A Land Trust Q&A

966 Oak Street, SFCLT’s first resident operated nonprofit cooperative in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Kevin DuBay

Tracy Parent, the organizational director of the San Francisco Community Land Trust, was kind enough to answer some questions I had about SFCLT’s work and where she thought the land trust movement is headed.

Through her guidance, SFCLT has done what many thought was impossible: saving at-risk housing by converting it into permanently affordable, shared management homes. Not only does the Land Trust provide housing in neighborhoods hard hit by displacement, it also provides a concrete example of long-term solutions to the housing crisis.
Ms. Parent’s approach to affordable housing is unique. While she has formidable financial acumen, she also is an ardent support of the housing movements. She writes the budgets, pro-formas, and finance plans that put teeth into the idea of the right to the city.

Why has the Land Trust approach become so popular among anti-displacement activists?

First, the SFCLT is the only community-based organization that has shown an interest and ability in competing on the real estate market to purchase occupied, rent-controlled buildings that are at risk of market forces causing eviction and displacement of the existing tenants. Other housing nonprofits have not been willing to take on such risk or uncertainty, and traditionally do not believe small properties are economically feasible for permanent affordability (i.e., revenue can not keep up with long-term maintenance needs).

Second, SFCLT offers the existing tenants the opportunity to share ownership in the building in a way that keeps their monthly payments as low as rent but gives them more control of the quality of their building and homes. SFCLT uses the housing cooperative model of shared ownership.

Third, SFCLT offers “permanent affordability” for the community, not just for the length of the government loan or regulation (traditionally 15 – 55 years). Although, the public sector is now adopting longer-term regulatory requirements to create “permanent affordability”, as the CLT movement has demonstrated the longer term value and success of this model.

That sounds great, but is there a danger of expecting too much from a Land Trust?

Yes and No. No, because, ideally, if there were enough capital available to support acquisitions, there’s plenty of demand for the model in San Francisco – for either rental or cooperative ownership. And Yes, because the CLT model in San Francisco depends on resident engagement and self-management to ensure the long-term financial, physical and social viability of these smaller apartment buildings. The community cannot expect the Land Trust to take the place of traditional “affordable housing” organizations that provide deeply affordable rental opportunities for very-low-income people who have special needs or otherwise unable to self-manage their properties.

How successful has the San Francisco Community Land Trust been?

Considering that SFCLT has had to compete in the extreme real estate market, with very little financial support from the city since its inception in 2002, I’d say very successful. With six properties (63 units) stabilized by 2015, success has clearly been driven by public support and advocacy from the community – mostly from tenants, community organizers and elected officials who represent communities at risk of displacement. Community support not only opened up public funding sources for the model, but also attracted private local investors when public funding was not yet available. On the people-side, lower-income residents living in San Francisco have demonstrated that ownership is not just about equity appreciation, it’s about resident self-determination and pride. SFCLT’s resident-managed cooperatives have a much lower operating cost per unit than all other affordable housing models in San Francisco.

What are the major barriers you face to growing your organization?

The largest barrier is the lack of support for this innovative model by the City’s housing staff, who prefer to work with the traditional models they already know (e.g., tax credit financing and rental housing). City housing staff have not been able to turn corners as fast as the economy does. SFCLT and its partners must continuously push the envelope and be patient during the learning process, in the thick of mass evictions and loss of opportunities in the community.

In five years, where would you like the national Land Trust movement to be?

In five years I personally would like to see the Land Trust movement expand its model from single-family home ownership to more innovative models that are more relevant to urban areas experiencing rapid economic change, such as cooperative housing, co-housing and commercial spaces for community-based nonprofit organizations. I’d also like to see the movement lean towards the member-based model of community governance, rather than the traditional nonprofit model that does not ensure residents have a direct vote in the model. In this new era of housing finance, I’m afraid that there is little to leverage from federal funding sources, it really depends on local jurisdictions. However, if there were a way to leverage the National Housing Trust to support more innovative models, that would be one way to gain national awareness and support for the “permanently affordable”, “community-owned” Land Trust model.

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