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At Home on the Land

Community land trusts and conservation land trusts strengthen each other through innovative strategies for owning land.

Written by Madeline Boden – landtrustalliance.org, Spring Edition Magazine, pg 20

For nearly as long as conservation land trusts have existed, people have questioned whether private land conservation is fundamentally at odds with keeping housing affordable. A March 1982 New York Times article written just after the Alliance’s formation (see our 40th anniversary story on p. 14) noted that “while conservationists are cheered by the creation of land trusts, others fear a confrontation with those who believe there should be other priorities for land use, such as housing.”

But instead of a confrontation, what has emerged is more of an intersection. As the old “nature vs. people” model of conservation gives way to new models of community centered conservation, two types of land trusts—conservation land trusts and community land trusts—are finding opportunities to come together. The result is a two-way street of benefits—conservation land trusts are meeting the needs of their communities in new and profound ways, while the affordable housing initiatives of community land trusts are strengthened by the experience and expertise of land conservationists.

Here we share stories and perspectives of land trusts engaged in this work. Some are pursuing a joint mission of affordable housing and land conservation, others are partnering with community land trusts, and still others are inventing new ways to conserve land for all.

Community Land Trusts 101

Community land trusts focus primarily on creating and preserving affordable housing on land acquired by a trust. It’s a growing movement that seeks to overcome inequities in home and land ownership. “The values of the community land trust model are rooted in the civil rights movement,” says Tony Pickett, chief executive officer of the Grounded Solutions Network, a national membership organization of community land trusts and other shared equity programs.

In the 1960s, Charles and Shirley Sherrod and other Black community leaders living in Albany, Georgia, saw that tenant farmers were being evicted from their homes and land, linked to protesting for and attempting to exercise the right to vote. Inspired by innovative communal farming practices in Israel, the Sherrods and other progressive leaders founded the first community land trust, New Communities, in southwest Georgia in 1969.

Today, community land trusts are diverse, serving urban, suburban and rural communities. They acquire and maintain community control of land and develop housing; community land trust homes are then sold to low- and moderate-income families, who also lease the land beneath their homes from the trust for a 99-year period.

A legal land-lease agreement between the community land trust and the homeowner sets terms that include a resale formula that keeps the future resale price affordable and shares the accrued financial equity between the homeowner and the land trust. Community land trusts are one form of a larger shared equity homeownership sector helping families to attain the dream of homeownership.

“Our research has shown that in a five- to seven-year period, 60% of shared equity homeowners across the country decided to sell their home, and were able to reap enough limited equity from the sale to transition to unsubsidized, market-rate homeownership,” Pickett says.

Some community land trusts are also focused on preserving agricultural land, and others provide affordable retail and office space in underserved communities.

A Dual Nature

The Athens Land Trust (ALT), in Athens, Georgia, has looked for a balance between land conservation and affordable housing since its founding in 1994 as a hybrid conservation and community land trust. It offers an example of how the work of both these types of land trusts can come together to benefit their communities.

ALT was founded by Skipper StipeMaas and Nancy Stangle, two women who were involved in a conservation development (a planning approach to housing that includes protection of natural resources). They noticed that the more open space and trails they put into the development, the higher the cost of the housing. They wanted to find a way to both conserve land and keep housing affordable. The result was the Athens Land Trust.

The organization’s two missions as both conservation and community land trust work together. To date, ALT has conserved over 19,000 acres and helped 49 families become first-time homeowners. They are currently working with 16 families in lease-purchase agreements and renting affordable apartments to 370 low-income individuals.

Most of the time it’s not hard to decide which priorities to pursue on a particular parcel, says Heather Benham, who became ALT’s executive director in 2013. If the land in question is in town, near transportation and infrastructure, then it’s appropriate for housing, a community garden or other community land trust priorities. If it’s prime agricultural land or borders a river, it’s likely to be conserved as a farm or conservation area.

But in some cases, what the priority for the parcel should be is not clear. Perhaps it is in a floodplain in a residential neighborhood. In those cases, the diversity of ALT’s board and its community outreach
help answer the question: What does the community want to happen here?

“When your board is set up to reflect the diversity of your community, your decision making is different,” Benham says. “It becomes less about number of acres, and more about other things.” More Bright Spots Needed “One of the bright spots for community land trust homes is their resistance to foreclosure,” Pickett says. “Even during the Great Recession in 2008, according to Mortgage Bankers Association data, the community land trust home foreclosure rate was virtually nonexistent at .52% compared to 3.3% for market-rate homeowners.”

Grounded Solutions Network is actively working to expand the scale of community land trust homeownership nationally. “There are about 255,000 units of shared equity housing, preserved using
community land trusts, cooperatives or deed restrictions,” Pickett says. “To address the housing crisis, we need to be talking about millions of units.”

Grounded Solutions Network members are working with a diverse variety of partners, including municipal land banks, healthcare systems, social impact investors and conservation land trusts.

Pickett says that several members of Grounded Solutions work with a goal to both conserve land and facilitate affordable housing. The Athens Land Trust is one such example. Another is Baltimore’s Charm City Land Trusts (CCLT), which manages 19 parcels of urban open space and develops permanently affordable housing, primarily in the East Baltimore neighborhood of McElderry Park.

These organizations understand, Pickett says, that vibrant, functional communities need both affordable housing combined with access to open space, and are working to provide it.

“More potential partners are showing interest in how they can achieve more than one goal in protecting and stewarding land in perpetuity,” Pickett says. “They are asking how they can assure that the local community gets the multiple benefits that the land can provide.”

Grounded Solutions Network is supporting the long-term stewardship of land with online training, capacity building, technical assistance and a national conference to share best practices. Plans are underway for the next Grounded Solutions national conference in Washington, D.C., from May 9-11, 2022.

Getting Started

Stowe Land Trust in Vermont is striving to incorporate the principles that link land conservation and affordable housing into its work. Staff at Stowe Land Trust have been aware of the close relationship between land conservation and affordable housing for a while, says the trust’s executive director, Kristen Sharpless. Vermont’s conduit for state funding for both land conservation and affordable housing, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB), was created by the state legislature in 1987, the same year that Stowe Land Trust was founded.

“VHCB keeps the housing part in the forefront of our minds,” Sharpless says. The trust has also been inspired by the work of other Vermont organizations. The result has been a closer relationship with Lamoille Housing Partnership, the affordable housing developer serving their region, and some insight into the benefits and barriers of collaboration between housing and land conservation organizations.

For example, Sharpless says, “There is a stigma with affordable housing that we don’t see in conservation work.” When conservation and community land trusts work together, she says, conservation land trusts can generate public support for the affordable housing component in addition to adding value through things
like a community garden.

Sharpless and Jim Lovinsky, head of Lamoille Housing Partnership, recently co-wrote an opinion piece for the Stowe Reporter about their efforts to pursue “options for supporting each other’s missions and working together on specific projects.”

Partnering for Change

In Virginia, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has helped landowners permanently protect more than 420,000 acres of land in its 50-year history. It saw, however, that improving downtown parks and trails can unintentionally spark gentrification nearby, pricing out traditionally under-resourced groups from long established neighborhoods, says John McCarthy, PEC’s senior advisor and director of strategic partnerships.

PEC intends its conservation work to reinforce resilient, sustainable and engaged communities, McCarthy says, so the organization is taking proactive steps with area partners to ensure there are affordable housing solutions in the nine-county area it serves in the northern Piedmont of Virginia that includes booming exurbs
of Washington, D.C.

Fauquier Habitat for Humanity, which serves two counties in PEC’s service region, shares PEC’s concern. It has been providing affordable housing since 1991. “When trying to build up affordable housing inventory with the traditional Habitat model, 10 years after you build a house, it may flip to market rate,” says Darryl Neher, chief executive officer for Fauquier Habitat.

The question for Fauquier Habitat, Neher says, was: “How do we guarantee permanent affordability over the lifetime of the home?” The answer was a community land trust.

In 2021, Fauquier Habitat, PEC and other organizations created the Virginia Statewide Community Land Trust (VSCLT) to address housing issues in the state. Neher serves as board chair and PEC Director of Information Systems Tiffany Parker serves as treasurer.

“Where we really need help is on the land acquisition side,” Neher says of the new organization. PEC has been able to provide VSCLT with expertise in land acquisition and other experience from its 50-year history.

“When conservation and community land trusts work together, conservation land trusts can generate public support for the affordable housing component in addition to adding value through things like a community garden.”

Kristen Sharpless, executive director of Stowe Land Trust

Responding to Crisis

Western Reserve Land Conservancy was created by the merger of several northern Ohio land trusts in 2006, says Jared Saylor, the Land Conservancy’s director of communications and public relations. A national housing collapse quickly followed in 2007.

Western Reserve Land Conservancy is based just outside of Cleveland, yet the housing collapse and its impact on the historically red-lined districts of Cleveland, Saylor says, “was not a part of the work we were doing.”

But the collapse inspired the Land Conservancy’s president and CEO, Rich Cochran, to think more deeply about the organization’s mission. In 2011 the Land Conservancy formed the Thriving Communities Institute, located in the heart of Cleveland and focused on revitalizing the urban center of Cleveland and other
Ohio cities. “Green space and tree canopies did not exist in these parts of Cleveland,” Saylor says. “We set out to find vacant properties and make them useful to the community again.”

Recently, the organization purchased the 150-unit Euclid Beach Mobile Home Park, a 28-acre parcel with access to the Lake Erie shoreline. “Ohio has 320 miles of Lake Erie shoreline but only 20% of that is publicly accessible. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Saylor says.

“We are not in the business of running a mobile home park, but our trustees, our board and all involved agreed the reward is worth the risk,” Saylor says. “We have promised that the priority is the people who live there,” he says. To transition to what’s next for the site, the Land Conservancy is using its experience bringing stakeholders together, including the neighbors and organizations focused on housing, such as the Cleveland Housing Network and Habitat for Humanity.

Saylor expects the organization to get involved in other urban areas across the state in the years ahead.

New Strategies

Seattle-based Forterra restores forests and rivers, helps create urban farms and city parks, and has conserved more than 275,000 acres of land in the Pacific Northwest. It also has a new mission that includes affordable housing in a big way.

Forterra’s most recent initiative is the Forest to Home model, which creates affordable housing built by local labor with resources from regional forestlands. The project uses sustainably harvested timber from forestlands that are either conserved, restored or rematriated to Indigenous ownership. Modular housing units are to be manufactured from cross-laminated timber in a high-tech facility in a historic timber town, creating local jobs, and then built into sustainable homes that provide both financial and social equity through affordable homeownership.

This may not seem like the work of an average conservation land trust, let alone a modest one. In 1989, the organization was called Seattle King County Land Trust and maintained three file folders in the founding leader’s attic. As the organization’s success grew—it had conserved 100,000 acres by 2003—the board and staff realized that this traditional conservation land trust had a moral obligation to support community access to land.

Forterra’s Forest to Home initiative aims for a triple bottom line of social equity, responsible forest management and economic development.

It was a broader vision of its original mission. “We changed our mission in 2006, changed our charter in 2007 and updated our mission again, more recently,” says Michelle Connor, Forterra’s president and CEO. That mission includes conserving natural resources, creating solutions for equitable homeownership and addressing climate change. It’s a mission based on a belief that people are not separate from nature, and that making the most of the land means everyone—people, salmon, trees, plants—thrives.

“We are not going it alone. We have partners and smart people throughout the region coming together to do this work,” Connor says.

Among the organization’s projects is developing a site in partnership with the Abubakr Islamic Center in Tukwila as a mixed use building that will fill the needs of local Somali immigrants. The ground floor will provide space primarily for women-owned businesses, while the apartments above will have two- and three bedroom apartments that will be owned, not rented, by extended families in the community.

It may be hard to see the land conservation history of the organization in innovative projects like this, but it is there. It’s present even in the cutting-edge manufacturing facilities that the organization is building on land that will be partially developed for factories while the other half will be conserved as forested wetland habitat adjacent to a regional rail trail.

Forterra currently has four Forest to Home projects underway. At the beginning of January, the organization tested its Forest to Home model, going from “wild wood to finished product.” Everything from the materials to the design was tested, Connor reports.

Connor does not deny that Forterra’s goals are big. “I call the Forest to Home model our ‘swing for the fences’ model.” But, given the organization’s commitment to giving back to human and ecological communities, she can’t see doing any less.


Learn more about the organizations featured in this story:
Athens Land Trust: athenslandtrust.org
Charm City Land Trusts: charmcitylandtrusts.org
Fauquier Habitat for Humanity: fauquierhabitat.org
Forterra: forterra.org
Grounded Solutions Network: groundedsolutions.org
Piedmont Environmental Council: pecva.org
Stowe Land Trust: stowelandtrust.org
Virginia Statewide Community Land Trust: vsclt.org
Western Reserve Land Conservancy: wrlandconservancy.org

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