Change is coming rapidly to DC neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, and Anacostia in particular has seen rapidly-rising housing prices. The newly-designed 11th Street Bridge Park, almost certain to become a city-wide attraction like New York City's High Line, is also likely to further increase land and housing prices in the area.
In anticipation of this, a group of nonprofit organizations is working to prevent displacement in the neighborhood as it continues to grow with a tool used rather infrequently in the region: a community land trust.
A beautiful new bridge and park, and the challenge it presents
The 11th Street Bridge Park is an ambitious project that will connect Anacostia and Capitol Hill — one that supporters hope will spur inclusive development. The area will likely see a lot of benefits once it’s completed, but along with those benefits come affordability challenges to the neighborhood’s existing residents.
The organizers behind the Bridge Park spent hours meeting with community stakeholders to develop its Equitable Development Plan, which aims to ensure that current residents enjoy benefits from the project and they are not pressured to move away.
One of the keystone tools the Equitable Development plan recommends is creating a community land trust to preserve affordable housing.
What is a community land trust anyways?
Quite simply, a community land trust is a tool to preserve affordable housing. There are various approaches to how to assemble a community land trust, but generally they work on a simple idea: a nonprofit trust purchases a building and the land it sits on. It separates the value of the building from the value of the land, and leases just the building to an individual, organization, or business. The trust maintains ownership of the land throughout.
This has a couple of benefits. First, it lowers the price for the renter since the occupants are just leasing the building, not the land it sits on. Particularly in cities like DC, a large part of the cost of a home or business is the land cost.
Second, by holding onto the land, the trust is able to partially negate the effects of increasing property value over time. For example, when a project like the 11th Street Bridge Project brings increased value to an area like Anacostia, a local trust can tie up their land in a long-term lease, effectively removing it from the market so the increased land values do not make the site unaffordable. They can also reinvest their rental and fee profits into other services, such as subsidizing units or purchasing more land.
Finally, for many advocates, the simple fact that the trust (usually made up of a members of the community) continues to own and control the land is the biggest benefit of all. This reverses a common trend where many original community members leave an increasingly-expensive city due to financial pressures or incentives.
Unlike other affordable housing tools, community land trusts are administered by nonprofit organizations and overseen by an advisory committee largely consisting of community members. The structure of advisory boards can vary from land trust to land trust, but a common structure is a ‘tripartite’ model, where one third of members are residents, one third are community leaders, and one third are technical experts.
The Douglass Land Trust hopes to help prevent displacement
Besides their general structure and goals, community land trusts vary greatly in how they are implemented. Some are focused on giving opportunities for affordable home ownership, and draft leases on the buildings that allow the leasee to build some limited equity over time, until they resell to the trust when they leave.
This isn’t the first time a community land trust has been attempted in the region. Baltimore has two land trusts in operation: the Charm City Land Trust, started in 2000, and the North East Housing Initiative, which has been going since 2012.
In the case of the Douglass Community Land Trust in Anacostia, most of the units are planned to be rentals. While many land trusts allow residents to purchase a home, this one will emphasize preserving rental units for families in the 30%-50% area median income range, which was identified as the highest need in the area. As property values in the neighborhood increase over time, preserving rental opportunities for those who make the least will be increasingly important.
The five-year business plan for the land trust is still under construction, which will provide recommendations for the early stages of the project. This will include determining the initial number of units, which will likely be around 250-350 so the Trust will be financially stable.
The business plan also includes recommendations to support existing businesses in Anacostia, and to create job training programs to ensure employment for existing residents. In general, the Trust will maximize community resources, such as using local labor for building and local banks for financing businesses.
A number of other partners are working to make the Douglass Community Land Trust a reality. The nonprofit City First Bank serves as an incubator and technical advisor. JP Morgan has also donated $5 million in seed money to get the project off the ground. The National Housing Trust will manage the properties in the land trust once it is off the ground. Ultimately, however, the shape and direction of the land trust will be the decision of the trust board.
Building Bridges Across Rivers will be hosting a community barbecue with more information about the land trust on May 12. You can see more information here.
A special thanks to Jim Steck of City First Bank, Scott Kratz and Vaughn Perry of Building Bridges Across Rivers, and Daniel Fowler with the Urban Institute with helping with this article.