From San Francisco to Boston to Paris: Community Land Trusts in the United States
What can a French affordable housing specialist possibly learn from affordable housing development in California? That is what I asked myself on a recent trip to San Francisco and the Bay Area to learn about how community land trusts (CLT) work in the region. A housing affordability crisis combined with an inability to house the homeless indicates that the Bay Area is not very good at developing affordable housing. From a European perspective, the juxtaposition of extreme wealth living side-by-side with extreme poverty in one of the most productive and innovative cities in the world is hard to understand. Even with the migrant crisis resulting in an increase of refugees from Syria and Eritrea struggling on the streets of Paris, nowhere in the industrialized West have I witnessed such disparity between rich and poor play than I have in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
On both sides of the Atlantic, metropolises are dealing with the twin effects of booming economies on the one hand, and on the other, the unequal redistribution of wealth that has resulted in too many left out. A much more generous system of social protection in Europe, especially in France, combined with an old but efficient public housing system, limits the negative effects brought on by income and wealth inequality. So it is understandable that Californian housing activists and professionals might wonder why I am in California to learn from them. But it is Californians’ creative approach to leveraging the private market in order to develop the much needed affordable housing developments that make for a fascinating case study in resilience. Even relatively small affordable housing developers are skilled at working creatively within the confines of the private market in order to slowly increase the supply of affordable housing. And here the CLT is one clever tool used to do just that.
Boston and the Bay Area face similar issues of displacement and social exclusion, partially because of the “hot” real estate market. In my last blog post I addressed what the Boston area was doing through their CLT. After meeting with three community land trusts from San Francisco and the Bay Area, it is striking to observe the way three organizations have three very different approaches to organizing and solving affordable housing problems.
The Northern Californian Land Trust (NCLT) located in Berkeley is one of the oldest in the United States. Incorporated in 1973, the NCLT sought to make real the utopian vision of “back to the land.” Its first project was a farm in the Central Valley that, for a time, was able to realize the founding vision. The onset of the urban crisis in the mid-1980s forced NCLT to rethink its objectives. In the early 2000s its board decided to develop affordable housing in the San Francisco, San Mateo, and Alameda counties. With the proceeds from the sale of the land combined with federal funding from HOME and CDBG, NCLT was able to develop a portfolio of 200 units composed of one-third single family ownership, one-third rental units, and one-third cooperative housing. But what sets this land trust apart from others is that it plays a vital role as expert and sponsor for small groups of people who want to develop affordable housing in their communities but do not have the capacity to do so. That the NCLT has been in existence since 1973, and during this time has worked closely with local residents and leaders to develop alternative ways of land ownership, shows that it has legitimacy in ways outside organizations may not.
Oakland CLT was established in 2009 in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. With more than 13,000 foreclosures between 2007 and 2011, the city witnessed one of the biggest transfers of wealth in its history. The Oakland CLT was created after residents of East and West Oakland organized with a local community organization called Urban Strategies Council. Directly after its creation, Oakland CLT was able to access the Federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program that enabled it to purchase twenty foreclosed homes. This was considered the first phase of development. In its second (and current) phase of development, Oakland CLT has to work in a highly competitive environment where the City of Oakland promotes affordable rental solutions and often favors the large nonprofit affordable housing developers over the smaller organizations in the development and management of affordable housing. Moreover, the City can be wedded to the more traditional methods of developing affordable housing as opposed to taking risks on smaller projects that may offer different, but innovative, solutions. Oakland CLT is one such organization that, while small, brings new ideas to the table. Today, with four multi-family housing projects in multiple locations (about 50 new units), Oakland CLT offers very different solutions for artists in search of livable workshops, commercial support in areas in transition, and low-income individuals still interested in home ownership.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco, a city of renters, consists of approximately 65 percent renters and 35 percent home owners, is the reverse of prevailing homeownership patterns nationwide. The demand for more ownership of units inevitably put pressure to convert the rental stock to condos because unit conversion is generally cheaper and easier than developing new condominiums. Despite a reputation for a high tenant protection, San Francisco suffers from numerous evictions due to the desire to convert properties for financial gain. In response to this problem, the City of San Francisco has implemented Small Sites, a second mortgage soft loan program that assists nonprofit developers in purchasing and preserving rental units in exchange for long-term affordability. The San Francisco CLT has been a recipient of this program, using this as a tool to preserve affordable housing. Founded in 2003, San Francisco CLT’s first project was “53 Columbus,” 21-unit multifamily housing property located in Chinatown. It was purchased by San Francisco CLT in 2006 to avoid the displacement of renters. San Francisco CLT is now exploring new methods for developing affordable housing using crowdfunding — targeting the very Internet companies who are arguably responsible for the vast increase in housing costs — to provide the necessary equity for initiating affordable housing projects. This is indeed a very new means for raising revenue to develop affordable housing and if it works, will prove to be an interesting revenue-enhancing alternative.
As with any comparison, context matters. What makes the CLT model so unique to the French system of affordable housing provision is its flexibility and adaptability to local circumstance in the United States. As the Boston and San Francisco Bay Area examples suggest, there are multiple and different ways to apply the CLT model not only within a city but between two cities in very different parts of the country.
What are the lessons learned from Boston, San Francisco, and the Bay Area? Is there any aspect that is transferable to the French context? French law operates within the very classical constraining framework of Latin laws, which can make flexibility, innovation, and adaptability difficult. Introducing such innovation not only into our new CLT project but also into our model of social housing development will be my goal upon return to France.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.