Land Trusts: Preserving Affordable Housing and Building Community Wealth

In 1984, a fiery socialist mayor in Burlington, Vermont named Bernie Sanders implemented a policy innovation that would preserve the affordability of his city’s housing in the face of market fluctuations for decades to come. That policy innovation is called the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT), which today maintains housing at an affordable rate for more than 2,500 households. CHT also stewards 565 owner-occupied homes in a shared-equity program, offers homebuyer education and financial fitness counseling, and provides affordable energy efficiency and rehab loans, among other services. In 2008 CHT won a United Nations World Habitat Award.

Far from being a counter-cultural, Burlington-concocted utopian scheme, CHT is not unique and not the first of its kind. In fact, Bernie Sanders’ experiment is part of a growing network of community land trusts (CLT) across the country, all aimed at preserving and maintaining housing affordability for low- and moderate- income households.

There are currently about 250 CLTs across the United States. CLTs are nonprofit organizations that purchase land on which to construct, rehabilitate or maintain affordable housing for a community. For homeowners in the trust, long-term leases — generally 99 years — are negotiated in which the owner keeps some of the equity but the rest goes to preserving the trust for all residents. When homeowners sell, they get some of the home value back and the rest goes into the trust for future low- or moderate-income residents. Land trusts can also preserve affordable property for other community entities such as nonprofits, parks and community meeting spaces. With 82% of Land Trust residents across the country earning less than 50% of the area median income, and 79% of them being first-time homebuyers, CLTs are a key way for low-income families and individuals to remain in quality housing in their communities while building wealth through their home’s equity.

Consider the example of Boston. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), formed in 1984, brought together residents of the Dudley Street Neighborhood of Roxbury in Boston to develop solutions to the disinvestment, blight, and pollution in their neighborhood. DSNI acquired vacant lots, many of them blighted properties, and worked with developers to eventually own and maintain 225 homes at a permanently affordable rate. DSNI is a multifaceted community development organization that is involved in youth empowerment, equitable economic development and neighborhood safety and beautification, among other projects. With a board made up of all Dudley Street residents, DSNI has a governing structure that ensures it remains accountable to its constituents, working with local government to bring community-driven plans to fruition.

The city of Irvine, California, located in exorbitantly expensive Orange County, is experimenting with a CLT of its own. The Irvine City Council unanimously approved the establishment of a community land trust in 2006 per the recommendation of a Housing Task Force. The land trust will help ensure that any new units created with public subsidy or as a result of the City’s inclusionary housing ordinance will remain permanently affordable. The Land Trust’s goal is to create approximately 5,000 units of permanently affordable housing in Irvine by 2025. This would contribute over 50% of the city’s goal of 9,700 affordable units by that year. So far, the Land Trust has built 120 affordable units, according to its executive director. These new units will make a difference in a county where median rent has increased 24% since 2000 while median renter household income has declined 10%.

With the attrition of federal funding for affordable housing and a property market that is prone to speculative bubbles and overvaluation, local governments must look for innovative ways to keep their communities affordable for residents. Numerous tools, resources and technical assistance organizations exist to help community leaders and organizers start community land trusts and work towards more equitable communities and cities for all.