Michael Friedrich: Atlanta’s land trust shows how to create affordable housing

Nonprofits that buy land, build homes and sell below market rate are giving low-income homebuyers a chance

(Monica Garwood | The New York Times)

If anyone knows how gentrification has displaced Black working-class residents in Atlanta, it’s Makeisha Robey, a preschool teacher. During her two decades living in the city, she has watched affordable apartment complexes vanish as new developments arise and wealthier, white residents move in.

After being priced out of renting in a series of neighborhoods, Ms. Robey, a 43-year-old single mother, became determined to buy a house of her own. “Being able to build some kind of equity, being able to have this home base where your family can come visit,” Ms. Robey said, “I wanted that for myself.”

That wish became a reality when she discovered the Atlanta Land Trust, an organization that creates and protects affordable housing. Community land trusts are locally run nonprofits that purchase land, build homes on it and sell those homes below market rate to low-income buyers. The trust keeps the deed for the land, leasing it to homeowners who sign a long-term agreement to limit their home’s resale price, so that it stays affordable into the future.

“You make a one-time investment in creating a community land trust unit, and that unit is affordable forever,” said Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust. Community leaders founded the organization in 2009 during the development of the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile rail park — similar to New York City’s High Line — that has inflated housing prices in historically Black neighborhoods nearby.

The Atlanta Land Trust focuses on low-income buyers who make between 60 percent and 80 percent of the local median income and can readily support a traditional mortgage. Those interested must still work with commercial realtors and lenders, which can be an uphill climb for first-time buyers. But that challenge has eased as the model becomes more familiar. So far, the organization has sold 15 land trust homes; it aims to build 300 by 2025. “It creates a pathway to homeownership,” Ms. Rhein said.

In 2019, Ms. Robey became one of the organization’s first buyers when she closed on a small cottage with a fenced yard in southwest Atlanta’s gentrifying Pittsburgh neighborhood for $103,000 — well below the rapidly inflating median price of around $227,000 today. She explained that it was renovated by a local neighborhood development partner before being transferred to the land trust: “It helped me come into the house with the confidence that I’ll be able to live here happily, I’ll be able to maintain it, I’ll be safe.” Ms. Robey said that she would not have been able to qualify to buy a home the conventional way.

The influence that powerful private real estate interests exert on American city governments has caused housing prices and rents to soar over the past decades, increasingly placing homeownership out of reach for families of color, and Black Americans like Ms. Robey in particular. Community land trusts form a promising corrective to this trend. By removing land from the speculative market, they keep housing affordable for first-time homeowners — especially low-income people of color.

In America, community land trusts have always been rooted in racial equity. Unlike other types of land trusts, like those formed to conserve land by restricting development, they were devised specifically to prevent the displacement of communities of color. Black sharecroppers in the rural South pioneered the model to protect their families from eviction by white owners during the civil rights movement, explained Tony Pickett, chief executive of Grounded Solutions Network. Mr. Pickett, whose organization supports affordable housing nationally, wants to advance their vision. “This model is part of achieving racial justice,” he said. “It was meant to be that from its origin.”

Through Grounded Solutions, Mr. Pickett has established a three-city cohort comprising Atlanta, Houston and Portland, Ore., that shares strategies for acquiring vacant and abandoned land in an effort to scale up the land trust model. He has also worked to support high-profile projects like the Douglass Community Land Trust in Washington, D.C., where the development of another High Line-style park is contributing to gentrification in the city’s historically Black Anacostia neighborhood.

Encouraged by research on the benefits of community land trusts, Grounded Solutions aims to support the creation of one million new units across the country over the next 10 years. The model has been shown to keep foreclosure rates low through recessions and prevent displacement. It also increases access to homeownership and builds wealth over time for communities of color, according to a 30-year study of land trusts and similar affordable housing schemes from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. In over 4,000 units, the median home accumulated around $14,000 in value over a five-to-seven-year period. Fifty-eight percent of homeowners went on to buy market-rate homes.

“That, I think, is the great American success story that we really want to try to replicate for every family in this country,” Mr. Pickett said. “Because of discriminatory practices, such as redlining or even outright racial covenants excluding people of color from owning homes, that was prevented in years past. So this is an opportunity to reset.”

But community land trusts are not only a means to homeownership. Even in the most expensive cities, they increasingly support affordable rentals in multifamily buildings, said Tom Angotti, a professor emeritus of urban planning at Hunter College. Mr. Angotti has long advocated for the model in New York City, where he heads the board of a large multifamily site at Cooper Square.

There, the land is owned by a trust and its 300-plus housing units are owned by a tenant cooperative. This structure keeps rents affordable over time and gives residents, a majority of whom are low-income people of color, a strong voice in how they want to use their homes and the space around them. In that way, Mr. Angotti said, land trusts are about residents seizing political power. “It’s not just that people want a house or an apartment that’s safe and decent and well equipped,” he said. “It’s that they want control over their living environment.”

The main barriers community land trusts face today are systemic. They must win support from policymakers and overcome entrenched real estate interests. “Trying to pry away buildings from the city is a major political enterprise,” Mr. Angotti said. “It takes organizing.”

That process can be slow. But it has worked, even in New York City’s overheated housing market. Philadelphia is the site of another recent victory, where organizers successfully pressured the city to turn over 50 houses to a community land trust. “If the criterion is numbers, land trusts are losing the contest,” Mr. Angotti said. “If the criterion is a community-based solution to permanent affordability, I would say land trusts are winning.”

With the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, millions are behind on rent and mortgage payments, and permanent affordability is more urgent than ever. “Coming out of the pandemic, there’s likely going to be another recession and increased need for affordable housing,” Rhein said. “Even though the work we’re doing today isn’t directly responsive to Covid-19, it will allow us to be better prepared.”

Robey is determined to be a part of that preparation. Community members typically make up one-third of the governing body of community land trusts, and today she sits on the board in Atlanta. She wants to share the model with others in her community who could benefit from it — and help streamline the process for them. “I know it’s a huge learning curve for everyone involved,” she said. “You have to be extremely savvy to work the system.”

Michael Friedrich is a journalist who writes about the social problems caused by gentrification

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