Growing Homes with a Land Trust: Supporting Community with Good Food
With Seattle’s thriving economy currently as one– if not the hottest– in the nation, one would hope that all are benefitting. Even though job creation and high-wage employment are at an all-time high, the fortunes of many at the lower end of the economic spectrum are not rising as quickly as those of higher means. These families are among the growing number that need assistance to get decent housing.
Homestead Community Land Trust, a local Seattle-based non-profit organization, retained MetroAG Strategies to complement the work of its real estate design and development team. Homestead’s development project will create about two dozen affordable, net-zero energy, cottages for sale on a parcel of land currently owned by a church. The project site currently hosts a thriving community garden that supports a handful of low-income immigrant families with healthy food options for themselves and their neighbors. The garden has been part of the church’s programs for about a decade.
What is a Community Land Trust?
The concept of a Community Land Trust has been around since the early 1900s, but really started its growth in the United States in the 1970s, as it is one way to create new, high quality, homes for sale to a segment of the low-income working population. It enables these working families to transition from renters to homeowners, often considered part of the American Dream.
The more commonly known land trust model is associated with protecting open space, farmland, and natural areas from conversion to other land uses.* In that more typical land trust model, any rights to develop the property are removed from a parcel usually by purchasing those rights with combination of philanthropic and public dollars. The property then retains its “highest and best use” as conservation land. The most significant commonality between the land trust and community land trust models is that there is philanthropic and/or public funding involved in both projects. Thereafter, the models are very different.
As a tool for creating and preserving affordable homes, the community land trust model has been gaining steam in North America for the last several decades. Here’s a concise description from the Community Wealth website:
Community land trusts are nonprofit, community-based organizations designed to ensure community stewardship of land. Community land trusts… are primarily used to ensure long-term housing affordability. To do so, the trust acquires land and maintains ownership of it permanently. With prospective homeowners, it enters into a long-term, renewable lease instead of a traditional sale. When the homeowner sells, the family earns only a portion of the increased property value. The remainder is kept by the trust, preserving the affordability for future low- to moderate-income families.(www.community-wealth.org)
Significantly, in the Community Land Trust model the underlying land and its value is held by the nonprofit entity in perpetuity. Only the house structure itself is purchased and owned by the homeowner (the Trust rents land under the building at a nominal cost to the homeowner). When the family is ready to sell, the nonprofit assists the family with valuation and finding new, income-qualified homeowners to purchase the home.
Obviously this model requires complex financial planning and assembling construction funding above and beyond the usual real estate development process. To Homestead’s credit, they understood that since there is currently food production on-site at the garden where they plan to soon build the homes, they exercised foresight and a true community-focused vision by asking us to look comprehensively at continuing on-site food growing.
What We Learned
The church is located in the middle of a highly diverse, lower-income area that is rich with many immigrant and ethnic communities. The five public schools in the local district, including the one located directly adjacent to the project site, celebrate the fact that their 3,000 student community speaks 80 world languages. But, as a community of mostly poor working class residents, unfortunately about 80% of the school district’s student population is eligible for free and reduced lunch. Food access for this community is also partly addressed by the local food bank. It serves over 13,000 individual family visits per year. It is operated in the church, right next to the almost one-acre informal garden.
Our task was to understand the current garden operation, investigate and provide an assessment of challenges, and to recommend potential partnerships and approaches to support food growing on the church property and the potential to integrate healthy food available to through the food bank operation.
Working with Homestead, the design team, the church pastor, and the local municipality, MetroAG Strategies found many potential on-site opportunities to continue food production on-site and enhance the food bank experience. Small P-Patch garden spots and fruiting trees and shrubs could be included in the design of the housing development itself. The larger church property currently has expanses of lawn space that could be converted into new garden and growing spaces, while also adding new edible landscape plantings. Integrating this work with the food bank is still undefined, and still a possibility.
Further, connections with the neighboring school could be made that would foster new partnerships and opportunities to include horticulture and nutrition topics in the curriculum.
Funding is always an important piece to any visionary project. An initial inventory and inquiries were made to other non-profits, philanthropic interests and government agencies that expressed interest in being part of an innovative forward-thinking project that supports a low-income immigrant community.
Through our work, a promising set of opportunities have been identified. Now the next step is working through the best courses of action, where creating a new community with food growing is one of its defining elements.
(*Kathryn led PCC Farmland Trust, the Pacific Northwest’s premier organic farmland preservation nonprofit as its Executive Director. Read more about that here in the MetroAg Strategies portfolio).