It’s Time for Philanthropy to Put Communities in Charge of Their Own Housing and Futures
Amid a housing equity crisis and following a successful pilot program in L.A., guest authors Almas Sayeed and Jessica Melendez make a case for why philanthropy should back community land trusts.
Almas Sayeed and Jessica Melendez | July 12, 2023
Housing insecurity is a national crisis. In big cities, suburbs and rural areas, on the coasts and in the heartland, rents are skyrocketing, homeownership is out of reach, and a lost job or a landlord’s whim can push families into homelessness.
In response, tenants and community groups across the country are increasingly turning to an ownership model with roots in the American civil rights movement — community land trusts, also known as CLTs. The CLT model takes ownership of housing (or other types of land) out of the turbulent, profit-driven real estate market and puts it into the hands of local communities and tenants themselves. This structure emphasizes local control over return on capital, allowing communities to protect themselves against gentrification, eviction and dislocation.
Now, a new study of a CLT pilot program in Los Angeles County, conducted with funding from the Liberty Hill Foundation and other foundations, demonstrates that the CLT model is cost-effective and popular with tenants, making it a worthy target for philanthropic dollars to scale up its reach and its impact.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors established this $14 million pilot program in 2020 in response to the COVID crisis, with the purpose of preserving affordable housing. In total, the program preserved eight multifamily properties with a total of 43 apartments, housing 110 people, with the funding going to acquisition and some rehabilitation.
The average total development cost per unit of the program was $327,523, which was 47% less than comparable new construction and 39% less than units rehabilitated through low-income housing tax credits. Tenants consistently expressed that seeing their properties transferred from for-profit ownership to the CLT model relieved the stress of the threat of eviction. Community land trust partners made a point to partner with local community and tenant-organizing efforts to support their acquisitions.
This focus on community power-building is especially important in the housing ecosystems of traditionally underserved neighborhoods of color, which have long been destabilized by outside forces. Instead of being able to control their own housing, residents of these neighborhoods have for decades faced racist government policies such as redlining and urban renewal, and speculative capital attacks such as blockbusting, gentrification and mass purchases by private equity and corporate buyers. The victims of these policies have been the residents themselves, who have been displaced, evicted and priced out, and who have seen their neighbors suffer the same fates, all while rents have gone up and housing quality has deteriorated.
The CLT model reverses that dynamic by putting communities in charge of their own land resources. Activists first developed the CLT structure during the American civil rights movement as a way to empower Black tenant farmers by removing control of land from racist landowners who had used real estate ownership as a tool of control, and instead, placing it in the hands of the farmers themselves. In the same way, control of residential real estate puts residents in charge of their housing and their neighborhoods, letting them be the arbiters of any changes rather than for-profit owners or even potentially unaccountable nonprofits.
The pilot program in L.A. County worked in part because philanthropic partners provided vital support at key stages. While the county provided the lion’s share of the funding for the program, the Los Angeles regional coalition of foundations called Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (or SPARCC) — consisting of the California Community Foundation (CCF); Los Angeles Transit, Housing, Resources, and Investment for a Thriving Economy (LA THRIVES); and Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles (ACT-LA) — provided flexible funding that enabled local CLTs to secure acquisitions. Foundations such as Liberty Hill and The California Endowment worked with existing CLTs to form the Los Angeles CLT Coalition to position the CLTs to put the funding to the best and most efficient use. Liberty Hill likewise partnered with The California Endowment and acted as principal investigator to facilitate the production of a study assessing the pilot program’s overall efficacy.
It is our hope that the study and its findings will help to build understanding of the CLT model and increase its credibility both locally and across the country as a powerful tool for addressing the housing crisis. We also hope and believe that it demonstrates the value of long-term expansion of CLT programs in the Los Angeles area, and that it will allow the CLT Coalition to expand and to advocate for its model.
L.A. is uniquely positioned to lead that expansion. The City of Los Angeles recently passed a ballot measure, Measure ULA, that will provide millions of dollars a year in funds that can be invested in community land trusts and used to purchase and rehabilitate affordable housing, expanding the local CLT portfolio and empowering communities to take charge of their own residences and shape their own futures.
Foundations and other donors can meet this moment, expand the scope and refine the methods of this model by making major philanthropic investments in CLTs across the country. Just as in LA County, philanthropic donors should pursue opportunities to partner with local governments on pilot programs, to support CLTs with research and advocacy, and to build the infrastructure for an expanded effort to put tenants and communities in charge of their own neighborhoods through CLTs.
Philanthropy has an extraordinary opportunity to invest in an innovative approach to housing that works by empowering residents from the ground up. Let’s capitalize on this moment to ensure that people in every city have homes that they can truly call their own.
Almas Sayeed is the Vice President of Public Partnerships for Liberty Hill Foundation. Jessica Melendez is the Director of Policy for T.R.U.S.T. South LA.