Coalition eyes ‘land trusts’ as boost for affordable housing

Almost 30 years ago, the newly formed Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative took a bold step to make housing affordable in the devastated strip between Uphams Corner and Dudley Square. Last Wednesday, more than 100 people filled Codman Square’s Great Hall to hear how community land trusts like DSNI’s might solve today’s affordability crisis.

“We make sure that housing is accessible for working class families who make less than $35,000 a year and for families of color,” said Harry Smith, the director of Dudley Neighbors Inc. (DNI).

Tufts University professor Penn Loh explained how these trusts make housing affordable. “Land trusts can take land off the speculative market and put it under control of a community nonprofit,” said Loh. “One driver of rising housing costs is land prices that have increased up to 40 percent. Take that out of the equation and housing becomes much more affordable.”

“The land trust model is very simple,” said Evelyn Correa-Gonzalez, DNI’s board president. “The homeowner owns the house and the community owns the land. This way we are able to make sure that the homes remain affordable and that subsidies are preserved and carried over to the next family.”
Also, if you sell your home, you get back the money you put into it but not any profit or loss from rising and falling housing prices. The home must be sold to another low-income family.

The Dudley land trust also works for tenants, according to information on DNI’s website. Of 225 units of affordable housing, 95 units are in permanently affordable ownership, 77 are cooperative housing units, and 53 are rental units – not to mention a playground, a mini-orchard, a greenhouse, and a community garden.

Other organizations in Mattapan and Dorchester joined DNI at the Great Hall to launch the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network. The Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHIF) is developing ten units for a land trust and acquiring more units in the Four Corners neighborhood and other parts of Dorchester.

Davida Andelman is looking for potential land trust sites in Bowdoin-Geneva. Mattapan United and New England United for Justice are leading community discussions to see how Mattapan can take more direct control of development.

“We have Tufts and Boston College working with us to map foreclosed properties, city-owned parcels, and vacant land,” Mattapan United’s Lincoln Larmond told the Reporter. “I’d like the city to put all its developable land into a Mattapan community land trust. That way, developers would come to a Mattapan Neighborhood Council with proposals and the community would decide how the land gets disposed.”

Other cities have committed to land trusts. Loh said that Chicago and Irvine, CA, steer subsidized housing into citywide Community Land Trusts that keep them affordable forever. Boston’s new land trust network wants the city to use public land for the public good by, among other things, prioritizing land it owns for projects that offer the longest affordability and the highest level of resident control.

The network also wants the city to create a line of credit for land trusts and invest housing subsidies in land trusts. Devin Quirk, the operations director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, didn’t go that far, but he told the gathering that the city is committed to working with the network and could support land trusts in three ways: by focusing its new Housing Innovation Lab exclusively on housing affordability, with land trusts one of four priority strategies; by helping community development corporations and affordable housing developers acquire land as well as existing rental properties to create affordable housing; and by being an active participant in the network.

The new network will need strong city support to reach its goals. Times have changed since DNI created the Dudley land trust, Smith said. DNI had eminent domain powers, which allowed it to take land in its immediate neighborhood and add city-owned parcels for large developments.

Land was cheaper then too. Today’s land trusts “won’t look like DNI,” Smith said. “COHIF is developing scattered site housing. Each community will come up with its own model,” he added.

“At the end of the day,” said Larmond, “it’s about: How do you create structures for community control?”

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