By Southwest DC Action 

To address Southwest’s affordable housing crisis in a way that does not exacerbate racial inequality, we must adopt a different approach for producing housing, especially on public land. 

The D.C. Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE), whose mission it is to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in the city, agrees. CORE recommended that public land should be developed, “to include innovative, long-term models such as coops and community land trusts to address the current racial disparity in homeownership rates.” 

We will soon have the opportunity to apply this recommendation in our neighborhood by establishing a Southwest chapter of the Douglass Community Land Trust at the current site of the fire truck and repair station on M and Half Street SW. If you are curious about the community land trust (CLT) model, this article will serve as a primer.

What is a CLT?

A CLT is a non-profit organization that owns land and leases access at affordable and below market-rate prices. CLTs can host housing, both rental and ownership, single-family or multifamily, small businesses, community spaces, and anything else that can be built on top of land. 

CLTs are not a new idea for providing affordable housing and preventing displacement. The first CLT in America was established in Georgia in 1969 as a means of keeping Black farmers on their land. Since then, CLTs have continued to be used to counter Black displacement from cities and provide homeownership opportunities to people who may not have been able to obtain it otherwise. According to a study from Grounded Solutions, the number of minorities living in shared equity housing, like CLTs, has jumped from 13% to 43% in recent years. The study also “confirm[ed] that shared equity models provide affordable homeownership to lower income families generation after generation […] [and] provides financial security and mitigates risks for homeowners facing housing market turmoil.”

Can a CLT be a housing model for Southwest?

Southwest has an opportunity to host the first CLT in Ward 6 at the Fire and Engine repair building. The Fire and Engine Station will be relocating to Blue Plains, and the zoning for the site allows for mixed use development, which provides an opportunity for the site to be transferred over to the Douglass CLT. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has already expressed support for the idea, writing in a letter to the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development that the benefits of economic development of Southwest and Navy Yard over the last 10-15 years had “not accrued to all District residents equitably,” which made the site a “good candidate for a CLT.”  

How does a CLT provide affordability?

CLTs provide permanent affordability through renewable, 99-year leases that contain covenants that restrict how much properties can be sold for, while still allowing the accrual of some equity. The covenants can also be passed on to other family members as well. 

Here is a DC example to show how it works: if a person wants to purchase a home valued at $555,000 but earns half of the area median income, an initial subsidy of $393,000 is required to make the home affordable at $162,000. Using a traditional approach to purchasing a home in the housing market, the market-rate price of the home will continue to rise year after year, increasing the amount of subsidies future modest-income buyers would need. Under a CLT model for the same buyer and home, future modest-income buyers will not require any additional subsidy.

Why does this matter?

The permanent affordability of the units allows residents to “have the time and resources to focus on other aspects that affect our lifestyles such as saving up to buy a car or house, saving for college and having kids,” according to Silvia Salazar, a resident of the 1417 N Street NW limited equity housing co-op that is part of the Douglass CLT. In fact, over 60% of people who live on a CLT and decide to sell are able to afford a market-rate house.  

Belonging to a CLT not only provides residents with the ability to save money, but it also allows them to control their living situation, support each other in times of need, and engage in more civic activity. 

The residents of the 1417 N Street NW co-op are an example of this. Ms. Salazar’s building had more than 200 housing code violations when they bought it, but they were able to bring it up to code while also involving the members of the co-op along the way. Ms. Salazar explained, “We involved members of our coop during the renovation process and made sure they had a say about the changes in our building. Once we were able to bring the building up to code, our standard of living immediately improved.” 

Despite the financial hardships the COVID-19 pandemic caused for residents of the co-op, members joined together to make sure no one was evicted. “For people who fell behind on their monthly housing payments, we set up payment plans and made sure that nobody [would be] evicted as a result,” Ms. Salazar said. “Our net value is […] measured by how we deal with adversity and seeing families thriving and prospering.”

In sum, CLTs put residents and their needs over the pursuit of profits and provide an alternative, equity-focused, community-driven approach to development.

What is the Douglass CLT?

The Douglass CLT was born out of concern for preventing Black displacement in Washington, DC. When Kymone Freeman, a native Washingtonian and the force behind the award-winning We Act Radio, which operates out of Anacostia, was approached asking for support for the 11th Street Bridge project, he expressed his concern that the walkable park would remove the “last stigma” of living “East of The River” and open the area up for development and displacement. When asked what could be done to address this, Mr. Freeman, who was familiar with the history of CLTs, suggested that one be established. With the help of the non-profit Building Bridges Across The River, the Douglass CLT was established. Since then, Freeman has served on the Board of the Douglass CLT and works to see the CLT model embraced as a “city-wide policy.”

How is the CLT structure maintained?

The maintenance and management of CLTs comes from community and resident participation. CLTs have a Board of Directors that includes residents, business owners and industry professionals. Decision-making and initiatives are not limited to just the Board, but also includes the general membership of the organization (for the Douglass CLT, anyone who lives in DC can become a member). Members not only elect the Board but can also serve on the organization’s various committees to ensure that the CLT thrives and stays aligned to its mission.

Financial support for CLTs comes largely from grants, the government and philanthropy. Similarly, CLTs can obtain land through government disposition, donation, or purchase.

To obtain the best results from the CLT model, research shows that it should be applied at scale. Rather than several CLTs competing against each other for limited resources and land, a city-wide CLT should be established, perhaps, composed of different neighborhood chapters. SW Action and the Douglass CLT are working together to establish the first neighborhood chapter in hopes of not only bringing community-driven development to Southwest, but also to provide a framework for how future neighborhood chapters may be established throughout the city.

If you would like to learn more or support the expansion of the Douglass CLT into Southwest, visit bit.ly/swclt. If you’d like to learn more about CLTs more broadly or the Douglass CLT in particular, you can sign up to attend a monthly webinar on the first Wednesday of the month at 5:30pm held by the Douglass CLT. Visit bit.ly/registerDouglassCLTOrientation to register. 

Southwest DC Action is a group of Southwest residents who organize and advocate for a more equitable, anti-racist, and environmentally sustainable neighborhood. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or join our meetings the first Sunday of each month. Email swdcaction@gmail.com for the location and time.

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