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This Land is Your Land

East Bay community land trusts look to post-Covid future

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Pre-pandemic, the story of unhoused Oakland mothers and their children calling themselves "Moms4Housing" and moving into a long-vacant house became national, and then international, news. Yet the resolution of whom or what should take possession of the house the group was occupying is perhaps the most important part of the story.

After convoluted negotiations that lasted for months, in January 2020, the Oakland Community Land Trust (OCLT) was officially allowed to purchase the home for renovation. This drew attention to a concept for creating affordable housing and fighting gentrification that is taking hold nationwide—but which already has established roots in the East Bay.

Community land trusts are nonprofit corporations that purchase buildings and land to develop into affordable housing, among their other work. Because their focus is on preservation of neighborhoods and communities, they are looked to as an example of how to combat both homelessness and gentrification.

"New CLTs are emerging all the time," said OCLT Executive Director Steve King. "The state now has more than 20."

OCLT has several projects in the pipeline.“Some of the residents have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic,” said King. “Many are concerned about the speculative investors who are coming in.” The pandemic has caused multiple project delays—but it has also renewed interest in “inventing the policies and procedures to facilitate the work,” he said.

The 47-year-old Northern California Land Trust, based in Berkeley, currently has 15 projects in the works in both Berkeley and Oakland, totaling approximately 90 units, according to Executive Director Ian Winters. The NCLT also acts as a land trust “incubator,” helping community organizations navigate the complexities of the development process. It’s currently incubating projects in Richmond and Vallejo.

Winters pointed to a property on 10th Street in Berkeley, acquired by the NCLT just before the pandemic hit. “The owner had been selling it to be ‘repositioned,’” said Winters, unhousing the eight households of color and inviting gentrification. “Because of Measure O money, we bought it at the last minute, and now eight households have permanently affordable housing,” he said. (Measure O, passed by the Berkeley community in 2018, authorized $135 million in bonds for low-to-middle-income housing.)

The Berkeley-based Bay Area Community Land Trust (BACLT) has also been in the news recently for its acquisition of a seven-unit building on 12th Avenue in Oakland. Tenants in the circa-1880 building approached the BACLT, and with funding from the City of Oakland, “we were able to purchase it affordably,” said BACLT Executive Director Rick Lewis.

That project is just one of several BACLT is facilitating, including a seven-unit building on 12th Avenue, and a donated 10-unit property on Fairmount Ave. that was once a single-family home. “We are also close to closing on a 25-unit live/work property on 5th Ave., south of Jack London Square,” said Lewis. In each case, residents approached BACLT for help in saving and upgrading their homes.

Another project is a South Berkeley building that remains the property of McGee Avenue Baptist Church. Acquired in 1978 by the church to provide affordable housing for low-income church members, the Stuart Street Apartments building fell vacant as the congregation dwindled and members moved away. “I used to ride by that building on my bike. It’s been boarded up for more than 20 years,” said Lewis.

Then, said Derrin Jourdan, church board chair, "A year ago, our church celebrated signing a funding agreement to renovate the long-neglected residences, partnering with both the Bay Area Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the City of Berkeley. The church also teamed with the Bay Area Community Land Trust to coordinate the construction project and later manage our apartment rentals after construction completion."

However, like ongoing OCLT and NCLT projects, the pandemic has affected, though not halted, progress. Finalizing the building permit for the Stuart Street project has been difficult, Lewis acknowledged, because of the lack of quick, direct communication with city departments. "And site meetings with residents have had to be done virtually," he said. "Even trying to set up minor repairs has been slowed down."

Yet, although, as Jourdan described it, the process has been "a long, winding road," the end goal is in sight. "Hopefully, the crew will be there starting work on the apartments this week," he said on Oct. 8. "It's really uplifting to have finally reached this point, and we're all looking forward to providing just a little of the desperately needed housing to the South Berkeley Community."

When complete, the property will include eight single-bedroom units, one fully ADA compliant, and all eventually home to South Berkeley residents under threat of displacement, whose incomes are 80, 60 and 30 percent of the area median income. The units will be all-electric and have solar panels, Lewis said, helping residents manage their monthly costs.

That community land trusts are dedicated to working with existing residents, fighting displacement and helping to preserve the character of both buildings and neighborhoods is part of why local and state governments, as well as private donors, see them as a vital component—and investment—in solving the housing crisis.

"Someone called me out of the blue and donated $3,500 from the sale of their house," said OCLT's King. Another donor willed her house to the OCLT. "There is definitely growing interest associated with our work," he said. "But there is much more that needs to be done."

According to a white paper published in April 2019 by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, "CLT leaders face difficulty growing their organization's impact without sustained, robust public support, which suggests that 'a consistent source of funding, continued municipal partnerships, and ongoing public education campaigns will allow more CLTs to scale up their operations and create more affordable homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.'"

East Bay community members are already on board with the concept. Will state and national resources open up for support? "Absolutely," King said. "We are getting to that point."

"CLTs are an extremely effective model," Winters said. "It's the most stable form of ownership there is."

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