Community land trust project has bumpy launch

BUILDING ON SOMETHING: Before a house can be raised or a unit can be repurposed, land use has to be sorted out. A group of affordable housing activists are in the driver’s seat to spend $1 million of Asheville’s general obligation bond money on a community land trust. The fledgling group will grow into a membership organization that will own pieces of land on behalf of the community, to be used to help address the city’s affordable housing problem. Photo courtesy of Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity

If trust is a function of time, an innovative approach to affordable housing may already be in trouble. On July 13, about 30 community stakeholders gathered in an echoey auditorium at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center and took the first meandering steps toward establishing a community land trust. But the two-hour meeting produced many more questions than answers, and just about the only thing that was actually decided was to meet again, in a different space, to continue the work.

To fund the land trust, the city of Asheville plans to dedicate $1 million from the $25 million in affordable housing funds that voters approved in a bond referendum last November. The Community & Economic Development Department was charged with assembling a steering committee that will set up a nonprofit community land trust. The $1 million initial commitment was recommended in an April 18 staff report to Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, along with $5 million for the city’s Housing Trust Fund, $3 million for land banking and $1 million for down payment assistance grants. Council’s stated objective for the affordable housing component of the general obligation bonds was to provide $10 million for specific affordable housing projects and reserve $15 million to free up city-owned land for future affordable housing development.

According to the staff report presented to the Council committee in April, the initial goal for the land trust is to produce 35 affordable units — a far cry from the city’s goal of 2,800 new units by 2021.

But it takes time to build trust, and while the city wants to move fast to maximize the value of the $1 million it’s planning to put up, a divided and skeptical community seems to be giving the project the side-eye. Even so, the intention is there, the passion in the room was palpable, and once a plan is in place, the group will likely have some money to work with.

“I think that will be the constant tension,” says Community Development Director Heather Dillashaw, the city’s point person on the land trust. “No one meeting or one cause solves all those trust issues. … As a community, we have to hold the tension that land is going, and if we want to have permanently affordable housing, we are going to have to act.”

Searching for direction

A community land trust’s membership collectively owns pieces of property that may be made available for community use. Typically, the idea is to create shared equity and promote affordable living situations by controlling market conditions on the property in question to benefit people with incomes below the median for the area. This spring, Dillashaw’s department hosted a series of educational events to get residents up to speed on the basics of community land trusts, cooperative housing and related topics (see “Housing Co-ops, A Potential Affordable Housing Solution,” May 17, 2017, Xpress).

Building on those events, the July 13 meeting’s stated purpose was to start figuring out what a local land trust might actually look like. There’s a wide range of working models, and the city hired consultant Mike Brown of the Vermont-based Burlington Associates to help community members understand their options. “My job is not to tell you what to do,” Brown explained early on in his presentation. “As a matter of fact, it’s not even to give you advice.” Instead, he continued, he was there to help the group understand the key components of a community land trust and the decisions that will have to be made to set one up. He’ll lay out various possibilities and help residents analyze the trade-offs involved.

To that end, Brown outlined what he sees as the most critical questions the group needs to address. Will the service area be limited to parts of Asheville or extend beyond the city limits? What, specifically, will this particular land trust be trying to accomplish? Who will be the target clientele? When will this happen? What specific pieces will need to be put together to make it happen? And how big will the organization be?

Meanwhile, audience members contributed thoughts and ideas across a very broad spectrum. In a more conventional model, the trust would own land and lease the rights to buy and build on that land. Other possibilities include some form of co-housing or even a more radical vision of community that rejects the very notion of individual ownership. Somewhere in between sits cooperative housing, in which people own shares of the co-op that actually owns the residential units on the land trust’s property.

But whichever model the local trust ends up adopting, it will be a radical departure from the conventional real estate market. “Community land trusts stand in defiance of the capitalist system that says, ‘If you are wealthy enough to own property, you get it, and if you don’t have enough wealth, then you don’t get it,’” noted Brown.

Still, that leaves a lot of possible directions, including rentals, co-ops, single-family starter homes or even some other, yet-to-be-imagined form. And the population served could have very low incomes or be close to the median for the area. Some people of color in the room wanted to make sure that the project serves those with lower incomes, because the median income for nonwhites is significantly lower.

Another potentially divisive issue with strong racial overtones is whether this will be a place-based, anti-displacement strategy aimed at protecting gentrifying neighborhoods or more of a scattered-site homeownership program.

At the meeting, though, some audience members wanted to tackle even more basic questions. “We need to define what affordability is,” said one person who felt the benchmark used by the city is unrealistically high.

And despite all the energy and resources going into community land trusts all over the country, cautioned Brown, “Nobody has created affordable housing for everybody,” because the problem is “just too big.”

Amid such wide-ranging discussion, the group never even got to many of the points on the agenda.

Community land what?

Toward the end of the meeting, Brown raised the possibility of paring down the size of the group by about two-thirds to create a more efficient committee that could do the upcoming work and periodically report back to interested community members. That idea didn’t go over well, however.

Many present said that before they’d be comfortable changing the structure, all those interested in serving would have to get to know one another better. In a general outpouring of frustration, nearly everyone (including Brown and Dillashaw) agreed that the Southside Center auditorium was a poor place to try to hold any kind of discussion — and most seemed to favor a more face-to-face format.

“I think this meeting would have gone so differently if we had been in a circle,” said one disappointed attendee.

“If we could just get together and figure out what the process is going to be, that would be awesome,” housing activist Chaka-Khan Gordon observed.

Part of the audience’s hesitation seemed to stem from skepticism over whether the concerns of everyone in the room would be faithfully held with a smaller group. “We are going to have to figure out a way,” said Latoya Gardner of Pisgah Legal Services, “that we can all trust that whoever is on this committee can work together and represent the interests that you have indicated are important to you.” The best way to do that, she suggested, is to focus on the democratic process: Set up a system of accountability for whoever the committee members wind up being, and make sure that people who are passionate about a particular issue stay connected with those who are working on that aspect of the project.

So how did the meeting go?

“We heard from a number of perspectives that we need to hear from,” says Dillashaw, “and I feel good that we have the representation in the room, across income levels and interests, to be able to put together a community group that will move some form of community land trust forward.”

A second meeting of the community land trust interest group is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 17, at 6 p.m. The location is in flux, and it’s unclear who will facilitate or lead the session. The city will be hands-off for the meeting, and city staff does not plan to attend. Once the group has determined how it wishes to proceed, Dillashaw says, the city will provide onging support for creating the independent, nonprofit land trust.

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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3 thoughts on “Community land trust project has bumpy launch

  1. Deplorable Infidel

    NONE of the BOND SCAM money can ever be attained or spent because of PENDING LITIGATION of it’s legalities! WHEN will city council TALK about that TO THE PEOPLE ? ? ?

    Makes them look like the total fools they are …

    the ‘affordable housing’ issue will NEVER be solved by government or their ‘do gooders’ …

  2. indy499

    So, the current score is zero houses, lots of yapping and, of course, money spent on an out of state consultant. Does his fee come out of the $ 1 million.

    • Able Allen

      Hi Indy 499,
      There was no expectation that they would be at the stage of buying land, much less providing affordable housing yet.
      I don’t get the impression that the $1 million will be docked to cover the cost of the consultant. I believe the Community & Economic Development Department is covering it out of their budget.

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