Scaling Up: How Some Community Land Trusts Are Getting Bigger

The community land trust model is in a time of dramatic growth and creativity. Some CLTs are aiming for larger scale than has been typical. How are they doing it?

Some community land trusts are aiming for larger scale than has been typical. Here shows a 68-unit affordable townhome development being built -- large blocks of wood show where units will be. Irvine CLT will operate the site.
Irvine Community Land Trust’s Sage Park, a 68-unit affordable townhome community located in the Portola Springs neighborhood of Irvine, California, is expected to open next year. The organization’s long-term goal is reaching 5,000 units. Photo courtesy of Irvine Community Land Trust

In 2006, George McCarthy, then at the Ford Foundation, issued a challenge to those assembled at the National Community Land Trust Network conference: Make a real change in the nation’s housing market. Shared-equity homeownership, which at the time only had hundreds, maybe thousands, of units in the U.S., needed to stop being a boutique affair, he said.


What About Governance?

In the second part of this piece, we take a closer look at larger community land trusts to see how they handle governance. Want more? Keep up with our new Under the Lens series: Community Ownership Takes Center Stage.

Shared-equity homeownership encompasses community land trusts (CLTs), limited-equity cooperatives, resident-owned manufactured housing, and deed-restricted homeownership units created through inclusionary housing programs. All these approaches insulate homes from the price pressures of the private market and share equity between homeowners and the community to allow for both asset building and continued affordability. Shared-equity homeownership was, McCarthy argued, a form of tenure that should account for 20 percent of the nation’s housing stock, not under 1 percent, and he laid out a vision of what he thought the steps might be for a housing sector intervention to get there.

A few years later, the foreclosure crisis hit. CLT homes, all purchased by lower-income buyers, experienced far fewer foreclosures than conventional homes across the country, gaining the model some additional legitimacy. The foreclosure crisis also reenergized a housing justice movement that encompassed renters and foreclosed-upon homeowners, and focused on the problems created in the housing market by corporate ownership of land, speculation, and finance. For inspiration the housing justice movement turned to the story of the original community land trust in the United States, which was formed to enact self-determination for Black people who were experiencing retaliation for voting in Georgia, as well as to democratic housing models throughout the world. Activists began to incorporate community control of land as one of their long-term goals, envisioning a world that moved beyond fighting imbalanced landlord-tenant power dynamics to one where they took control themselves.

Today, land trusts and cooperatives have caught the attention of a wide range of players. A land trust has become one of the most common policy answers to “how will we [insert revitalization plan here] without causing displacement?” Land trusts are the proposed outcome for housing occupations, freeway tear-downs, and land banks trying to encourage mixed-income developments. Municipalities—and some funders—like the fiscally prudent idea of not losing the investments they’ve made in affordable housing, while also not having responsibility for resale enforcement. Community organizers like the prospect of more grassroots control over something as crucial as people’s homes.

As of the latest data, shared-equity homes of all types remain well below 1 percent of the nation’s housing units. A large majority of the country’s few hundred community land trusts still have fewer than 100 units, with many not yet having any. Nonetheless, community ownership—including community land trusts—is growing. The Center for CLT Innovation lists 289 community land trusts in the United States currently, compared to about 225 in 2018, and 162 in 2006. Grounded Solutions Network estimated in 2018 that there were 12,000 CLT homeownership units, at an average of 72 units per CLT (excluding those with none).

As with any model that has that many widely varying hopes and dreams pinned on it, there is significant variation in how the rubber meets the road. And one of the ongoing questions is how to really get serious about an ambitious vision to remove huge swaths of U.S. housing from the speculative market, while also accomplishing community control that goes deeper than simply having nonprofit landowners.

The two goals are not necessarily opposed—as Emily Thaden and Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions explain. Realizing solid community control of land requires organizations that will be around to deliver on their promise to steward that land for the community, which takes a baseline of sustainability and scale. But also a land trust that wants to continue to have political and funding support to grow and remain relevant would do well to have genuine community support.

Nonetheless, growth can bring challenges to any model. The sector is in a period of dramatic creativity and variation as it tries to step into the expectations set for it. Let’s look at some of the ways community land trusts are trying to get to a larger scale.

The Classic CLT

The classic community land trust involves an independent community organization that uses a combination of donated land, fundraising, and subsidy to develop a set of homes that it sells to low-income buyers at a below-market price, with a resale restriction agreement to keep it affordable at the same income bracket when it’s next sold. The trust holds on to ownership of the land, though the homeowner has a 99-year renewable, inheritable ground lease. The trust collects modest ground lease fees and provides ongoing support for the homeowners and for stewardship of the land. The trust is led by a board that is tripartite—one-third residents of CLT properties, one-third other residents of the community in which those properties are located, and one-third other stakeholders and experts who have an interest in supporting the CLT’s mission.

[RELATED: Learn more about CLTs and our past coverage of them]

There have long been variations on this. There are also other uses of the land—there are actually twice as many rental units on CLTs as ownership units—as well as commercial, open space, and cooperatives. CLTs have moved from single developments to scattered sites, and from new development to purchasing existing homes. They have developed different kinds of legal structures when working with units within larger multifamily properties. And recently they have been started by and partnered with many different kinds of organizations—spun off of existing nonprofits, or public bodies.

Running throughout all this amazing variety is the underlying theme of what does it take to scale up and have a larger impact while staying true to community control.

What Does Scaling Up Mean?

“Scale” is one of those extremely squishy words that gets tossed around the nonprofit world. It means different things to different groups. If we’re going to talk about the interaction of scale and community control, let’s look at what scale might mean for community land trusts.

For community land trusts, bigger scale could mean:

  • As many total units as possible in community land trusts, regardless of location
  • Bigger geographies served by a given land trust or all land trusts
  • More CLTs of a size that allows for financial sustainability, so that existing properties can be properly stewarded without ongoing operational subsidy
  • A big enough percentage of the units in a defined geographic area to:
    • address a meaningful percentage of the need for affordable housing
    • meaningfully reduce the racial homeownership gap
    • keep appreciating markets meaningfully mixed-income
    • affect prices throughout a market, limiting runaway appreciation

John E. Davis of Burlington Associates has been in many discussions about scale, and he tends to find the percentage approach most compelling. For example, OPAL Community Land Trust on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington state houses almost 7 percent of the island’s 2,860 households in its 191 units. “They have a greater impact on their surface areas than many of the urban CLTs that have a much larger portfolio,” says Davis.

Community land trusts are taking several different approaches to achieve their definitions of scale.

Expansion

In many cases, CLTs start at a neighborhood or municipal level. After getting established they expand to do the same kind of work over a larger geographic area, increasing both their total units and the area they can serve.

This is partly how Champlain Housing Trust—the country’s largest CLT, which covers the three northwestern counties of Vermont—got to where it is, having started with a focus just in the city of Burlington. Champlain also increased its scale by merging with an affordable rental housing organization, and by taking on stewardship functions for organizations developing shared-equity housing in other parts of the state. Champlain has over 3,000 units. Within the city of Burlington, 8 percent of households live in a Champlain Housing Trust home. 

Photo courtesy of Proud Ground, Portland, Oregon

Proud Ground, a CLT in Oregon, similarly began with a focus in North Portland, and has expanded to several surrounding counties, focusing on jurisdictions that have federal housing funding, and where land is not at such a premium as it is in Portland. Their measures of success also include a racial equity component. 

Expansion of successful CLTs can also take the form of helping to set up new ones—whether subsidiaries or semi-independent organizations. In Florida, when affordable housing advocates wanted to launch a community land trust in the Orlando area, they went to a successful regional CLT in the St. Petersburg area—Bright Community Trust—for advice so that they didn’t reinvent the wheel. They ended up creating a memorandum of understanding that allows for shared personnel and resources between Bright and the new entity, now known as Housd, though Housd has its own board and is doing some independent fundraising. If all goes well for a few years, Housd may merge and become an official subsidiary of Bright.

“So many land trusts start in one neighborhood with a bunch of volunteers,” says Frank Wells, chief impact officer for Bright and CEO of Housd. “And, you know, manage to get two or three homes a year for a few years and you wind up with 15 homes.” But at some point, Wells says, funding sources get frustrated with the slow pace of development, which is a result of “expecting one person to be a good compliance and stewardship person, a housing counselor, a real estate developer, the community liaison, and a good fundraiser. You know, that’s a whole lot of skill sets that almost nobody has.” Bright is hoping to leverage its expertise and resources to help other parts of Florida gain the capacity to develop permanently affordable housing without getting stuck at that early stage.

Bright works at a regional scale because employment and housing markets are regional, says Wells, and because it’s difficult to maintain organizational stability by relying solely on ground lease fees in one neighborhood. New real estate development is a more promising business model, which can then be employed to support the visions of specific local communities, says Wells, but that requires a larger area than just a neighborhood to sustain. Bright also does consulting work on housing affordability and impact strategies in other parts of the state, and has started a Bright Southwest Florida subsidiary.

Housd was also able to launch with a promise of a significant number of parcels that it could expect once the organization got established. The Parramore Asset Stabilization Fund (PASF), a group of nonprofits working with a JPMorgan Chase ProNeighborhoods grant, purchased about 80 units in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood in 2019. PASF’s members wanted the units to eventually be protected in a land trust, but because Housd was barely more than an idea at the time, PASF agreed to oversee the renovations of the rental units and manage them for a period of five to eight years to give the CLT time to establish itself and be ready to take over the properties.

The Central Server Idea

Other groups have experimented with a way to go to scale that would preserve the role of small organizations by separating out the development and land use decisions from the stewardship function and forming entities that just handle the stewardship. These are often known as “central server” models, and the idea was that they would make it easier to launch and scale up CLT activity by offering the kinds of back-office and long-term stewardship functions that might be burdensome to a small neighborhood-based land trust.

Julius Kimbrough of Crescent City CLT, which focuses on ensuring that the city’s Black community retains its ownership stake in the city’s development. Photo courtesy of Crescent City CLT

The central server concept was much discussed in the early 2010s and two were launched in places where there was interest in CLT work, but not yet many, or any, successful CLTs—Crescent City CLT in New Orleans and Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative. Both struggled to get properties. In New Orleans and Atlanta, the Great Recession took a toll on the ability of the expected smaller CLTs to form and carry out development.

Crescent City and Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative had always envisioned they might do their own development in parts of their cities that didn’t have their own CLTs, and so they have more recently reinvented themselves as more standard citywide CLTs. [Read more about Atlanta.]

These early challenges don’t mean that the concept of a central server is unworkable—but it might mean that either the central server shouldn’t come first, or that it needs a more concrete plan for where the units will come from. A central server could emerge in a region where there is a critical mass of established but small CLTs that recognize their need for additional support. Or, a central server could develop as a program of a larger CLT that has established both expertise and trust operating as a full-scale land trust. That central service can then support smaller CLTs or CLT programs with resales or back-office functions. Champlain Housing Trust and City of Lakes Community Land Trust in Minneapolis have done some of the latter.

There’s a wide range of functions a coalition or network might take on. In the Bay Area of California, a network of CLTs have joined together to do joint fundraising, advocacy, and recordkeeping through a single account with Homekeeper, a CLT-specific software program. The Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, on the other hand, does shared advocacy for policies that support land trusts and joint fundraising efforts, but it hasn’t made a move toward shared back-office functions so far.

In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Community Land Trust Coalition consists of five organizations with leadership of color. The organizations are collaborating around policy, fundraising, and program implementation. The coalition created two partnerships with Los Angeles County during the pandemic to remove properties from the speculative market in high displacement-risk areas. Within the past several months, the coalition has bought four buildings with plans for conversion to cooperatives, has four more in escrow, and six tax-defaulted properties are expected to transfer to the CLTs, with the goal of stabilizing existing residents.

Starting Big

Some newer CLTs have started off with a large geographic footprint (though usually with some initial focus areas), large target numbers, or both—often with the sponsorship or initial support of a government agency or other established organization.

Irvine Community Land Trust in Irvine, California—launched in 2008—was started by the municipal government to create permanently affordable rental housing and then spun off as an independent organization. Its first five projects were all affordable rental apartment complexes totaling 407 units. A multifamily townhome ownership project with 68 units is in the works for 2022. This is part of a business plan that aims to have the CLT independent of grants and city support by 2023. When it hits 475 units, Irvine CLT will own the land under 0.5 percent of the total housing units in Irvine, and 8.5 percent of the units that the city considers affordable. The organization’s long-term goal is 5,000 units.

In 2017, due to interest from several other cities in the county, Irvine CLT formally expanded its footprint to all of Orange County, but Executive Director Mark Asturias isn’t interested in expanding farther. That expansion also didn’t result in any new units outside the city, but the CLT did accept donations of two homes located in another city that will be developed as “group homes” for the intellectually disabled. Irvine CLT considers that the beginning of a program to get people to donate properties into a community land trust. Asturias believes Orange County is a fairly well-defined area that could qualify as a community, but outside of the county he and others would have less of a sense of what was needed and appropriate.

Douglass Community Land Trust in Washington, D.C., named after Frederick Douglass, emerged out of community planning meetings around the equitable development plan for the new 11th Street Bridge Park in the Anacostia neighborhood. The CLT Advisory Committee members, most of whom converted to being the founding board members of Douglass CLT, were primarily residents drawn from the east of the Anacostia River communities. However, Executive Director Ginger Rumph says Douglass CLT was intended to serve the entire city from the start. This is not only due to the “critical need for affordable residential and commercial space that exists in every ward,” says Rumph, “but also for operational sustainability. A plethora of smaller CLTs would be tremendously difficult to sustain from both a programmatic and financial perspective, while CLTs of scale are able to generate income by charging very little for services across many units and can achieve cost savings through economy of scale. Further, CLTs of scale more readily build the community voice and power necessary to effectuate change, and benefits the collective stewardship by having far more connected human resources.”

Development Partners

Because many other entities—from community development corporations to local governments—have come to understand the importance of preserving affordability permanently, some CLTs have realized that they can focus in on community planning and stewardship but work with other existing entities to do development. “We are not set up to be developers,” says Rumph of Douglass CLT, “so we a partner with mission-aligned nonprofits and for-profits on projects.” 

Houston Community Land Trust’s focus is on single-family homeownership. After many years of activists calling for a community land trust in Houston, in 2018 the city government helped launch one. The CLT began acquiring units through a partnership with the city’s land bank, which used city funding to build homes on its land, some of which were then sold to homebuyers working with the land trust. Houston CLT’s goal is 200 homes in its first three years.

The backyard of a property that's part of Elevation Community Land Trust. The CLT is trying to achieve scale with the 300 or so properties it has in the pipeline.
At the end of 2020, Elevation Community Land Trust in Colorado had 300 properties in the pipeline. Above, a recently sold two-bedroom land trust home in Boulder County. Photo courtesy of Elevation Community Land Trust

Elevation CLT, a statewide community land trust in Colorado with properties in five local municipalities, follows the lead of its local partners—sometimes community organizations, sometimes municipal governments—in terms of what types of developments to get involved with. Elevation participates at the vision and planning stages and brings funding to close the affordability gap and make projects happen. Elevation brings subsidy from its supporters—which include the Colorado Health Foundation and Gary Community Investments—to cover half of that gap, and it expects a local government partner to bring the rest. Its projects—all focused on homeownership—range from single-family purchase and rehab to new multifamily construction. Elevation’s target when it launched in 2017 was 700 units in its first 5 years. As of the end of 2020 it had 300 properties in the pipeline.

A new citywide CLT in New York City, Interboro, was actually launched by four large, well-established community development organizations—Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), Habitat for Humanity NYC, MHANY Management, and Center for NYC Neighborhoods. UHAB, Habitat, and MHANY have established pipelines of cooperative buildings or affordable homeownership units that they purchase, preserve, or develop, and they have committed to putting all the homeownership properties they develop into the land trust, guaranteeing it significant scale from the beginning. Interboro is also developing a program to help homeowners who face foreclosure by bringing their homes into the land trust, and it expects to be able to also accept properties from other developers beyond its original partners. [Read more about Interboro.]

Scale Through Influence

Several CLTs also want to measure their success by whether their work serves to prompt broader policy changes toward more permanent affordability in any form. Lydia Lowe of the Chinatown Community Land Trust in Boston says achieving scale doesn’t mean a set number of homes, but rather looking at how much of Boston’s housing should be in community land trusts. “In Chinatown, that means that half of the area would need to be affordable housing,” says Lowe. High costs have made it difficult for Chinatown CLT to purchase buildings, and so the group has also adopted other methods of preserving affordable housing, including advocating for stronger tenant protections and policies. Lowe says the CLT’s goals go beyond providing affordable housing and include maintaining an open space area, a permanent library, and affordable spaces for small businesses.

“We’re not the solution,” says Julius Kimbrough at the Crescent City CLT in New Orleans. “We are going to impact a few neighborhoods and create some affordability, but I really see our work as a demonstration of permanent affordability concepts. Our goals are to impact city policy, state policy. We’re looking for permanent affordability to be the standard. That’s how we impact the city beyond the couple of hundred units, couple of thousand, at most, that we as an organization will ultimately be able to develop.”

Additional reporting by Linda Childers and Aaron Kunkler.


This article is part of Community Ownership Takes Center Stage, an Under the Lens series.
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