Five years ago, officials in Newark, New Jersey launched a novel experiment on Valentine’s Day: Selling 100 city-owned vacant lots at a discount to 100 lucky couples wanting to build their dream homes. 

Most of the lots, though—which sold for $1,000 each—never got any love. Only three homes have been built. 

Newark officials still consider the program a success for the national buzz and positive headlines it created in a city too often defined by its high rates of crime and poverty. 

“I’m actually very proud of it,” Baye Adofo Wilson, who used to lead Newark’s development efforts said of the Valentine’s Day deal. It was his idea to do something different to cut down on the city’s blight and soften its image for would-be homeowners. 

The program was an attempt by Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration to spur home ownership and development outside the city’s downtown, which had seen an influx of commercial investment. 

“I think it was a program that was a part and parcel of the current revitalization taking place in Newark,” Adofo Wilson said. 

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Of the 100 lots, nearly half were returned to the city. Eight properties are in the permitting process, 13 couples have almost closed, and 20 are under new ownership by developers. One is about to start construction. 

Joseph Bodden, 33, purchased property but was never able to build. 

“We were super excited, we told family, friends, everybody already had us moving,” Bodden, who lives in Scarsdale, said. 

He had a problem with a city-approved contractor and things eventually fizzled out. 

Joseph Bodden purchased a lot in the South Ward but never built his home. The property defaulted to the city.

“A long time passed, we figured the city went in a different direction,” he said. 

Trash—and a dead cat—litter Boden’s corner lot now. Neighbors say they wish somebody would build something to keep drug dealers from congregating in the empty space.

“Sometimes we’re going to try something and it might not reach the bar that we want it to,” said Allison Ladd, Newark’s new deputy mayor for housing and economic development. 

“The big part of it for us is how do we learn from it and how do we go to that 2.0 of the same idea?”

Ladd, who previously worked in Washington, D.C., remembers reading about the 2015 sweetheart sale in the national press at the time. Couples (all partnerships were welcome) crowded behind City Hall barricades the night before the big bargain like it was a Black Friday sale. They braved one of the coldest days of the year. One couple waited outside for 17 hours. Lots were sold on a first-come, first-served basis. 

“Nobody could stand the cold,” Gilber Gomez, who bought a West Ward lot, said in Spanish. “It was one of those winters. It was freezing.”

Gomez, 45, and his brothers arrived at midnight the night before and had to take turns warming up in the car. He works in construction and he was able to overcome the permitting hurdles. He finally got the title to the property last year and the city’s approval to build this month. 

“For us, it was a huge opportunity to have land at that cost,” Gomez said. “It’s exciting, it’s a moment a long time coming,”

His brother was the first to build a home under the program just two doors down and the effect on the block, he said, is already clear. There’s new lighting on the street and an abandoned home is being cleared out. 

Gilber Gomez and Geovany Gomez

“Now you come to this neighborhood it’s lit up, before it was dark, in the shadows,” he said. “The neighborhood feels a lot safer. The danger doesn’t exist as much.”

About 2,000 vacant or abandoned properties still linger in New Jersey’s largest city, and officials say they’re finding new and creative ways to increase home ownership in a city where 78% of residents rent. 

When asked whether the city might try another sweetheart sale, Deputy Mayor Ladd laughed. “That’s an interesting idea,” she said.