RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On now to the mortgage crisis. Wayne County, Michigan - home to Detroit - has been hit hard by the housing slump. The county's inherited so many unwanted properties it has more vacant land than it knows what to do with. One nonprofit is now turning those properties into urban farms. NPR's Charla Bear has the story.
CHARLA BEAR: Driving around Wayne County, you're bombarded with an overwhelming number of boarded-up homes. Neighborhoods are littered with vacant land, covered in knee-high grass. Demolished apartment complexes have left empty lots the size of football fields.
Ms. TAJA SEVILLE (Founder, Urban Farming): I've lived in L.A., New York, in Connecticut, London, Minneapolis, but I've never seen this kind of long stretches of unused land.
BEAR: That's Taja Seville. She's standing on a bare lot between two single-family homes. A foreclosed house was torn down there last year. Seville and a group of volunteers pulled all the weeds and laid fresh topsoil so they could plant neat rows of tomatoes and collard greens.
Seville founded a nonprofit called Urban Farming to plant food for the needy on vacant city land. She says Detroit was the perfect place to start. The city has long suffered from a glut of available property, and last year it topped the nation in foreclosures. Wayne County now has about 7,000 idle plots. Seville saw that as an opportunity.
Ms. SEVILLE: It has so much unused land, which has been a burden to the city and the county. Now we can flip that around and make that into a positive.
BEAR: This year, Wayne County is letting Urban Farming take over 20 of its derelict properties. Under the pilot program, volunteers will tend the garden and the city of Detroit will pitch in water. Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz says that's a huge boon.
Mr. RAYMOND WOJTOWICZ (Treasurer, Wayne County): It won't cost the county anything, because we're donating the land for this operation. If a person wants to purchase the lot, that will be for sale. And perhaps it will be an inducement.
BEAR: He says the biggest benefit, though, is less blight. And residents say that unlike abandoned houses, the gardens aren't targeted by vandals.
Mr. ERIC PARRISH: Everybody around the neighborhood respects it, because they see that we're doing something to help the community.
BEAR: Eric Parrish has lived in Detroit for more than 15 years. He says he recently started gardening with Urban Farming because it helps turn things around in his city.
Mr. PARRISH: You can tell people are struggling, you know, and things are not how they should be in life, you know. So when I do see these plots of land, it just makes me really say, oh, I want a garden there.
BEAR: Parrish says most people are grateful for the gardens, although at first a few were concerned they'd attract pests. Turns out what urban farms do attract is people, says Gail Carr, one of Detroit's city managers. She boards up houses nearly every day and sees what a dramatic difference these gardens have on communities.
Ms. GAIL CARR (City Manager, Detroit): People are coming out of their homes that would not come out under normal circumstances because they didn't think they had a reason to come out or they didn't think there was still a community or a neighbor. And then once the community get out they realize, oh my God, we can have food. We can grow our food, and we can take care of this land. And that's a blessing to me.
BEAR: The gardens aren't fenced off, so anyone can wander through and pick fresh vegetables for free. And any leftover produce is donated to food banks. Treasurer Wojtowicz says the county is watching the program and hopes to expand it. Taja Seville isn't waiting around. She plans to plant hundreds of gardens in at least a dozen other struggling cities this season.
Charla Bear, NPR News.