Land trusts could aid Tacoma affordability

Anaid Yerena is an architect, urban planner and an assistant professor at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Anaid Yerena is an architect, urban planner and an assistant professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. Courtesy photo

Over the past few decades, Tacoma has seen an increase in economic development. The downtown area and several other business districts have increased profits and renewed investors’ interest.

Home values are at pre-recession levels, and the year’s first quarter real estate report for Pierce County showed an 11.3 percent home price increase since last year.

What a success! So what would be an appropriate celebration?

Let’s commend Tacoma’s resident mix: people who were born here, long-time neighbors and newcomers. Let’s celebrate its balance of beauty and grit as the place we call home.

And let us not forget the people to whom we owe much: those who were here, working hard, to help forge Tacoma’s present success.

Let’s acknowledge their contributions by investing in them through Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and avoiding the gentrification of their neighborhoods.

Like many other great cities, Tacoma is reaching a housing affordability tipping point. According to the latest Census data, one in two renter-households and four in ten owner-households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

These housing-cost-burdened households must make difficult decisions between spending on healthcare, food, clothing and childcare or shelter.

Trends in housing value and interest rates, household income and demographic growth are making matters worse.

CLTs are established by nonprofit corporations to address issues of housing affordability and displacement. These trusts purchase land and assign a community board to make decisions over the land’s use.

Homes in a CLT are kept affordable to low-income members of the community. People who purchase a home are entitled to limited capital gains, ensuring that the next owner can afford to purchase the home.

CLTs have existed in the U.S. for more than 40 years. Most of them maintain affordability “in perpetuity;” the rest establish “minimum affordability terms” ranging from 20 to 99 years.

A study of mature CLTs across the U.S. concluded that their homeowners experience very low delinquency and foreclosure rates and earn competitive returns while the homes remain affordable to lower-income buyers.

Tenure for homeowners tends to be 10 years or more. Once households move, they are able to purchase market-rate homes using proceeds from the sale of their CLT unit.

New York, Boston and Austin, among 240 other cities, have seen the important role CLTs play in ensuring permanent housing affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods.

In Boulder, Colorado, Thistle Communities CLT sells and rents homes at below-market prices. In its first 13 years, its portfolio of 103 units helped over 172 households. Among residents, the rate of sustained homeownership was an impressive 91.2 percent.

Granted, not all successful approaches are transferrable to every city. I highlight CLTs as a good option for Tacoma because we have the right conditions.

A City Council committee met last week to explore the idea of CLTs. We have active community partners and reasonable land values. Tacoma’s burgeoning community groups (Hilltop Action Coalition, Latinos Unidos) and long-standing stewards (Tacoma Community House, Habitat for Humanity, to name a few) are likely bastions for the creation of a CLT.

These respected groups are already invested in supporting our most vulnerable residents and are well connected to local decision-makers. Their collective voice can mobilize residents, funders and community leaders to make a CLT a reality in Tacoma.

The time to act is now. 2017 may well be the last year establishing a CLT is financially feasible, before property values surpass our ability to purchase the necessary land to establish a trust of considerable benefit to our community.

Anaid Yerena, an assistant professor in Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, has lived and taught in the city for two years. She is an architect, urban planner and expert in affordable housing policies and local advocacy efforts. She is a resident of Tacoma’s Central neighborhood and can be reached at yerena@uw.edu.