Community Land Trusts: What Can Paris and Its Environs Learn from Boston, Massachusetts?
Many European and American cities are currently stuck at a crossroads: torn, on the one hand, between developing an innovative economy that makes cities attractive and vibrant while addressing, on the other, the adverse effects this changing city economy has had on local housing markets that have increasingly become unaffordable to residents.
The city of Montreuil is yet another city facing such a challenge. Located just outside of Paris, the housing market in Montreuil has become unaffordable on account of gentrification. Seeking solutions to this rapidly growing problem, I visited the Boston area as an Urban and Regional Policy Fellow to explore the Community Land Trust (CLT) model as a potential — transferable — tool to address the housing affordability crisis in Montreuil.
Community Land Trusts (CLT) have long been thought to provide an alternative model to the development and ownership of affordable housing in the United States. What makes CLT’s unique is the role community plays in developing affordable housing because the Trusts are generally governed by a board of directors that includes owners, neighbors and representatives of local authorities. Based on a long-term ground lease, splitting land and building ownership, together with a formula that regulates the price of residential units in case of resale, are reasons the CLT model is thought of as a viable alternative to more conventional methods for development.
Boston and the surrounding area are currently facing a massive affordability crisis not unlike what is happening in Paris and its environs.
Boston and the surrounding area are currently facing a massive affordability crisis not unlike what is happening in Paris and its environs. In Boston, there are 40,000 households on the Housing Authority’s waitlist competing for 15,000 subsidized units. By all accounts, the Section 8 waitlist is currently 11 years long. This, all the while Boston’s real estate market continues to increase exponentially. Indeed, since 2000, the price for land has increased 227 percent. To address this crisis, Mayor Walsh adopted a housing strategy in 2014 entitled Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030, where he called for the development of 53,000 units of housing, of which 30 percent would be affordable.
Thus the question for Bostonians is whether CLTs can play any meaningful role in developing this affordable housing. This question is the subject of a heated debate among housing developers and professionals, particularly as new CLTs find it increasingly more difficult to purchase land. Here prior experience provides guidance. In 2016, with support of the Boston Mayor’s office, staff of South Boston’s Dudley Neighborhood Inc. Community Land trust (DNI) brought housing activists and researchers together to create the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network. The objective of this network is to share best practice in the development and application of the CLT model to the greater Boston area.
DNI’s track record in the area of affordable housing production and community empowerment in the past 30 years is noteworthy. Indeed it is a testament to the potential for Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to develop affordable housing. In 1984, angered by issues ranging from illegal dumping, to arson, to disinvestment and displacement, residents banded together to form the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. DSNI is a membership-based organization that incorporated a subsidiary CLT in 1998 to guarantee the long-term community stewardship of the Dudley Triangle. In Roxbury, DNI, in partnership with the City of Boston, succeeded in developing 225 units of affordable housing, rehabilitated a commercial building and added public and green space to a 30-acre site. The CLT successfully stabilized the low-income neighborhood, resulting in only one foreclosure in the neighborhood during the 2008 housing and economic crisis. But is this exemplary case replicable throughout Boston?
The Chinatown CLT, for example, has strong community involvement but due to its central city location, where land is extremely costly, the Chinatown CLT has yet to develop a single property. City representatives, though supportive of the CLT model, are more inclined to support inclusionary zoning policies as an efficient solution for meeting affordability needs where developers are required to set aside 15 percent of units in new developments exceeding 10,000 square feet for affordable housing. And finally, DNI benefited from the donation of land by the city when the CLT started twenty years ago, something the city would be hard-pressed to guarantee at every new site today.
One sustainable response may be found in neighboring Cambridge, MA. Facing a staggering increase in housing prices due to a booming economy in biotech and the internet, Cambridge an Affordable Housing Trust (CAHT) in 1988 that provides funds for housing projects. In the last 30 years, CAHT expended $134 million for the development of 1,711 units, making 15 percent of the housing stock affordable. The city of Cambridge has a restrictive inclusionary zoning scheme that does not allow for compensation fees while also funding non-profit developers who develop multifamily housing that is 100 percent affordable. Cambridge also administers the HomeBridge program that provides a subsidy to individual first-time home buyers. The subsidy is used to permanently reduce the price, creating affordability for decades to come because future resale is capped at a certain percentage. In both instances the buyer enters into an affordable housing contract with the City. The contract serves the same purpose as the ground lease in a traditional land trust model in terms of outlining the requirements for the affordable housing such as income limit, occupancy and the right to purchase.
But of course, it is long-term, not perpetual affordability. That is the crux of the issue that Greater Boston must solve. The fundamental question is whether there is the political will to take on the challenges posed by the housing market. If housing is perceived by politicians and the public alike as a priority, what financial burden is society prepared to bear in order to address the problem of the lack of affordability? Cambridge appears prepared to do so, what about other neighboring cities? Should the affordability crisis be addressed mostly through market-based solutions? Or would it be better to turn to more community-centered solutions, such as Community Land Trusts, in order to guarantee perpetual affordability and long-term community involvement, like the City of Boston proposed to do in South Boston through a partnership with DNI?
All these questions have great relevance to the Parisian context; particularly to the inner-ring suburban city of Montreuil where I work. However, it is important to note that ultimately there is a very different baseline of affordability between the two metropolitan areas. In the Paris Metropolis, the rate of subsidized housing is 26 percent; in Montreuil it is 38 percent. And furthermore, unlike Boston, 30 percent of Montreuil’s housing is developed as affordable with deep affordability targets. But as in Boston, middle-income individuals who do not qualify for subsidized housing, but who nonetheless still struggle to afford market-rate housing, have become a top priority for Montreuil. And here the CLT model’s perpetual affordability clearly is an important selling point and something to be considered for Montreuil.
Romain Paris, Ph.D., is a current fellow of the Urban and Regional Policy program, visiting the Boston region and the San Francisco Bay Area. As Director of Urban Planning and Housing in Montreuil (pop. 106 000), a city adjacent to Paris, he is faced, like these two urban American regions, with managing the adverse effects of gentrification on the housing market for low- and middle-income residents.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.