By Michael Friedrich | April 15, 2021 | The New York Times
Mr. Friedrich is a journalist who writes about the social problems caused by gentrification.
Nonprofits that purchase land, build homes on it and sell them below market rate are giving low-income buyers a chance.
If anyone knows how gentrification has displaced Black working-class residents in Atlanta, it’s Makeisha Robey, a preschool teacher. During her two decades living in the city, she has watched affordable apartment complexes vanish as new developments arise and wealthier, white residents move in.
After being priced out of renting in a series of neighborhoods, Ms. Robey, a 43-year-old single mother, became determined to buy a house of her own. “Being able to build some kind of equity, being able to have this home base where your family can come visit,” Ms. Robey said, “I wanted that for myself.”
That wish became a reality when she discovered the Atlanta Land Trust, an organization that creates and protects affordable housing. Community land trusts are locally run nonprofits that purchase land, build homes on it and sell those homes below market rate to low-income buyers. The trust keeps the deed for the land, leasing it to homeowners who sign a long-term agreement to limit their home’s resale price, so that it stays affordable into the future.
“You make a one-time investment in creating a community land trust unit, and that unit is affordable forever,” said Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust. Community leaders founded the organization in 2009 during the development of the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile rail park — similar to New York City’s High Line — that has inflated housing prices in historically Black neighborhoods nearby.
The Atlanta Land Trust focuses on low-income buyers who make between 60 percent and 80 percent of the local median income and can readily support a traditional mortgage. Those interested must still work with commercial realtors and lenders, which can be an uphill climb for first-time buyers. But that challenge has eased as the model becomes more familiar. So far, the organization has sold 15 land trust homes; it aims to build 300 by 2025. “It creates a pathway to homeownership,” Ms. Rhein said.
In 2019, Ms. Robey became one of the organization’s first buyers when she closed on a small cottage with a fenced yard in southwest Atlanta’s gentrifying Pittsburgh neighborhood for $103,000 — well below the rapidly inflating median price of around $227,000 today. She explained that it was renovated by a local neighborhood development partner before being transferred to the land trust: “It helped me come into the house with the confidence that I’ll be able to live here happily, I’ll be able to maintain it, I’ll be safe.” Ms. Robey said that she would not have been able to qualify to buy a home the conventional way.
The influence that powerful private real estate interests exert on American city governments has caused housing prices and rents to soar over the past decades, increasingly placing homeownership out of reach for families of color, and Black Americans like Ms. Robey in particular. Community land trusts form a promising corrective to this trend. By removing land from the speculative market, they keep housing affordable for first-time homeowners — especially low-income people of color.
In America, community land trusts have always been rooted in racial equity. Unlike other types of land trusts, like those formed to conserve land by restricting development, they were devised specifically to prevent the displacement of…