My last few months have been spent researching. Last spring, for a class, I did a policy analysis on blight remediation in Hartford. I examined the effectiveness of public versus private sector approaches to solving the problem.
My overall aim was to consider ways urban land—currently neglected or left empty—can be returned to some productive use. How might local ownership revive these spaces? What can government do to coerce change? Many owners seem to be waiting for the economy to “recover,” or some great opportunity to come around, which may never happen in the ways they imagine.
Over the summer, an independent study focused on a potential private sector solution to the problem of blight: community land trusts. The land trust model is often conceived as useful for protecting natural resources. Urban resources can likewise be protected—from preying profiteers, if you will, who guided us into the foreclosure crisis—through the same basic model, tended by a board of directors including various stakeholders. The model has been shown to hold promise preventing blight and foreclosure, keeping housing affordable, and fostering community ties. Land trusts can include housing as well as amenities such as community gardens or retail space. They can include renters, owners, or both.
A distinguishing feature of a land trust that includes housing is this: the land is owned in perpetuity by the trust, whereas the structures on the land are sold individually. This makes the structures more affordable, and also gives the trust a great interest in what happens to those structures. The trust can use subsidies to acquire and rehab property, and the value of that investment is captured in the value of the land, rather than sold to the next owner. Equity is thus “shared”—perhaps the most controversial aspect of community land trusts, because it appears to go against the grain of the individualistic “American dream.”
This specific model for shared equity is somewhat rare in urban settings, but is getting more attention lately—such as in New Orleans, where a pilot community land trust initiative is underway. Other shared equity models are much more common, such as housing co-ops and condo associations.
New England’s urban land trusts (if there are more, I’d love to know) are in Boston (the mixed-use Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative) and Burlington, Vermont (Burlington Associates). Other housing land trusts in the region exist in rural settings. Connecticut provides for the creation of community land trusts in its state law, and the towns taking advantage of this are generally in Litchfield County, as they attempt to provide a form of affordable housing for their existing residents who have been priced out of the market.
In Hartford, there may or may not be a shortage of affordable housing, depending on your source of information. Affordable, sustainable housing done well is a relevant challenge all the same. By the same token, a housing model that builds neighborhood and institutional ties is probably worthwhile. A community land trust would bring together stakeholders to give close attention to specific sites (either contiguous or scattered), doing far better than any absentee landlord could to care for the property. While we’re at it, why not also include historic property that needs rehabilitation, and increase the value of the land exponentially? And design it to integrate both existing and new development that has all the buzz words of smart growth?
My interest has been less about making sure there is ample affordable housing—although that would be a good result—and more about how we can create opportunities for residents to invest collaboratively in our communities, land, and structures that surround us. Renters and owners alike can have a stake in a home and a neighborhood; a sense of participation and a source of stability (including a connection to funding) is a big key. Such participation and investment has the capacity to reduce incidences of neglect and abandonment and make land more useful to the people who live on it.
In a series of interviews this summer, I’ve learned that the community land trust model is of keen interest to some and a mystery to many. My task is to sort out what it might take to start such a land trust in the city, possibly with a non-profit “client” in mind.
In the meantime, the blight remediation research connected me with the activities of the city’s Anti-Blight Coalition, which recently has made a push toward working more closely with city departments to identify and address code violations. There is much work to do on this front, making better use of the relatively powerful, revised anti-blight ordinance that enables the city to levy heavy fines on owners neglecting their property. One of the major hurdles in doing the work is the apparent lack of data—or where it exists, the difficulty in sharing it so the public can have a hand in some of the problem-solving, at the very least monitoring the progress of city officials. Right now all shared information is apparently case-by-case and hard-won.
Part of my own effort to collect data includes a mapping project, pulling in vital spreadsheet information collected by HART and the Hartford Preservation Alliance about each parcel in the city, what condition it’s in, what type of historic value it may have, and whether it’s vacant or abandoned. It could be a useful tool.
Reprinted with permission of Heather Brandon, author of the blog Urban Compass.
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