Charlotte's West Side Community Land Trust has begun acquiring land and raising money for its efforts to fight gentrification in west Charlotte. The 2½ year old nonprofit has a $2.5 million plan to develop 50 affordable single-family homes over the next five years. But most of that money has yet to be raised.
Rickey Hall co-founded the trust in late 2016, to buy property and build long-term affordable housing. He smiled as he talked about the trust's first acquisition, a vacant lot on Tuckaseegee Road, across from an old Elks Club.
"We're at 3313 Tuckaseegee Road and it's in the Enderly Park community," said Hall, who also chairs the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition. "And of course, its proximity to downtown and some of the other areas along the West Side is under significant threat of gentrification and displacement."
The lot is surrounded by other one-story family homes and longtime neighbors - such as the Milestone music club down the block. There are churches, a convenience store and a gas station. And right in front, there's a stop for the Number 8 bus, which will take you straight uptown in 15 minutes. That's one of the reasons gentrification threatens the area.
"We seek to develop this particular property as an anti-displacement strategy, as a community placeholder for long-term affordability and to spark economic development in this corridor," Hall said.
HOW A LAND TRUST WORKS
A land trust is a non-profit group dedicated to permanently preserving housing affordability. Here's how it works: The trust acquires land - either through purchase or donations. Then it sells just the houses. Owners get a long-term renewable lease on the land, and can pass it on to their children.
So a house that might sell for $120,000 instead would cost $70,000 without the land.
Experts say that takes the skyrocketing cost of land out of the equation.
"The power of the community land trust model is that the deed to the land remains with the nonprofit. And that enables you to control the future price of the home," said Robert Dowling, who runs Community Home Trust in Chapel Hill.
The land trust gets the right to buy back the house when owners are ready to sell. The arrangement allows owners to accumulate wealth - they get a set return on their investment, such as a maximum of 1% a year. That keeps the house affordable. And Dowling said it's an advantage over traditional affordable housing developments, which typically allow properties to revert to market rate after 30 years or less.
Land trusts have been around for four decades, and there are now more than 200 in the U.S. Dowling's group was founded in 1999 and now owns 260 properties, plus apartments. It was formed with help from the town of Chapel Hill, which was looking for ways to preserve affordability amid rising housing prices.
"What we do is not being done in the marketplace," Dowling said. "Adam Smith's invisible hand, of the marketplace will take care of everyone … doesn't work for poor people."
So it's up to nonprofits to fill the gap, said Dowling, from land trusts to Habitat for Humanity to nonprofit developers.
The west Charlotte land trust grew out of discussions among neighborhood leaders in 2016, and has been in an organizational mode ever since. It's targeting an area bounded by I-77 on the east, I-85 on the north and Billy Graham Parkway on the west.
The group now has an executive director, multiple boards and committees, and money in the bank.
The trust recently received its biggest gift to date - a two-year $191,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem. It's one of five organizations to get the Collaborative Problem Solving Strategy Grants, which a foundation official said is "to incentivize groups across sectors to help solve a problem with an innovative solution."
But the road ahead is a tough one. Charis Blackmon has been the trust's part-time executive director for a year, and she'll soon shift to full time. She said her group still needs to win the trust - and the land or dollars - of donors, foundations and local government.
"First of all, we want to create a proof of concept, right? We want people to see that this will work in this market, that this does create affordability in perpetuity. That the model will do in fact what it says that it will do," Blackmon said.
The trust recently completed a five-year plan. It calls for acquiring land and repairing or building five houses over the next year, and 50 houses by 2023. They'll go to people who make between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income. That's $45,000 to $59,000 a year for a family of four. Blackmon admits the plan will be expensive.
"We're looking for $2.5 million to be able to develop 50 affordable home ownership units, which sounds like - as a lump sum - a lot of money. But really what that is is $50,000 in subsidy per unit that we develop," Blackmon said.
The trust will buy properties, as it did the lot on Tuckaseegee Road. But it also hopes some residents will agree to donate their land and homes. The organization won't build houses itself. Instead they'll plan to partner with a private - probably nonprofit - developer.
The trust has received a few small grants from groups like the United Way. But Blackmon and Hall say it will take a strong partnership with City Hall, too. They're in discussions with the city about donating property and other support.
City Housing Director Pamela Wideman said a land trust could go a long way to preserving and expanding the supply of affordable housing. But she warns the trust must develop a wide range of skills:
"An organization, or a manager of that land trust, who has the capability to both manage, has the financial wherewithal to acquire land as it becomes available, and the ability to either develop or work with reputable developers to develop safe, quality, affordable housing," Wideman said.
The West Charlotte Community Land Trust is still trying to get there. Rickey Hall said part of that will be winning over leaders and residents.
"What we seek is to have communities embrace the land trust model as a viable opportunity for community wealth building. And we ask you to get on board and give us your support," he said.
If they succeed, the West Charlotte Trust someday could expand its work across the city, said Hall.