One of the homes available from the Houston Community Land Trust.

The effort aimed at creating long-term housing affordability faces some challenges as it looks to expand.

It was a Friday afternoon when Ashley Allen, executive director of the Houston Community Land Trust, set out several signs on properties that were eligible to be included in the affordable housing program. By Sunday, she said, "I had developers calling and asking to purchase for cash," showing just how competitive the speculative real estate market can be and, at least in part, why housing costs continue to rise.

It's been roughly one year since the nonprofit formed, working in partnership with the city's housing and community development department. Earlier this month, Sabrina Starks-Tarble became the first homebuyer to close on a community land trust home. "This is a day I’ll never forget,” she said. “Now we have more bedrooms and a yard for the children to play in when their homework is done. All of that, and we can stay in the same community where my family’s built friendships that span decades," she said, according to a release provided by the city.

"We are very excited with where we are," said Tom McCasland, director of the city's housing and community development department, who spoke alongside Allen and others at a community land trust conference Thursday at Texas Southern University.

In its one year, the community land trust has built and closed on one home, with another three under contract, according to the nonprofit's website, which lists four other homes for sale. The nonprofit hopes to build some 200 homes this year, Allen told the audience at the two-day conference. The community land trust picks up where a once underperforming affordable housing construction program left off. Like many home building efforts, it could face complications like rising construction costs, a lack of affordable and available land and long-term funding. The effort also faces questions from community members who are wary of the model and its implementation.

"You're gonna have a fight on your hands," cautioned one retired registered nurse who attended the conference Thursday and questioned the level of community outreach and engagement that had been done. 

The community land trust effort, launched in Houston with $16 million, is a new approach for the city that has long relied on downpayment assistance to subsidize homeownership. Using property from the city's land bank, the nonprofit then builds and sells the home to qualified buyers who complete a homebuyer education course and orientation session. And though they buy the deeply subsidized home, the homebuyers lease the land, with a 99-year lease that can be passed down to heirs.

Thanks to the city's partnership, the monthly payment on a community land trust home can range from $785 to $1000 and includes taxes, insurance and the lease fee. Property taxes, another housing cost burden that continues to rise here in Houston, are also significantly reduced thanks to coordination with the county appraisal district. The resale price of the home is also limited to an increase of just 1.25 percent annually to ensure that the home remains affordable over time. So a home that initially sold for $75,115, for example, could be sold for $103,285 30 years later, according to Allen. 

"Imagine 30 years from now, being able to find a home for $103,285," said Allen.

Still, that modest increase would allow the buyer to walk away with a little extra. And while it's not the kind of wealth building tool traditional homeownership can be for some, Allen said,  "We have to think about who we're really trying to support here." Aimed at families earning roughly 80 percent of the area median income or less, the community land trust model is meant to offer stability and affordability and to keep communities intact.

That doesn't mean communities haven't raised concerns. 

Allen and her team are aware of the pushback from residents who are skeptical of buying a home but not the land beneath it or who view the deeply subsidized homes as potentially bringing down the values of surrounding homes as well. 

"You're going to collapse the values of the entire area," was how LaDonna Parker, a board member for the Houston Community Land Trust, paraphrased some of the concerns she's heard at the recent conference. But, she said, because the land trust homes will not be included in the comparable homes the appraisal district uses to determine the value of a home, their reduced values won't reflect in the appraisals of surrounding homes. 

"We are committed to maintaining values," she added.

Allen said that the nonprofit is also committed to making sure that community members and buyers are fully informed about the model. For now, outreach efforts have largely targeted the Acres Homes neighborhood where the single-family construction is focused, thanks, in part, to a city inventory of land there. But the program is ultimately intended to reach beyond Acres Homes and thus, Allen acknowledged, their outreach must too.

This wide focus also means that the implementation of the city's community land trust differs somewhat from those rooted in specific neighborhoods. Though homebuyers are eligible to serve on the nonprofit's board, because the scope of the Houston Community Land Trust will eventually span multiple communities, it's perhaps a less direct form of community stewardship. But its relationship with the city also means that it has been able to move relatively quickly while other community-led efforts might remain in earlier stages.

Still, the question of community control is part of a broader discussion about the evolution of the community land trust model more generally. "Rather than emphasizing the CLT model’s ability to cultivate community control of land," one recent Journal of Urban Affairs article argued, "CLT advocates tend to celebrate the aspects of the model that most closely align with mainstream values of individual property ownership." 

The authors also argued that the model has sometimes been promoted too narrowly as simply an affordable housing tool. "[T]he promotion of CLTs as affordable housing providers becomes a self-perpetuating dynamic, and the vast array of potential ways in which communities could or would use land become lost," the article continued. But the authors concluded that even with these questions, community land trusts are, "subsidy-efficient producers of affordable housing (because they retain the affordability subsidy in the land), and the stability they provide can have a tremendous impact on the lives of people who live in them."

For now, the Houston Community Land Trust is focused on single-family development. But over time, said Allen, the effort could expand to include multifamily homes, small businesses, community gardens or other neighborhood assets, as many community land trusts across the country include.

This vision, though, depends on more funding. Allen said they are looking into corporate partnerships and fundraising as well and said that the momentum around affordable housing will continue regardless of who's in charge at city hall.

"The mission does not change," said Allen.

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