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Community land trusts are providing a solution to gentrification


As urban neighborhoods gentrify, it can be hard for people to keep up with rising rents. Some groups are buying up land through what's called community land trusts so that longtime residents don't have to leave. Simon Rios of member station WBUR in Boston reports on how these organizations are trying to create permanent affordable housing.

SIMON RIOS, BYLINE: Tiny brick row houses cram two full city blocks just south of downtown Boston. The buildings recall a time when waves of new Americans settled in the area - first Arab, Jewish and Irish families and eventually families from China.

LYDIA LOWE: Back in the day, there were hundreds of immigrant families living in these small properties.

RIOS: Lydia Lowe is a longtime community organizer in what's now known as Boston's Chinatown.

LOWE: And this whole area - because it was, like, landfills. It was kind of stinky. It was also near a rail yard. It was very undesirable at the time, and so the only people who would live here were the immigrants.

RIOS: It would have been hard to imagine in the 1800s how these little buildings would become prime real estate. Fearing the historic homes would be lost, a group of activists got together in 2015 and formed a community land trust. That's a type of nonprofit that acquires properties with the goal of keeping them affordable for residents. A trust owns the land and rents or sells the homes on it. The first place the Chinatown Trust wanted to purchase was a three-unit row house. Lowe recalls they had to scrape together $1.7 million to beat bids from investors.

LOWE: We had to show that this was possible because nobody believed us. So this is Boston's first community land trust condo.

RIOS: More than 600 people applied to buy the three condos in the building. Among them was Meidan Lin, a 32-year-old restaurant server. Her family won a lottery to buy one of the condos, which sold for roughly a third of market value. Speaking through an interpreter, Lin says being a homeowner means her family can stay in Chinatown.

MEIDAN LIN: (Through interpreter) There is no worrying about rent. And also, we have been accommodating to lives in Chinatown, and moving somewhere else would be a big culture shock.

RIOS: The community land trust model dates back more than a half a century, developed by civil rights activists and Black farmers trying to protect farmland in Georgia. John Davis of the nonprofit Center for Community Land Trust Innovation says there are now more than 300 of these trusts across the U.S., and he estimates that 20% of them have come online over the last decade. That's because, Davis says, gentrification has taken a toll in many urban areas.

JOHN DAVIS: So you really lost the diversity of people, uses, businesses that keep a neighborhood vital and vibrant. So the community land trust preserves affordability for housing.

RIOS: And he says they can also set aside spaces for what he calls low-profit businesses, like day cares, barbershops and artist studios. One trade-off is that people who buy homes in these land trusts won't get market rate when they sell. Davis says that's so the housing stays affordable.

DAVIS: Let's say the city gave you a $20,000 down payment grant. You're not going to walk away with that, you know? So we're going to leave that public subsidy in the home for the next homebuyer.

RIOS: Making less profit hasn't seemed to deter people from wanting to join. Founded just five years ago, the Houston Community Land Trust now has more than 130 homes in its portfolio. That's a tiny fraction of the city's housing stock. But these homes make a huge difference to the people who live there, says Ashley Allen, who runs the trust.

ASHLEY ALLEN: Most of the people that come through our program couldn't save before. They couldn't think about a 401(k) or a college savings plan because all of their money was going to housing.

RIOS: Houston's mayor, however, recently decided to slash the group's funding. And high property values are making it harder for the community land trust to buy, something that poses a problem for land trusts across the country. Still, advocates say the trusts are a permanent way to help people who are struggling to stay put, even as prices around them rise.

For NPR News, I'm Simon Rios in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Simon Rios