Housing that prioritizes sustainability and affordability over profit
by Susan Davenport and Dan Rubin
Imagine a not–for–profit, non-governmental organization that starts small but becomes a significant force for creating and retaining permanently affordable housing for low–and moderate–income people throughout Thurston County. An organization that supports home ownership but retains ownership of the land itself in permanent trust, and places legal limits on the amount of profit-taking that can occur if owners (technically, very long–term lessees) choose to sell their equity. An entity whose guiding principles are grounded in the greater good, with decisions made by a community-based membership.
A future of varied and affordable homes
Picture a future in which this organization’s properties include single-family dwellings, cooperatively-owned households, duplexes and other multifamily housing—occupied by a range of people including families that could not otherwise own a place of their own, older individuals who are struggling to maintain their homes, and differently-abled people who need on-site assistance.
This is a picture of the future of the newly incorporated Thurston Housing Land Trust (THLT). THLT is part of the new economics that consider sustainability and affordability as highest priorities, replacing the prevailing system that commodifies land and housing.
A movement with a history of success
THLT is rooted in the community land trust (CLT) movement, with successful models around the United States. Several of the largest are in the Northwest, including Homestead in Seattle and Kulshan in Bellingham. Images of a community land trust as a major developer are drawn from a highly successful community land trust in Burlington, VT. This CLT, which is closely tied to municipal governments, was formed in the 1970s and now has holdings that include parks and community facilities as well as housing.
An initial group including three originators from the Black Walnut Association Land Trust (which owns a collective house on Olympia’s Westside) presented the CLT idea in public meetings beginning about three years ago.
The housing market has failed
They were responding to the affordable housing crisis in our area, with a focus on the rapid loss of housing stock for low- and moderate-income people at the margin of being able to own a home. These actions to build awareness occurred during the same time as other local efforts to address the issue. The City of Olympia’s Missing Middle Task Force was one whose recommendations will go to the Olympia City Council; another was a symposium on gentrification held at Traditions Cafe and led by Evergreen faculty Peter Bohmer, Pitral Nal and students. CLTs were noted as a prime solution to the national housing crisis; one of the THLT organizers presented information about the trust work.
A community-centered response
This February at a large public meeting several individuals stepped forward to form a Steering Committee to continue working toward creation of a formal organization. The committee convened almost weekly through May when they filed an application for nonprofit status with the Secretary of State. The Steering Committee worked on bylaws and other organizational requirements while requesting feedback from people on a list that grew as contacts were made with leaders and local residents who shared concerns about poverty, social justice and housing.
Organized to achieve the vision of affordable housing
On June 9, the newly formed organization held an initial membership meeting, where by-laws were approved and a “tripartite” Board of Trustees was elected. The Board represented potential lessess of the trust; other members of the organization; and the broader community. The first Board meeting was held the following week to select officers for the rest of the year. Three committees under Board leadership will:
1) continue administrative support and pursue federal tax-exempt status;
2) expand outreach to the community including identifying potential property donors, low-income members and potential Board members and organizational linkages, and
3) establish financial systems, build a budget, seek operating funds and property donations to the trust.
THLT will be working with people who are considering donating property and with self-housing groups who are considering putting their cooperative households into the trust as well as cultivating relationships with supportive community members. Work on a website and other organizational components is also underway. All Board meetings are open for observation by members and the interested public.
Susan Davenport is chair of the THLT Outreach Committee, a founding member of the Black Walnut Association Land Trust and a long-time resident of Olympia’s westside.
Dan Rubin helped form THLT and will serve as Board Chair through late this year. He has worked many years in non-profit management among other roles. For more information, see the website at www.thurstoncountylandtrust.org or call Susan at 360-970-6302. YouTube videos explaining the land trust concept are “Roots of the CLT” and “Homes and Hands,” among others.
How a Community Land Trust produces affordable homes
Housing becomes permanently affordable under the Community Land Trust model based on a unique ownership arrangement whereby the land under a house is owned by the trust. A home buyer pays only the cost of the dwelling. The dwelling stays permanently affordable because of agreements with the trust that keep the sale price within established affordability guidelines. The land is leased to the homeowner under a 99-year inheritable and renewable lease agreement. Homeowners who sell have the benefit of limited equity that has built over time within the affordability limit. CLTs can offer this to cooperatively-owned households as well as to organizations that conduct socially beneficial activities in facilities on trust land. The first housing resources held in trust by TCLT will likely be what is called “scattered site” or individual homes. The long-term vision is to build and develop enough properties to significantly increase the amount of affordable housing stock in Thurston County.