This Land Is Your Land: When Desperate Cities Give Away Homes

Towns have taken to offering land for next to nothing — or, sometimes, literally nothing

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Real estate prices scaring you off from buying that dream house? Fear not: Weighed down by a sluggish economy and confronted with a glut of vacant real estate, towns across the U.S. and Canada have taken to offering land for next to nothing — or, sometimes, literally nothing.

Whether it’s to boost local businesses or revive homes falling into disrepair, here are three local governments — and one prestigious Ivy League university — that have bet their future on the power of Free.

Take it or leave it… actually, just take it

Gary, Ind., is unloading houses for just one dollar a pop, The New York Times reports. The city was once a bustling home to 180,000 people, but the local steel industry has collapsed since its mid-century heyday, and the city’s population has fallen to less than 80,000. In addition to about $8.4 million in debt, the exodus has left the city with as many as 10,000 abandoned homes.

Residents hoping to snag these dollar-homes must meet an income threshold, starting at $35,250 for one person, and agree to upgrade their new home to meet housing standards within six months. Detroit, which recently became the largest city in American history to declare bankruptcy, has pursued a similar strategy to put people back in empty, foreclosed homes that pose fired hazards and dragged down the prices of surrounding homes. Other cities across the country, including Indianapolis, are following suit.

If you make it free, they will come

Rural towns with dwindling populations are angling to attract new residents and businesses — in other words, taxpayers — by allocating local plots for free giveaways. Small communities in Kansas have led the charge —  with few takers. But James Oltman, the economic development director for Lincoln, Kan., (population: 1,285) said his office continues to get three to four calls a week inquiring about the town’s program. Plots are still available for residents and industrial businesses, Oltman said.

The blog DailyFinance has other examples of small towns where “land is free.”

Riding the boom

The Canadian town of Reston is looking to capitalize on a regional oil boom by luring workers with homes that cost a measly $10, ABC News reports. Buyers put down a $1,000 deposit and must begin construction within 90 days. Once an occupancy permit is granted, the town gives back $990.

Alaska has been playing this game for years, paying out annual dividends on an oil-wealth trust fund since 1982. Residents who had lived in Alaska for at least one year were paid $878 in 2012.

Just take it!

Princeton University tried to give away rundown homes, but with a catch: takers had to foot the bill for physically moving those homes off their land, which the university wanted to use for new development.

Alas, no one volunteered, and the buildings have been demolished, the university said.