Activists Seek to Start Community Land Trusts in Baltimore

Earlier this year, I wrote about the rash of tear-downs of vacant housing in Baltimore, MD. Now it seems the city may be headed in a better direction. Michelle Chen, a writer for The Nation, recently published an article entitled, "Can Neighborhoods Be Revitalized Without Gentrifying Them?"

It's a thought-provoking question on a topic that we've considered here before.  This particular article focuses on the situation in Baltimore. Chen writes:

Baltimore has become notorious as the site of failed “urban renewal” projects, rife with liberal talking points but showing precious little progress in alleviating poverty and joblessness.

[A]ctivists are pushing a plan before the City Council to devote about $40 million to housing development, not just to fix up vacancies or construct commercial towers but to overhaul neighborhoods through developing Community Land Trusts. [...The] idea would be to establish communally owned property under a democratic governance structure, which allows residents and the surrounding neighborhood to cooperatively manage land and property use.

Community Land Trust diagram created by the Democracy Collaborative. Click to view larger.

According to another recent article in City Lab, this $40 million would be divided, with half going to renovate existing buildings and turn them into affordable housing, and the other half going to pay for the chronically unemployed to help with tear-downs of vacant housing and . It's still troubling to hear that so much is being torn down in Baltimore, but the concept of community land trusts (CLTs) is a promising one. 

While they have been utilized in other countries, CLTs have yet to make serious inroads in the US. Most states only have a handful of land trusts.

As Chen explains in her article:

Under the CLT’s cooperative ownership structure, the resident owns the property, while the community retains the land. The resident pays an annual leasing fee, plus other mortgage and maintenance expenses. When the property is sold, price is controlled through a prearranged agreement with a community authority, with representation from neighbors and “public stakeholders” such as local officials or community-development organizations. The homeowner can share in any appreciation of the sales value. [...] 

The model could also be applied to commercial properties, including self-sustaining small businesses in struggling neighborhoods.

This interesting merge between public and private ownership has the potential to help create and preserve affordable housing in a community where, as Ms. Chen writes, "[Baltimore] residents face tracts of sky-high rents alongside chronically neglected housing stock, dividing wealthy and impoverished areas." This mismatch could be adjusted in part by the proposed land trusts.

The National Community Land Trust Network explains the key value of a CLT: "The homeowner is able to successfully own a home and build wealth from the investment, while the organization is able to preserve the public’s investment in the affordable home permanently to help family after family." 

To read the rest of this article, visit The Nation.

If you're interested in the topic of urban renewal, join us next week as we focus on the legacy of Jane Jacobs.

(Top photo by Baltimore Heritage)

Related stories