A lot of vacant lots in New York City are privately owned. We are starting to work with community groups and private landowners who see the benefits of having a site activated versus sitting abandoned and vacant. Two examples:
The lot that Feedback Farms (a part of A Small Green Patch) was on is owned by a private landlord. It is sandwiched between two publicly owned lots (HPD) to which A Small Green Patch has a license; when they got that license, they contacted the borough president Marty Markowitz's office for help reaching out to the private landowner -- turns out he was friend of Marty's. The private landowner is donating rent for the year and will be getting a thank you letter from our fiscal sponsor that might help on his taxes; he also hasn't gotten a single Sanitation ticket since the creation of the Farm (those were a real problem before) and gets to feel good about how he is contributing. Feedback Farms has a general liability insurance policy that covers farming/gardening activities at the site.
The lot that One Kin Farm is on is also private land. The owner was approached by the lead gardeners on that site, who, building on 596 Acres' experience with A Small Green Patch, offered to carry an insurance policy (which we helped them arrange for free), take care of the lot and give the owner a thank you letter from a 501(c)(3). They also took him on a tour of thriving gardens in the neighborhood and generally charmed him.
The big difference is that when it's a private owner, it really is all about the relationship. If you can get a meeting with them, we can help you figure out how to frame what you can offer. Once you have conversation, you should put the agreement in writing in the form of permission from the owner. You can see a copy of a simple agreement that was used in Brooklyn recently here.
Here's a great guide to help you think through your potential project on a privately-owned lot by a group in BC, Canada: http://www.shiftinggrowth.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Shifting-Growth-Best-Practices.pdf
Get in touch if you know an owner who wants his land used for public good & greening! Here's an article by Carolyn Zezima of NYC Foodscape written for companies managing housing that lays out the steps they can take to incorporate gardens in their projects: https://www.assistedhousinginsider.com/article/take-10-steps-create-successful-community-garden-residents
How do I figure out the actual address of the vacant lot near me?
How do I figure out who has the deed to the land?
After you get some more specific information about the privately owned lot you're looking at, you can use ACRIS. Search Property Records to figure out who was the last person to receive the deed and look at the image of the deed or its details to see contact information for all parties and their attorneys. You can try contacting everyone!
Still having trouble figuring out where to contact the owner?
The most recent tax bill is also a good place to look for a good mailing address; start at the NYC Department of Finance's website and look at the PDFs of the bills to see where they are being sent.
If the owner is a corporation, you can also look them up in OpenCorporates. You can link to State Divisions of Corporations see whether the corporation is currently active or dissolved; you can also see what address the corporation has on file as the place the State can contact it. You can use that address, too!
How do I know much the owner owes in taxes?
What about insurance?
Insurance sounds intimidating but it really isn't. You're just paying a company to carry the risk of anything bad that might happen in the space. Since gardens are pretty simple projects, that risk is not so severe and so insurance doesn't cost that much. The American Community Gardening Association recently created a way for gardens who are members to get individual insurance policies affordably. Details are here.
Need help drafting a letter? Take a look at this example of what you might want to say:
[Name this person],
I'm writing in regards to an empty lot at [insert lot address and city] that I believe you may have an affliation with as per the city's tax financial records. A group of neighbors and I are interested in temporarily using it as [insert use, perhaps a garden or community meeting spot] in the time period before development of the property becomes a reality. My hope with this letter is that you will be able to help get permission from the owner of the property to turn it into a community resource for the short term. If you are the owner, or know who the owner is, I would really appreciate your help with this.
The project would involve a group of community members who would use the space to [insert activities planned for the space, such as gardening or hosting events]. In return, the same group would help maintain the lot: keeping the lot clear of trash and debris, shoveling snow in the winter, and [insert other forms of maintenance]. We would be sure to obtain general liability insurance to cover anyone working on the property and will name the owner as an additional insured. We would also make sure that any project that is started would be marked as temporary to ease the transition of the land to development. We would be happy to sign a contract with the owner enumerating these promises.
In the future, the City of New York is considering creating a tax credit for owners of vacant lots whose neighbors use them. Our collaboration at [insert the lot's address] can be a model for other communities working with private land owners.
Please let me know if this is something you can help with.
[Your Name and contact information]
Join the Private Land Google Group to ask your questions to other land access advocates working for access to privately owned vacant lots.