Men and women huddle inside the St. John’s United Methodist Church in central Baltimore. The air conditioning in the church is inefficient on a day when the outside temperature is over 100 degrees. Cold water bottles get distributed, along with paper towels to wipe off sweat. Many of these people are homeless or formerly homeless. Others are longtime residents struggling to afford their rent, and they are here to advocate for an affordable housing solution that could bring relief as well as fix Baltimore’s blight.
They want Mayor Catherine Pugh to dedicate $40 million in the upcoming budget to fund community land trusts.
Across the U.S., cities struggle with expanding income inequality and tight housing markets that drive up rent. These factors result in an extreme shortage of affordable housing. For every 100 low-income renters, there are 31 affordable units, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Over the years, solutions have emerged. In Burlington, Vermont, and Boston, for example, community ownership of land through nonprofit community land trusts has had decades of success turning vacant lots into affordable housing.
Community groups in Baltimore believe land trusts could be the way to keep families living affordably in a fast-gentrifying city.
Here’s how the model works. A community land trust reserves land for the public good—it can be one house, a block of homes, or a garden area. Homeowners receive an affordable mortgage and share in the equity in their home with other community members. The trust governs the resale price of the house. The resale price aims to be affordable for people in the same income bracket as the people selling. Any profits go back into the community trust.
The rise of land trusts comes at a crucial time for McElderry Park, an East Baltimore neighborhood in the process of revitalization.
When Baltimore’s population hit its peak of nearly a million in the 1950s, McElderry Park was a thriving neighborhood. Today, the city’s population has sunk to about 620,000, and the effects of white flight,redlining, blockbusting, and abandonment by working-class homeowners are evident on McElderry Park’s streets of empty row homes. People without the means to escape live isolated in a disinvested area. Efforts are underway to turn things around. Notably, Jimmy Carter assisted Habitat for Humanity volunteers in 2010 to fix abandoned buildings and install public gardens there.
Glenn Ross, 67, has spent 38 years as a single father in McElderry Park. In every room in Ross’ home, neighborhood maps lie on top of one another. They tell a common story.
“Behind every decaying neighborhood is a development plan that doesn’t include the people who live there,” said Ross. He’s committed to staying put and making sure his neighbors can, too. “We’re not going anywhere unless you price us out,” he said.
Getting priced out is something the Remington neighborhood in northern Baltimore knows about. The number of college graduates in the neighborhood increased 16 percent from 2000 to 2015. That demographic shift coincided with a 126 percent increase in home prices over the same period.
When the working-class residents in McElderry Park hear these statistics and hear about the University of Maryland’s “Bio Park” high-income housing on the north side, they’re left wondering: Is this signaling a spreading gentrification?
Does the arrival of a well-educated and affluent class into a poorer neighborhood always end in displacement of longtime residents? Peter Sabonis thinks so. He’s a member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable resident group pushing for public funding for land trusts. “The people who get hurt first are renters because the area gets better and the landlords say, ‘All right, I can raise my rents,’” said Sabonis. He said the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative community land trust in Boston is the model he’d like to replicate.
“That area was disinvested in, trashed, plagued by vacant housing. But community organizing eventually produced a collective power and political power that enabled the community to begin to get resources from the city and start a community land trust,” Sabonis said. Boston took aggressive action using the power of eminent domain to designate 62 acres of vacant land for community land trusts.
The Baltimore Housing Roundtable hopes Mayor Pugh will do the same.
On May 13, housing advocates and residents campaigned for bold government action to address the city’s blight and lack of affordable housing. This campaign, called United Not Blighted, wants to see that $40 million be added to the city budget to boost the purchasing power of community groups who want to rehabilitate rundown properties and turn them into land trusts.
The mayor holds power to add to the budget, and she has voiced support for community land trusts in the past.
There is reason to believe that will happen. Baltimore already has two community land trusts in operation, one used for a public garden.
The Amazing Port Street Project in East Baltimore is the city’s longest-standing community land trust. Started 20 years ago, the garden features a multi-faith prayer labyrinth. Amazing Grace Lutheran Church members used rubble and stones from demolished homes to build the garden. People living in the neighborhood can come to pick from the fruit trees and berry bushes. Children of the community play flag football, dance, and play music in the large field.
Jennifer Kunze spends every other Saturday planting vegetables in the garden. She focuses on expanding the gardens after-school youth food education program, which is crucial because the nearest supermarket is more than a quarter-mile away.
Additionally, Kunze said, “in this neighborhood, we are looking at the price of housing rising astronomically over the next few years. That’s been something on my mind a lot as the [United Not Blighted] campaign’s been developing.”
She hopes the garden community land trust will expand to include affordable housing. Otherwise, ironically, the success of the gardens could aggravate the problem. Studies show community gardens can have a positive effect on nearby property values up to 1,000 feet from the revitalized space. Researchers find that these gardens can have the greatest impact in high-poverty areas.
“As the prices of homes and rent rise, pairing green spaces and affordable housing under a land trust is a great solution to that potential problem,” Kunze said.
Timothy Wright, 62, attends the Amazing Grace Church. He worked as legal secretary for 20 years, but after being unable to find work, he became homeless and has remained so since 2011.
“We are a small congregation, maybe 40 to 60 people attending on a Sunday. Each of these persons is facing her or his own struggles just to keep on with life,” he said. “It’s a question of our ability to obtain outside resources and preferably take some of the young men around here and employ them to rehab this house.”
Wright says that’s why public funding is necessary. Despite their willingness to steward community development, acquisition costs also inhibit community groups from purchasing and rehabilitating homes. They need funding to keep up with capital-rich private developers. “The experts are already here,” said Pastor Dittman of the Amazing Grace. “We just haven’t been given the resources.”
In 2015, when a bank gifted an abandoned home to Amazing Grace, church members saw a homeownership opportunity while the bank was able to offload a home in a weak housing market. The church started the nonprofit Charm City Land Trust, with a goal to provide that house to a family struggling to stay in the neighborhood. They think a community land trust is the way to do that.
One mile away in northeast Baltimore, an area where 86 percent of the elderly population is considered “very low income” and most residents spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing, a group of community members formed a nonprofit called the North East Housing Initiative. It’s a community land trust, and they’re steadily working toward purchasing the first vacant property to transform into affordable housing.
With 16,000 vacant properties in Baltimore—a number some say is severely undercounted and may be closer to the 23,000 that the U.S. Census estimates—there’s plenty of blight to fix. Adding community land trusts into the mix of solutions to throw at the problem seems likely—if not this budget, then next.
Though the community land trust model has been effective in many cities, it does have some downsides. Critics say the homeowners sharing the profit and resale value of their home with a trust doesn’t allow low-income families to build wealth—in the way conventional homeowners do—by profiting fully on the market-rate value of the home.
It’s a tradeoff for affordability and stability.
Sabonis counters critics by saying the purpose of community land trusts is to keep a set of housing permanently affordable, and the idea is not to “cash out.”
And that’s healthy for everyone in these neighborhoods. Following the 2008 foreclosure crisis, community land trusts had a far lower rate of foreclosure compared to traditional mortgages, according to a report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The reason could be that the community board operating the land trusts and acting as community stewards of the land focused more on people and community well-being instead of profit margins. According to the report, the majority of land trusts surveyed indicate they offer a homebuyer education, use informal interactions to contact the homeowner when a payment became delinquent, and provide direct financial counseling. Community stewardship allows for decisions in the best interest of the community and the family in the home.
Said Sabonis: “We’re trying to inject some humanity into the marketplace.”