The Threat (and Promise) of a Good Example

It’s embarrassing to admit, but those who vehemently oppose shared equity homeownership may have a deeper understanding of the sector’s potential than those of us who ardently support it. Our […]

It’s embarrassing to admit, but those who vehemently oppose shared equity homeownership may have a deeper understanding of the sector’s potential than those of us who ardently support it. Our most fevered detractors may know us better than we know ourselves.

I am regularly taken aback by the outrage evoked by community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and other forms of resale-restricted, owner-occupied housing among some people. Raised eyebrows I expect. Doubt I accept. It is understandable that folks might have questions about tenures that deviate so fundamentally from the simple dichotomies with which they are familiar. To learn out of the blue that a bunch of strange hybrids have been quietly flourishing amidst the tidy, four-cornered flowerbox of public housing versus private housing and owning versus renting can be a bit startling. Most people reserve judgment, listening politely with a combination of curiosity and caution. But there is always a minority whose immediate reaction is red-faced disbelief. Rarely do I deliver a public talk about nonmarket alternatives to market-rate homeownership when I’m not angrily confronted by at least one member of the audience who acts like I’ve just run over the family dog.

Why such vehemence? Shared equity homeownership is a gnat on the rump of a very big elephant. Yes, the sector is growing. Community land trusts (CLTs) have now spread to 46 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. There are over half-a-million units of multi-unit housing in limited equity cooperatives (LECs). Hundreds of communities have inclusionary zoning, incentive zoning, or housing trust funds, most of them now mandating affordability controls for any owner-occupied housing created by these municipal means. Nevertheless the total number of resale-restricted homes still represents only a fraction of the nation’s housing stock. The sector is simply too small to warrant the degree of indignation and dread it predictably provokes.

If this sector were a country, it would not be Russia or China or any of the other well-armed antagonists that loom so large in American nightmares. It would be Grenada, an impoverished exporter of nutmeg and mace, barely a blip on the economic radar of the richest country in the world.

Wait a minute. Grenada? Didn’t the United States invade that tiny Caribbean island nearly thirty years ago, thousands of troops storming ashore under the breathless code name Operation Urgent Fury? Maybe that’s why CLTs, LECs, and their cousins raise so many hackles and attract so nasty an array of epitaphs as being “un-American,” “socialist,” “collectivist,” or “second-class.” Shared equity homeownership is the Grenada of the housing hemisphere, representing what Noam Chomsky once called the “threat of a good example.”

Why is it, Chomsky wondered in an essay published back in 1993, that little countries always seem to arouse the greatest hysteria among American politicians? His answer was that “the weaker and poorer a country is the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny poor country like Grenada can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, ‘why not us?’ ”

Implicit in Chomsky’s explanation is a contagion theory of social change, where ideas and ideals embodied in a few “good examples” are at constant risk of going viral, spreading out from their islands of origin and infecting a wider world. Isn’t that why CLTs, LECs, and similar forms of resale-restricted, owner-occupied housing seem so frightening? It is not the sector itself that terrifies its critics; it is the sector’s potential for influencing organizations, policies, and people far beyond itself.

What’s funny about these alarmists is they are right to be scared. That is precisely what is happening. “Dangerous ideas” like community ownership, the retention of public subsidies, the preservation of affordability, the sustainability of homeownership, and the recapture of land value created through the public’s investment in roads, rails, parks, schools, and other infrastructure are beginning to infect both the policies of local government and the practices of nonprofit organizations outside the ranks of CLTs, LECs, and other providers of shared equity housing. More and more municipalities are imposing durable controls over the use and resale of affordably priced homes that have been brought into being by the investment of public dollars or the exercise of public powers. More and more community development corporations, community development financial institutions, and local affiliates of Habitat for Humanity are paying closer attention to post-purchase stewardship. Indeed, they have begun to resemble their counterparts among the traditional providers of shared equity housing, not in name or organizational structure, but in their programmatic commitment to safeguarding the heavily subsidized homeownership opportunities they have worked so hard to create.

More dangerous still, these policies and programs are putting a product before the eyes of prospective homebuyers that is the ultimate “good example,” a subversive challenge to the one-party rule of the only form of homeownership that most consumers have ever known. The American Dream is becoming more diverse, a prospect that can be as scary for defenders of the status quo in the economic realm as it is for their allies in the political realm. If a tiny sector of CLTs, LECs, and other forms of shared equity homeownership can succeed in bringing about greater affordability, more durability, and enhanced security for poor families, isn’t there a risk that homebuyers with more resources might begin asking “why not us?”

By this light, those poor souls who become apoplectic when they hear me talk about shared equity homeownership may actually have a better grip on reality than we who worry endlessly about the sector’s slow progress in “going to scale.” Sure, their reaction is a tad excessive, especially when they begin seeing a resale-restricted Red under every bed. But their panic at the prospect of the sector going viral is not misplaced. They are prescient in their paranoia. They clearly understand what many of us who praise the products of our tiny island sometimes forget. Size matters, but it is not everything. There is also worth — and infectious promise — in a good example.

Photo: Volunteers with Durham Community Land Trust work on a renovation.

Photo Courtesy of Trustees of Durham Community Land Trust.

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