Property giveaways fail to draw newcomers to Kansas towns

Of 27 towns that have offered free land for homes since 2000, few have seen their populations grow

Free fixer-upper in Lincoln, Kansas (The Hustle)
Free fixer-upper in Lincoln, Kansas (The Hustle)

Even in a national housing shortage, towns across the Kansas plains can’t seem to give away land for new homes.

Despite rising home prices in the Sunflower State, property giveaways in rural Kansas have seen many small towns continue to decline in population, according to The Hustle.

The state boomed in the late 19th century after the passage of the Homestead Act, which gave residents 160 acres of free land provided they moved there to farm. But then the number of farms dwindled, and so did its population.

As a result, schools, churches and city services have been forced to close or consolidate, according to researchers. In many cases, entire towns simply disappeared.

To draw new residents, at least 27 Kansas towns have enacted free land programs in the last two decades. Few have had success.

Only four of the towns have seen their populations increase since 2000, with Marquette (population: 299, as of 2020) adding the most at 11 percent. But even that town ended up on the losing end.

To save its school and stanch population loss in 2003, Marquette’s leaders offered more than 60 free lots to anyone willing to move there and build a house, according to The Hustle.

Its population rose for a decade, then fell again. Its elementary school, temporarily saved by the giveaways, closed in 2014. Roughly 20 of the lots are still available.

The vast majority of the towns suffered continued population loss, despite free homes and lots. The worst was Peabody, where 32 percent fewer people now live than in 2000.

Kelly Gourley, director of the Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation, can explain the loss.

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With 1,200 people, the town of Lincoln has a theater, a top-ranking high school and even a luxurious Airbnb in a downtown loft. But its population has fallen by 25 percent since 1980, and storefronts are boarded up along its main drag.

Its free land program was supposed to bring in newcomers. But only 2 of the 21 lots offered have been developed, one by a former mayor and another as a spec home.

The problem, Gourley said, was that the cost of building a new home — even on a free lot — often doesn’t pencil out.

She said building a new house would cost between $100,000 and $200,000, but is likely to sell for less, given the low prices for property in the state. Buyers also struggle to get homes appraised at the cost of construction, and sometimes need to cover the difference out of pocket.

Gourley showed off the ultimate real estate bargain: an olive-green Dutch Colonial house with, an ad states, “enough woodwork to cause anyone to swoon.” Its price: $0.00.

Other nations, as well as U.S. states and cities, have tried similar land giveaways to help fuel growth, to mixed success. Some have even offered to pay off college debts or provide forgivable loans.

Monessen, a city outside Pittsburgh, tried to reverse decades of economic decay by offering to erase overdue taxes on vacant houses if a new owner commits to cleaning them up and renovating them.

A small town in the Australian Outback recently offered free land to draw in new residents — fielding 250 inquiries from around the globe.

[theHUSTLE] – Dana Bartholomew

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