company and the telephone company will build the infrastructure; and the rest of us will get a diverse and vital new neighborhood --- real people with real lives and a real world to live in: people and trees and little shops and dogs and go-carts and kids and vegetable gardens and flowers instead of people shooting smack and smoking crack cocaine and creating fear.

In contrast to the way it is now, the rate of juvenile delinquency and gangs and drive-by shootings in Mayor's Acres will be close to zilch. If you have any doubts, go visit that city built with absolutely no zoning codes, built with no building permits, with no planning departments. Take time to visit one of the most successful cities on the west coast --- one with a diverse (and diverting) system of free-lance housing, with an outstanding, low-cost public transportation. It costs a dollar or less to get across town, because the buses and taxis are subsidised by the goverment, which is as it should be.

It's the second largest city on the West Coast; a city with the lowest neighborhood gang and crime rates. It's a city that managest to be alive, and vibrant, and real.

It's called Tijuana.

American big cities imitating a Third World City? I suspect this bizarre idea will cause apoplexy among those $150,00 a year top bureaucrats, those Planning Directors and Housing Officials who so lavishly run our City Halls. The "experts" --- can you hear them now? --- coming up with any excuse possible to convince us that this strange plan for Mayor's Free Land is totally unworkable. It doesn't have the necessary nine levels of government approval; it's too radical; it's too simple --- right?

Forgetting, conveniently, that this was exactly the way the west was won: through co÷perative land grants, given out with practically no rules, sponsored by a militantly conservative U. S. government, a hundred years ago.


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