DEVELOPING SOCIAL EQUITY IN THE CITY AND BEYOND: THE POTENTIAL OF COMMUNITY LAND TRUSTS

Mike Lewis, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, and I wrote this piece to draw attention to the promise and potential of mutual home ownership models and community land trusts in particular. More writings on this topic can be found here.

Introduction

Housing is the bedrock of urban life. It is foundational to personal development, social and economic wellbeing and to overall standards of living and quality of life. Housing is also a commodity. An overwhelming majority of the 13.3 million households in Canada obtain housing through the private market. It is generally agreed that Canada’s housing system is, in practice, market-driven and primarily orientated around private homeownership.

But this ‘ownership model’ is not without its problems, especially when it comes to issues related to social equity. Today, housing affordability problems are rife in many urban and high amenity communities in Canada. Vancouver is perhaps the extreme case. An average three bedroom bungalow built in the post-war early 50s cost $14,500 in the west end Kerrisdale neighborhood – 3.5 years of a carpenter wage. The same house went for $1.6 million just 60 years later – 33 times the annual wage of a carpenter.

How does this happen? True, wages have been relatively flat for a large part of the population for the last 4 decades. Fewer and fewer people can fit within the conventional ‘affordable housing’ target; 30% of gross household income. In 2011 this number was over 3.3 million households (Statistics Canada 2013).

Wages, while obviously important, cannot hold a candle to a much more powerful influence; the dynamic embedded in the private property market, where 69% of Canadian households (or 9.2 million homeowners) participate in its ups and its downs. The problem for high amenity communities is the prices just keep going up. The causes can be diverse – population increase, rapid economic growth and uplift in the housing market that come from public and private investments that increase the attractiveness of a particular place.

Most of us know how it works. If one qualifies for a mortgage and is prone to thinking of housing not only as a home, but also an investment, homework is done to position oneself in a location that may be able to ride the uplift of other’s investments. The profits can be enormous for householders and other real estate owners.

Consider the £3.5 billion public investment in the Jubilee subway line in London, England. The private property within 1000 yards of each station increased in ‘value’ by £13 billion, a windfall that went mostly to corporate landlords. Not surprisingly rents soared; a fine example of public investment accruing to private pockets and ordinary renters paying the price.

But what if the value created by public and other private investment could be captured so it goes onto the community balance sheet rather than as unearned income into private pockets? The answer to this question is hugely important because if it is possible, progress on affordability is conceivable.

The Community Land Trust (CLT) is one housing model providing such answers.

The Community Land Trust: A Proven Model

The CLT model is organized as a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization committed to acquiring, stewarding and managing land in ways that keep the owner occupied or rental housing upon it affordable in perpetuity.

The CLT tenure does this by separating the ownership of the land from the ownership of the buildings on it. The land is retained forever in trust by the CLT for community benefit. In short, it effectively and permanently removes the land from the market. By contrast, buildings on the CLT’s land can be owned by a variety of entities – a single family household, a co-operative, a non-profit, even a small business.

CLT land is never sold to the inhabitants; it is leased. Written into the lease are clauses that restrict the owner occupant from pocketing the profit from an upswing in the market, unlike the normal private property owner. The lease has a resale formula that may share some of the equity upswing but the greatest portion of the unearned profit stays on the community balance sheet. The CLT exercises this power through a pre-emptive right to buy housing units when they are resold. The departing owner has the contractual obligation to sell their housing back to the CLT at a price set by the resale formula.

And it works. There are over 260 CLTs in the U.S. extending from rural villages to initiatives that cover entire cities or counties. The Champlain Housing Land Trust in Burlington, Vermont is one of the best known examples. Between 1984 and 2009 the CLT had built and otherwise acquired over 2500 units of owner occupied houses and rental units. Burlington is a high amenity community that started the CLT because of upward pressure on house prices. Astoundingly, their housing stock has increased in affordability by 20% over the last 20 years (Lewis and Conaty 2012).

Such results had already begun to attract municipalities who in the U.S. are important players in affordable housing. After the housing meltdown they became even more interested in the robustness of the CLT land stewardship model. Across the U.S. CLTs radically out performed sub-prime and conventional mortgages in terms of both delinquencies and foreclosures (Thaden 2010). In both categories CLT housing proved itself much more stable. Losses hardly registered whereas they were high in conventional mortgages and soared in sub-prime.

Stemming the tide of urban social inequity: Scaling up CLTs

The potential of CLTs for addressing social inequities in Canada’s housing landscape is substantial. First, CLTs lock in affordability. The rising cost of housing has put incredible strain on household finances and has made housing itself out of reach for some. These affordability problems are most acute among low-income groups such as lone-parents who experience enormous difficulty finding housing they can afford. While social housing exists in principal to address these affordability problems government subsidies have precipitously shrunk over the last 25 years resulting in inadequate supply (Gaetz et al. 2014).

Second, CLTs can help alleviate housing related indebtedness. The rising cost of housing is driving the accumulation of record levels of household debt (Walks 2013). Households in Canada’s large, metro regions are, generally speaking, the most indebted. Household indebtedness is greatest in the suburban fringes and in gentrifying inner city neighborhoods where young families, immigrants to Canada, single parents, and low-income households are disproportionately affected (Walks 2013).

Third, CLTs can help preserve neighborhood diversity. Rapid increases in house prices have deleterious consequences for social equity at the neighborhood level. The gentrification process tends to decrease levels of social mix and increase income inequality; in other words, neighborhoods that rapidly appreciated in terms of their land values often see reductions in their share of immigrants, visible minorities and low-income households, becoming ‘whiter and wealthier’ in the process (Walks and Maaranen 2011).

Alternatives to Canada’s traditional ‘ownership model’ are badly needed to address these fundamental problems, alternatives that transcend rigid dichotomies –privately owned vs. publically owned, market-driven vs. collectively controlled, owners vs. renters – that have structured tenure norms in Canada’s housing system. CLTs are one such alternative.

REFERENCES

Gaetz, S., Gulliver, T., and Richter, T. 2014. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014. Homelessness Hub Press: Toronto, ON

Lewis, M. and Conaty, P. 2012. The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C.

Statistics Canada. 2013. Homeownership and Shelter Costs in Canada. Statistics Canada: Ottawa, ON.

Thaden, E. 2010. Outperforming the market: Making sense of the low rates of delinquencies and foreclosures in community land trusts. National Community Land Trust Network: Portland, OR.

Walks, A. 2013. Mapping the Debtscape: The Geography of Household Debt in Canadian Cities, Urban Geography, 34(2), 153-187

Walks, A. and Maaranen, R. 2008. Gentrification, Social Mix, and Social Polarization: Testing the Linkages in Large Canadian Cities. Urban Geography, 29(4), 293-326

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