Makeisha Robey grew up in a three-bedroom house and always wanted to provide the same for her children. But on a preschool teacher’s salary in Atlanta, that dream was out of reach. Her family moved from rental to rental across the city as costs continued to rise.
That changed after Robey learned about the Atlanta Land Trust at a neighborhood association meeting. The community land trust, a nonprofit that helps people purchase affordable homes, offered an opportunity for her to buy a home at a below-market rate. She eventually became one of the land trust’s first homebuyers, purchasing her home for about $102,000 three years ago. The
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That changed after Robey learned about the Atlanta Land Trust at a neighborhood association meeting. The community land trust, a nonprofit that helps people purchase affordable homes, offered an opportunity for her to buy a home at a below-market rate. She eventually became one of the land trust’s first homebuyers, purchasing her home for about $102,000 three years ago. The median price of a house in Atlanta in January 2020 was $287,500.
Homeownership has brought Robey many benefits. She spends less on utilities than before. She’s been able to build friendships with her neighbors. And she and her family feel more stable.
“I love this home,” Robey says. “I can see myself staying in this home for the duration of my lifetime. I feel this is a beautiful program that really can give so many options to people who have no other options.”
The nonprofit acquires land — sometimes homes are part of the property, and at other times new homes are built later. The land trust then sells the houses at below-market prices. In exchange, homebuyers must agree to restrictions that limit the price that the homes can be sold for in the future. That policy keeps the homes at low cost over the long term.
As homeownership is increasingly out of reach for many Americans, nonprofit community land trusts, funded by foundations, government funds, financial institutions, and individual donations, have become a popular way to help more people afford to buy homes.
The number of nonprofit community land trusts has grown from 162 in 2006 to 302 today, according to the nonprofit Center for Community Land Trust Innovation.
Research by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that land trusts and similar homeownership programs have seen an increase in support from foundations and other private sources since 1985. From 2001 to 2006, $125.1 million in private funds were given to land trusts and similar programs. Over the next five years, the amount given grew by 80 percent, in part because private funding sources stepped in to help more as government funding decreased.
Community land trusts typically aim to grow large enough to sustain themselves through lease fees paid by homeowners. Until they reach that size, they rely on government and private funding. Philanthropic dollars are especially helpful for land trusts as they get started, while government can provide the larger-scale funding essential to helping the organizations expand more significantly.
The Atlanta Land Trust has received about $3.6 million in support from the Kendeda Fund, a local family foundation, and additional funding from other grant makers to build and provide 20 homes. More homes are planned with support from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, the Tull Charitable Foundation, and the Georgia Power Foundation.
Still, land trusts have yet to meet their full potential as a solution to the nation’s deepening housing crisis. The approach isn’t well understood by the public, which dampens interest from residents and government officials. Also, getting land and developing it is expensive, making it difficult for land trusts to expand and provide more housing.
Community land trusts date back to at least 1969, when civil-rights organizers created a cooperative farm for people to live and work in Albany, Ga., according to Jeffrey Lowe, a professor of urban planning at Texas Southern University.
Over the years, data has shown land trusts’ ability to keep low-cost homes from getting lost to commercial development and ensure a neighborhood’s residents can afford to stay put. People who buy homes through a community land trust live there for longer periods than traditional homeowners and were less likely to face foreclosures during the Great Recession, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Concerns about gentrification fueled the creation of the Atlanta Land Trust in 2009 as the Atlanta BeltLine project, a redevelopment effort, was started. City leaders worried the project would fuel rising housing costs in nearby neighborhoods and displace residents.
In addition to the 20 or so homes completed, the trust also has 120 townhomes under development and has created programs to educate potential homebuyers. Its goal is to build 300 homes by 2025. With support from local grant makers — Whitehead, Tull, and Georgia Power foundations — the trust has nearly reached its $12.3 million goal to build some of the homes. It also has received other grants from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Wells Fargo.
Financing Land Trusts
Grants are just one way that foundations have supported land trusts.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation independently purchased 53 homes in 2009 in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood, which was hard hit by the foreclosure crisis. The foundation was able to keep real-estate speculators from buying the properties and perhaps raising the prices. It has since nearly completed building or renovating 75 homes and will transfer ownership of about half of them to the Atlanta Land Trust.
About 60 percent of community land-trust owners who left their properties in the past 10 years bought other homes.
The foundation isn’t planning to purchase any more properties in Atlanta, given the steep increase in home prices, but is funding other efforts to spread the availability of low-cost housing.
Philanthropic help is vital to getting community land trusts started, says Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust. The plan is for the trust to become self-sustaining through fees that are tied to housing units, such as monthly fees for use of the land. But that is possible only after a sufficient number of homes are created.
Other partnerships have also been key in helping the trust grow. The City of Atlanta and the Metro Atlanta Land Bank, an organization that acquires vacant and abandoned properties, have donated land to the nonprofit or given the land trust deep discounts when it has purchased city-owned land.
Tony Pickett, CEO of the Grounded Solutions Network, an association that represents community land trusts, says the cost of land acquisition and insufficient government funding remain a problem for land trusts around the country.
While philanthropic dollars are especially helpful as nonprofit community land trusts build their portfolio of homes, Pickett says consistent government funding is key to helping them expand significantly more.
The Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont has largely been able to expand as a result of continued government support.
About half of the organization’s $35.7 million in revenue in 2020 came from federal, state, and local government dollars, while most of the rest came from fees and rent on its properties. It also has received support over the years from philanthropies such as the TD Charitable Foundation but otherwise does not rely heavily on donations.
That government funding has helped the Champlain Housing Trust become the largest community land trust in the country based on portfolio size. It owns and manages 2,500 affordable apartments and 650 homes.
Pickett says the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which subsidizes buying and building low-cost rental housing, could be a model for government support for nonprofit land trusts.
“If we’re talking about folks who want to see us operate at a larger scale, some kind of basis in policy similar to the Low-Income Housing Tax-Credit program would be necessary in order for that to happen,” Pickett says.
Community land trusts will not appeal to everyone looking to become a homeowner. Some potential homebuyers may be put off by the fact that they cannot benefit from the full equity of their homes when they decide to sell.
“If you’re looking at your home as being an investment, then the [community land trust] model is not for you,” says Lowe, the professor at Texas Southern University. That makes it difficult for some people to see the value of land trusts, as homeownership is often viewed as a pathway to building wealth.
However, research shows many people who purchase homes through community land trusts are able to gain the financial wherewithal to buy their next home on the traditional market.
About 60 percent of community land trust owners who left their properties in the past decade purchased other homes, according to data collected by the Grounded Solutions Network.
For Lowe, getting people to understand the benefits land trusts can provide requires a shift in perspective. Rather than maximizing wealth creation, community land trusts offer long-term stability for homeowners and for communities, especially those undergoing gentrification.
“It’s really about security and stability and a way of having permanent, affordable housing that moves us away from the housing crisis that so many people face in this country,” he says.
Robey, the Atlanta mother who is now enjoying her home with four of her children, had no other opportunities to become a homeowner, so the decision to become part of a land trust was a no-brainer.
“I was fine with the idea of the shared equity, of not owning the land outright, because this wasn’t an investment property for me,” she says. “I wanted a house that I was going to live in.”
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.