How Community Land Trusts Could Make LA More Affordable

Reclaimer Martha Escudero addresses onlookers from the steps of her new home. (Courtesy Reclaiming Our Homes)

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On the evening of Thanksgiving 2020, Angelenos watched as formerly unhoused families occupying CalTrans-owned houses in El Sereno were forcibly evicted by California Highway Patrol officers during a tense, hours-long standoff.

The activists, part of the group "Reclaim and Rebuild Our Communities," didn't remain in the properties for long, but their protest made their demand loud and clear—they wanted the long-vacant homes to be turned over to community ownership, by way of a community land trust.

COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP

Community land trusts, or CLTs, are non-profit organizations that scoop up affordable housing stock before it gets into the hands of speculators, in order to keep it permanently affordable.

Though fairly uncommon in L.A,, the model has become increasingly popular among the region's affordable-housing advocates, who say it offers a long-term solution for preventing displacement and gentrification in an increasingly unaffordable city.

Newly minted CLTs have cropped up throughout L.A. County, in areas like South L.A., El Sereno, and Boyle Heights. Some public officials are taking note, and at the end of last year, the county Board of Supervisors launched a pilot program, aimed at bolstering the work of these organizations with millions of dollars in county grants.

Community Mosaic, a multi-family project owned by CLT TRUST South LA. (Courtesy of Piero Giunti)

KOREATOWN'S ECO VILLAGE

Community land trusts are not an entirely new phenomenon in Los Angeles — in fact, one of the city's most successful examples was established in 1993.

Tucked away on a sleepy street in Koreatown, the vine-laden Los Angeles Eco Village advertises itself as a model for sustainable living, and for nearly 30 years the co-op's residents have shared the responsibility of managing and maintaining its three buildings, sprawling gardens, eco-friendly infrastructure, and chicken coops.

Between attending community meetings to vote on building improvements, tending to maintenance tasks, and sharing meals and resources, its residents are far tighter-knit than those of your average L.A. multiplex. Resident Adrianna Swain, who has lived in the Eco Village since 2016, said that sense of community was what initially inspired her to move in. But there were other benefits, too.

"When I moved to LA, I wanted to live in a democratic community, but I also knew it was going to be unaffordable," said Swain. "Cooperatives don't have landlords, so that makes them a lot less expensive."

Starting at about $600 per month for a studio, rents in the Los Angeles Eco Village are less than half the price of some comparable apartments nearby, and prices aren't raised unless community members agree to it. That's possible because the land beneath the co-op is owned by the Beverly/Vermont Community Land Trust, which has pledged to make the land permanently affordable regardless of rising housing prices.

Los Angeles Eco Village has advertised itself as a model for sustainable living since 1993 (Zoie Matthew/LAist)

SHARED EQUITY

The first modern-day CLT in the United States was formed in 1969 by civil rights activists in Albany, Georgia, who sought to increase land access for Black farmers in the rural South. Since then, the model has spread across the United States and around the world. Though CLTs can serve a variety of purposes — from preserving green space to commercial development — they are most often used to ensure housing affordability.

"Most land trusts operate from some kind of shared equity model, or joint ownership of land and property, in order to pool resources together with the outcome of making housing affordable," said Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

"It's a more mission-driven way to acquire land and make it available to be lived on."

CLTs raise money through donations, fundraising, and grants, and use that money to purchase land that's held "in trust" on behalf of a community.

If the land is to be used for housing, the CLT will usually facilitate the refurbishment of existing units on the property, or build new units. Those units are then made available for community owners through long-term ground leases, while the CLT retains ownership of the land itself.

Multi-family buildings — like the ones occupied by Los Angeles Eco Village residents — are typically leased to a cooperative, and residents own a share of the building, along with the right to occupy their unit. If the units are single-family homes or condominiums, they might be leased by an individual purchaser.

Resident-owners are tasked with paying for improvements and maintaining the structures, and also have the opportunity to build equity through appreciation of its value. If residents move, they give up their share, and units remain affordable for future occupants, even if prices in the surrounding neighborhood spike.

"If there's a significant growth in the number of units that are under some kind of CLT framework, we're going to have a larger number of units that are affordable to people," said Lens. "So we can expect at least the people that live in those units will be protected from the sharp increases we often see when neighborhoods change."

PUBLICLY FUNDED CLT'S

In September, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors launched a pilot program that gives CLTs access to tax-defaulted properties seized by the city at below-market rates. An expansion of the program approved in November will help fund the acquisition of market rate properties as well, by giving millions of dollars in grants to land trusts across the county.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who proposed the pilot program, said she hopes it will help decrease the kind of displacement that happened during the last recession.

"We saw so many people lose their homes when corporations came in and bought up affordable units and put them on the market, and then shot up the prices to rent them and sell them," said Solis. "We don't we don't want to see that happen again."

Since September, Solis's team has been working with a coalition of five land trusts in various parts of the county, helping them to identify tax-defaulted — or Chapter 8 — properties to purchase. The proposal approved in November will allow the county to start distributing $14 million in funding to help these CLTs get their hands on other market-rate properties, especially as more pandemic-related evictions and foreclosures are anticipated.

"The purpose is to establish where properties are that could be in danger of going on the market, because either landlords have gone under, or tenants aren't able to pay rent, or there are units that were available for low-income residents and will possibly be sold," said Solis.

Solis said the money will go towards buying and refurbishing at least one property in each of the County's five supervisorial districts. "We allow for these trusts to get engaged and provide the seed money, and then they take over and create this affordable, low-income housing and preserve it," she said.

Once purchased by the land trusts and made available to the community, the units will be guaranteed to remain affordable for 99 years — much longer than most publicly-owned housing projects, which are often only required to remain affordable for 30 or 55 years after they are constructed. Currently, more than 11,000 affordable units in Los Angeles are in danger of losing their status as low-income housing due to expiring affordability covenants.

Solis's team and land trust leaders are especially interested in buying buildings with an already-organized body of tenants — this makes them easier to convert into the community-ownership model. Solis says the goal of the pilot is to preserve about 55 affordable homes. "In other words, we'll be able to help prevent at least 55 families from being displaced," she said.

If the program is successful, it could become permanent.

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

CLT-owned properties have remained scarce in L.A., in part because market-rate real estate in the region is so expensive, and also because there haven't been a lot of policies aimed at supporting them in the past.

"The legal frameworks of the U.S. are certainly geared towards private ownership, and shared ownership of land is more challenging and more rare," says Lens.

When land is secured by CLTs, the process of getting affordable housing projects up and running can also pose unexpected challenges. In one high-profile example, residents of the Rolland Curtis Gardens housing complex in South L.A. were temporarily displaced when a land trust teamed up with a community redevelopment nonprofit to rebuild their multiplex. Though it did wind up becoming affordable housing, half of the building's original tenants wound up permanently relocating, according to Curbed LA.

But advocates of the CLT model say that if it's implemented thoughtfully, it can serve as a way to empower community members. Damien Goodman, an organizer in South L.A., founded the Liberty Community Land Trust in 2019. Currently, he's spearheading an effort to buy Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and transform it into an "urban village" for the community. He wants to use the Liberty CLT to preserve affordable housing in the area surrounding the mall.

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

For Goodman, community ownership is about more than keeping prices low — it's a way for people to reshape their relationship with the place they live, encouraging "marginalized, low-income people to recognize their interconnectedness."

"It's this idea that there should be a commons, and housing is a human right," says Goodman. "It's a radical effort to secure space and place for black people specifically, but marginalized people in general."

He said he is excited about the possibilities of the County's pilot program, and intends to use some of the funds. But he worries that the $14 million won't go far in the L.A. housing market. "It could use another zero," he said.

Some advocates have suggested that the government should simply transfer land that is already public to community land trusts. This is the solution being championed by protesters in El Sereno, who began occupying a number of vacant CalTrans-owned properties in the neighborhood in March.

While some of the properties are now being leased by the city's Housing Authority to be used as transitional housing, activists say that handing them over to the El Sereno Community Land Trust would offer a more permanent solution, allowing the residents to take charge of their own living situations and maintain lasting community ties.

"[CLTs allow] people that reside on the property to have power and have self-determination and have control of their destiny in a way that the ownership structures now don't allow," said Sua Iris Hernandez, executive director of the El Sereno Community Land Trust. The land trust officially declared its interest in taking on the properties on December 6.

As for Swain, she says she's been thrilled to see the community land trust model gain traction in L.A., and notes that the Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust is currently in the process of adding another fourplex to its housing stock. Though managing a space with around 50 other people at the L.A. Eco Village has its challenges, for her it's been worth it.

"Overall I think it's an aspirational project," says Swain. "It's a proof of concept that you can have long-term affordable housing in Los Angeles, and it can be something that you can not only get by on financially, but that you can thrive on."

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