Let’s go com­mu­nal to solve Den­ver’s hous­ing cri­sis

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Megan Schrader

Com­mu­nity land trusts sound about as com­mu­nist as it gets, and then you learn the con­cept was born and raised in Burling­ton, Vt., when Bernie San­ders was just a small-town mayor.

In­ten­tion­ally us­ing the least flat­ter­ing lan­guage pos­si­ble, a land trust is the prac­tice of cre­at­ing com­mu­nal land for the poor to live on.

But, de­spite clear philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons to op­pose such an en­ter­prise, the Den­ver metro area needs a ro­bust, com­pre­hen­sive land trust.

Res­i­dents and com­mu­nity ac­tivists in some of Den­ver’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods are call­ing for a land trust to com­pete with the in­sa­tiable ap­petite of de­vel­op­ers, es­pe­cially in north Den­ver, that is driv­ing out low­in­come res­i­dents and bring­ing in high-end hous­ing. Na­tional land trust ex­pert John Davis — from Ver­mont — was in Den­ver Tues­day help­ing ad­vo­cates be­gin the work of launch­ing just such a ven­ture.

He and oth­ers, like Roger Lewis of Boul­der, who for a time served as the head of the na­tional land trust net­work, and Aaron Miripol, pres­i­dent of the Ur­ban Land Con­ser­vancy, have al­ready spent a cou­ple decades us­ing land trusts in Colorado. Here’s how it works.

The land trust — either a non­profit or a hous­ing au­thor­ity — buys a sin­gle-fam­ily home at mar­ket prices. The trust then sells the house to a low-in­come buyer. The buyer must prove their in­come isn’t above lim­its, and ide­ally the limit is set some­where to cap­ture the work­ing poor: those who make too much money to qual­ify for Sec­tion 8 or pub­lic hous­ing, but not enough to ever come re­motely close to be­ing able to buy a house at the Den­ver metro area’s mar­ket prices.

Although the trust sells the home, it per­pet­u­ally owns the land un­der­neath. The new home­owner is “leasing” the land from the trust, mak­ing a monthly pay­ment that cov­ers the (dis­counted) prop­erty taxes and per­haps a small re­turn for the trust so it can in­vest in more land in the fu­ture.

The home­owner, how­ever, gets a por­tion of the in­crease in value of the home when they go to sell it again. That sale is restricted — un­der the terms of the land lease — to go to an in­come-qual­i­fied in­di­vid­ual in the fu­ture at an af­ford­able price. Home­own­ers still get a healthy re­turn on their in­vest­ment even though it’s capped and the house is main­tained af­ford­able for­ever.

Some trusts set the re­sale price based on a per­cent of fu­ture ap­praisals, en­sur­ing growth oc­curs in line with the mar­ket and that a home­owner has an in­cen­tive to in­vest in home re­pairs and up­grades.

The sin­gle-fam­ily home ex­am­ple is the eas­i­est to ex­plain, but the same prac­tice can be used for apart­ments, con­dos, town­houses, trailer parks, com­mer­cial build­ings and com­mu­nity space.

If we’ve learned any­thing from decades of watch­ing cities grow and con­tract, floun­der and blos­som, it’s that de­vel­op­ers don’t of­ten build hous­ing for the poor when they so­cial en­gi­neer the price points in their com­mu­ni­ties or build­ings.

A land trust could take the mil­lions of pub­lic dol­lars al­ready be­ing poured into “af­ford­able hous­ing” out of the hands of de­vel­op­ers who are in pur­suit of profit. Units can be tar­geted in neigh­bor­hoods with good schools, jobs, trans­porta­tion and gro­cery stores, and to the in­come lev­els in need. A ro­bust land trust could be­gin the work of end­ing con­cen­tra­tions of poverty and dis­place­ment of res­i­dents.

Den­ver is primed to be­gin a land trust now. A new prop­erty tax and fee on de­vel­op­ers will raise

$15 mil­lion a year for af­ford­able hous­ing and the Colorado Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is set­ting aside at least $2 mil­lion for af­ford­able hous­ing in com­mu­ni­ties im­pacted by the In­ter­state 70 ex­pan­sion. Nei­ther pot of money has a home, yet.

Skep­ti­cal that such so­cial en­gi­neer­ing is war­ranted? Con­sider this: the con­cept of an ur­ban land trust for hous­ing is the ex­act same as the con­cept for a con­ser­va­tion land trust that uses ease­ments to per­ma­nently pre­vent de­vel­op­ment of pri­vately owned land. In 20 years the state spent $1.1 bil­lion on con­ser­va­tion ease­ments, and that doesn’t even in­clude the in­vest­ments of cities and coun­ties.

Is it such a stretch that pub­lic dol­lars could be used to cre­ate stew­ard­ship in our ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties?

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