Opinion | Affordable Housing Forever

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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,” Ms. 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.”

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