The promise of community land trusts
Just over 20 years ago I had the pleasure of sharing a lunch table with the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The lunch table was in a school cafeteria and the occasion was a conference on Community Land Trusts.
Participants sat around the table describing the work they were doing. “I have six houses under development,” one crowed. Another said, “We’re trying to buy a 20 unit apartment building.” Then it was my husband Paul’s turn. “I personally am developing 300 homes this year, and my firm has a total of 1100 homes under development.” And the Mayor said wistfully, “Yet another example of how much we have to learn from Canada.”
How the tables have turned!
Back in the 1980s Canada was rolling out a federally-funded housing program while Americans were cobbling together government grants, private donations and sheer determination to eke out a few units of housing. But during that time, Americans learned a few things about building community support. And now that Canadians are in the same boat, it is we who have something to learn from the US.
Let’s start with the example that took me to Burlington: Community Land Trusts. In 1984 Burlington City Council approved $200,000 in seed money to create a new independent, non-profit organization. Its mandate was to increase affordable homeownership and rental opportunities for families of modest means and to promote neighbourhood preservation and improvement.
Today, the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington manages 1,500 rental apartments, stewards over 500 owner-occupied homes, provides homebuyer education and financial counseling in its shared-equity program, provides services to five housing co-ops, and offers affordable energy efficiency and rehab loans.
A new twist on an old idea
Non-profit housing is not new to Canada. In Ontario alone there are over 2,000 non-profit and co-op housing corporations that quietly own and manage 250,000 homes. Like the private sector, these corporations are pragmatic, nimble and know how to stretch a dollar. But their non-profit mandate ensures the homes stay affordable forever, and that all profits are re-invested in the housing.
Land trusts aren’t new to Canada either. In Toronto, the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT) has been quietly operating three land trusts that own the land occupied by over 4,000 co-op homes – more housing that Champlain Housing Trust’s ownership and rental housing combined. Land trusts have also been used on the Toronto Islands to liberate owners to build, maintain and improve their homes, yet still ensure the homes remain affordable.
The unquiet Americans
So what’s so special about Champlain Housing Trust (CHT), and what does it teach us Canadians? For starters, it does not go quietly about its work. It’s out in the open — owned by the public, but not the government.
CHT is a membership organization, and anyone who lives in the counties CHT serves – CHT residents, their neighbours, people on waiting lists, donors, agency members, anyone — can become a member of the trust. This membership in turn elects the Board of Directors. The trust’s by-laws require that one-third of the board lives in CHT properties.
The public is engaged in other ways too. CHT’s Annual Report lists hundreds of private donors – foundations, businesses and individuals – including those in the “over $50,000” category. CHT has also built an endowment fund administered by the Vermont Community Foundation. And last year over 150 volunteers contributed their time and energy to CHT’s work.
More than just housing
I’m also drawn to CHT’s wide-ranging mandate. In Canada, supporters of affordable rental housing tend to square off against supporters of affordable home ownership. CHT creates both.
It’s not just about housing either. A skim through the “Awards” section of CHT’s website shows just how wide-ranging their concerns are:
- A World Habitat Award for a model that is “sustainable, durable and replicable throughout the world”
- The Smart Growth Award for a LEED-certified block redevelopment to create CHT’s new headquarters and 20 apartments
- A Homebuilder’s award for best subdivision supporting affordable housing
- A Burlington Business Association award for “significant contributions to the physical or architectural quality of Downtown Burlington”
- Preservation Burlington’s Award for “outstanding preservation of Vermont architecture.”
This last award intrigued me. In this week’s Star and National Post we heard Cabbagetown residents complain that TCHC was allowing historic houses to rot. At the time I thought, “TCHC isn’t in the business of historic preservation.”
CHT expanded my idea of what might be possible if the community could become engaged in the housing’s success. It won’t happen with TCHC. But what if the neighbours actually were members of the corporation that owned the housing?
An idea whose time has come
This week the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto came forward with a proposal to transfer TCHC’s 700+ stand alone houses to a Community Land Trust.
It’s an early idea, with lots of details to be worked out. But when I look at the success of Champlain Housing Trust I think, “this is a step in the right direction.”
A community land trust keeps everything that is precious about publicly-owned housing — community ownership, transparent management, and homes that are affordable forever. But it could also lift these houses out of the political arena, where ideology has so often trumped pragmatism, and long-term planning goes out the window after every election.
Councillor Bailao, the Chair of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Committee, often says, “We don’t just need a housing strategy, we need a people strategy.” I’d add, “We need a neighbourhood strategy, and a community strategy, too.”
A community land trust could do it all. With the future of 700+ houses on the line, was there ever a better opportunity to find out?