Expert Commentary

Community land trusts: Research reveals benefits of an affordable housing model that could help ease the housing crisis

Community land trust homeowners report better overall quality of life than renters, as measured by housing stability and other factors.

community land trust
(Tierra Mallorca / Unsplash)

The shortage of housing in the U.S. has been documented by journalists and researchers alike. In simple economic terms, the housing crisis boils down to not enough affordable housing to meet the demand.

Freddie Mac, a federally chartered mortgage lender, estimates an overall national shortage of nearly 4 million housing units, mostly because of a lack of single family starter homes, with the overall housing deficit increasing by 52% from 2018 to 2020.

But there is a middle ground between owning and renting that could provide relief: community land trusts. The widespread viability of community land trusts has been largely unexplored in the news media.

There are more than 225 community land trusts in the U.S. Under the typical model, a nonprofit entity owns and cares for the land with homeowners leasing their properties for a long time, usually 99 years. Residents cannot individually own the land beneath their home, but they can own the structure itself. The structures are usually houses, not mobile homes. Decisions on how the land is used and maintained are made through democratic processes, and homeowners usually have the right to bequeath their lease.  

A new paper, “Interrupting Inequality through Community Land Trusts,” in the journal Housing Policy Debate, surveys how community land trust homeowners perceive their housing situation, with insights from hundreds of individuals indicating that the community land trust model puts people who might otherwise be renting in a more stable housing situation. A few of the findings:

  • Community land trust homeowners report a better overall quality of life than renters, as measured by long-term housing stability, household financial hardship, and other factors.
  • Among renters, traditional homeowners and community land trust homeowners, land trust owners had the lowest monthly housing payment — $50 less on average than homeowners who bought at market rates.
  • Community land trust homeowners are more likely to be Black and in female-led households than renters and market-rate homeowners.

While the survey is not large at about 500 participants, it is the first to compare the experiences of people from similar economic backgrounds who are homeowners in a community land trust, homeowners who bought at market rates, and renters.

Community land trust origins

The community land trust model traces back to the civil rights era. Civil rights activists Charles and Shirley Sherrod established the first community land trust, New Communities Inc., in 1969 across 5,735 acres in Lee County, Georgia, “to continue the fight against segregated schools, segregated housing, and other vestiges of Jim Crow,” as housing policy scholar John Emmeus Davis writes in a 2014 history of land trusts.

Community land trusts are often funded through private, federal and local government grants. New land trusts have recently launched in Blacksburg, Virginia; Detroit; Jacksonville, Florida; and New York City. Established community land trusts range in size, from the Minot Area Community Land Trust’s portfolio of 10 homes in North Dakota to the Champlain Housing Trust’s portfolio of 636 homes in northwest Vermont.

If a community land trust homeowner wants to sell their house, the land trust will use a resale formula that often accounts for appreciation and other factors. But sales prices will likely fall below what a similar market-rate property would bring. Individual profits are secondary to achieving long-term, even intergenerational stable housing.

“It seems like we always go back to homeownership as this wealth-building tool,” says Jakob Schneider, an environmental psychology doctoral student at the City University of New York Graduate Center and one of the authors of the new paper. “That has come under question in recent years, if not decades. We’re seeing a fair amount of research talking about how it’s really hard for a lot of folks, not just lower income people or people of color to get into homeownership, but people who don’t have access to intergenerational wealth, they don’t have parents that can help with a down payment.”

Late last year, nearly half of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said housing affordability was “a major problem where they live.” The National Association of Realtors’ Housing Shortage Tracker identifies most urban areas of the country as having a housing shortage relative to the number of new jobs being created.

In its 2022 “State of the Nation’s Housing” report, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University relays that even with more apartments going up and higher interest rates relieving competition for home buyers, for “lower-income households and households of color … the pressure of high housing costs is unlikely to relent.”

Similar outcomes for community land trust and traditional homeowners

The findings published in Housing Policy Debate are based on a survey conducted in May 2018 with 216 community land trust homeowners, 142 market-rate homeowners and 130 renters, all of whom lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota or Portland, Oregon.

The average annual household income among the three participant groups ranged from nearly $38,000 to just over $42,000. The average monthly housing payment for community land trust homeowners was lowest at $772; renters paid $810, on average, monthly while homeowners who bought at market rates paid a monthly average of $822.

The survey explored these outcomes for community land trust households:

  • Financial health
  • Housing stability
  • Overall quality of life

Participants who were community land trust homeowners were about evenly split between Portland and Minneapolis. About 66% of the market-rate owners and nearly 91% of renters were in Portland.

Community land trust homeowners who took the survey were more likely to be “older, Black and in female-headed households,” the authors write.

“These data suggest that [community land trusts] are serving their targeted populations of women, single-headed households, and minorities,” they add.

Renters were much more likely than community land trust homeowners to report having moved recently, along with less overall housing stability, more financial hardship, less time to pursue their goals, and less of a feeling that their house was a home — for example, that they were free to make alterations in and on their house or apartment. All those findings were statistically significant.

Market rate and community land trust homeowners reported similar levels of financial hardship, housing stability and feeling that their house was a home. Market rate owners, however, reported less time to tackle other goals than did community land trust owners.

White couples who live in market rate households “may spend more time working” than community land trust owners, who “may not be as focused on making more money and instead focused more on achieving other life satisfactions,” the authors write.

The “sense of autonomy, control and responsibility” that community land trust homeowners gain in contrast to renting or other less stable housing situations contributes “to a growing reserve of confidence and belief in one’s capabilities that could then be deployed in pursuit of grander, more challenging goals,” according to a paper published in March 2018 in the journal Housing Studies, based on interviews with 91 community land trust homeowners in Minneapolis.

Community land trusts are unlikely to be a cure-all for the housing crisis. As Schneider points out, they require time, energy and dedication to launch and maintain. At the same time, they have worked well to establish housing stability in a variety of communities, both urban and rural, across the country.

“These are things that take decades to really solidify,” Schneider says. “For me, it’s just another piece of the puzzle that can help keep folks that might otherwise be in unstable housing conditions, or, in some instances, being pushed out of neighborhoods that they’ve lived in for generations, as a way to potentially keep them there.”

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