Land trusts offer an innovative way to help the middle class afford a home

Jun 7, 2023, 12:01 PM

Makeisha Robey grew up in a three-bedroom house and always wanted to provide the same for her children. But on a preschool teacher’s salary in Atlanta, that dream was out of reach. Her family moved from rental to rental as costs continued to rise.

That changed after Robey learned about the Atlanta Land Trust at a neighborhood association meeting. The community land trust, a nonprofit that helps people purchase affordable homes, offered an opportunity for her to buy a home at a below-market rate. She purchased her home for about $102,000 three years ago. The median price of a house in Atlanta in January 2020 was $287,500.

“I love this home,” Robey says. “I can see myself staying in this home for the duration of my lifetime. I feel this is a beautiful program that really can give so many options to people who have no other options.”

The nonprofit trust acquires land — sometimes homes are part of the property, and at other times new homes are built later. The houses are sold at below-market prices. In exchange, homebuyers must agree to restrictions that limit the price that the homes can be sold for in the future. That policy keeps the homes at low cost over the long term.

As homeownership is increasingly out of reach for many Americans, nonprofit community land trusts, funded by foundations, government funds, financial institutions, and individual donations, have become a popular way to help more people afford to buy homes. The number of nonprofit community land trusts has grown from 162 in 2006 to 302 today, according to the nonprofit Center for Community Land Trust Innovation.

Research by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that land trusts and similar homeownership programs have seen an increase in support from foundations and other private sources since 1985. From 2001 to 2006, $125.1 million in private funds were given to land trusts and similar programs. Over the next five years, the amount given grew by 80%, in part because private funding sources stepped in to help more as government funding decreased.

Community land trusts typically aim to grow large enough to sustain themselves through lease fees paid by homeowners. Until they reach that size, they rely on government and private funding. Philanthropic dollars are especially helpful for land trusts as they get started, while the government can provide the larger-scale funding essential to helping the organizations expand more significantly.

The Atlanta Land Trust has received about $3.6 million from the Kendeda Fund, a local family foundation, and additional funding from others to build 20 homes. More homes are planned with support from the Joseph B. Whitehead, the Tull Charitable, and the Georgia Power foundations.

Land trusts have yet to meet their potential as a solution to the nation’s deepening housing crisis. The approach isn’t well understood by the public. Also, getting land and developing it is expensive, making it difficult for land trusts to expand.

Data has shown that land trusts are able to keep low-cost homes from getting lost to commercial development and ensure a neighborhood’s residents can afford to stay put. People who buy homes through a community land trust live there for longer periods than traditional homeowners and were less likely to face foreclosures during the Great Recession, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Concerns about gentrification fueled the creation of the Atlanta Land Trust in 2009 as a redevelopment effort was started. Leaders worried the project would fuel rising housing costs in nearby neighborhoods and displace residents. Now 20 or so homes have been completed and 120 townhomes are under development. Its goal is to build 300 homes by 2025. With support from local grant makers, the trust has nearly reached its $12.3 million goal to build some of the new homes. It also received other grants from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Wells Fargo.

Grants are just one way that foundations have supported land trusts. The Annie E. Casey Foundation independently purchased 53 homes in 2009 in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood, which was hard hit by the foreclosure crisis. The foundation was able to keep real-estate speculators from buying the properties and perhaps raising the prices. It has nearly completed building or renovating 75 homes and will transfer ownership of about half of them to the Atlanta Land Trust.

Philanthropic help is vital to getting community land trusts started, says Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust. The plan is for the trust to become self-sustaining through fees that are tied to housing units, such as monthly fees for use of the land. But that is possible only after a sufficient number of homes are created.

Tony Pickett, CEO of the Grounded Solutions Network, a community land trust association, says the cost of land acquisition and insufficient government funding remain problems around the country. While philanthropic dollars are especially helpful as nonprofit community land trusts build their portfolio of homes, Pickett says consistent government funding is key to helping significant expansion.

The Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont has largely been able to grow as a result of continued government support. It owns and manages 2,500 affordable apartments and 650 homes.

About half of the organization’s $35.7 million in revenue in 2020 came from federal, state, and local governments. Most of the rest came from fees and property rentals.

It also has received support over the years from philanthropies such as the TD Charitable Foundation but does not rely heavily on donations.

Pickett says the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which subsidizes buying and building low-cost rental housing, could be a model for government support.

“If we’re talking about folks who want to see us operate at a larger scale, some kind of basis in policy similar to the Low-Income Housing Tax-Credit program would be necessary in order for that to happen,” Pickett says.

Community land trusts will not appeal to everyone looking to become a homeowner. Some potential homebuyers may be put off by the fact that they cannot benefit from the full equity of their homes when they decide to sell.

“If you’re looking at your home as being an investment, then the (community land trust) model is not for you,” says Jeffrey Lowe, a professor of urban planning at Texas Southern University.

That makes it difficult for some people to see the value of land trusts, as homeownership is often viewed as a pathway to building wealth.

However, research shows many people who purchase homes through community land trusts are able to gain the financial wherewithal to buy their next home on the traditional market.

About 60% of community land trust owners who left their properties in the past decade purchased other homes, according to data collected by the Grounded Solutions Network.

For Lowe, getting people to understand the benefits land trusts can provide requires a shift in perspective. Rather than maximizing wealth creation, community land trusts offer long-term stability for homeowners and for communities, especially those undergoing gentrification.

“It’s really about security and stability and a way of having permanent, affordable housing that moves us away from the housing crisis that so many people face in this country,” he says.

Robey, the Atlanta mother, says the decision to become part of a land trust made sense to her.

“I was fine with the idea of the shared equity, of not owning the land outright because this wasn’t an investment property for me,” she says. “I wanted a house that I was going to live in.


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Kay Dervishi is a staff writer at the Chronicle. Email: kay.dervishi@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for this content. They receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

United States News

Associated Press

Rail bridge collapses during Midwest flooding as a heat wave persists across much of the US

Millions of Americans sweated through a scorching weekend as temperatures soared across the U.S., while residents were rescued from floodwaters that forced evacuations across the Midwest. One person died during flooding in South Dakota, the governor said. From the mid-Atlantic to Maine, across the Great Lakes region, and throughout the West to California, public officials […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

3 Columbia University administrators put on leave over alleged text exchange at antisemitism panel

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University said it has placed three administrators on leave while it investigates allegations that they exchanged unprofessional text messages while attending a panel discussion about antisemitism on campus. The university said the administrators work for its undergraduate Columbia College, which hosted the panel discussion “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

Man charged in shooting that critically wounded Philadelphia officer, police say

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A 36-year-old Philadelphia man was charged Sunday with attempted murder in connection with a shooting that critically wounded a police officer after a traffic stop, police said. Ramon Rodriguez Vazquez also faces charges that include aggravated assault and home invasion, police said. The 31-year-old officer and his partner stopped a car carrying […]

16 hours ago

Associated Press

California boy, 4, who disappeared from campground found safe after 22 hours alone in wilderness

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A 4-year-old California boy who wandered away from a campground in the Sierra National Forest was found safe after spending 22 hours alone in the wilderness, authorities said. A search-and-rescue team of about 50 officers and volunteers set out around 11 a.m. Thursday after the child was reported missing from the […]

18 hours ago

Associated Press

One man died and five others were hospitalized in downtown St. Louis shooting

ST. LOUIS (AP) — One man is dead and five others have been wounded in a downtown St. Louis shooting, police said. Police believe women were fighting in a park when men interfered and drew firearms, according to social media posts from the agency. The man who died was in his mid-twenties, police said. Five […]

18 hours ago

Associated Press

Michigan sheriff’s deputy fatally shot pursuing a stolen vehicle in Detroit

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan county sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot while pursing a suspected stolen vehicle in Detroit, the Oakland County sheriff’s office said Sunday. Bradley J. Reckling, who was on duty in an unmarked car, was following a 2022 Chevy Equinox Saturday evening after the vehicle was reported stolen earlier in the day […]

19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

Land trusts offer an innovative way to help the middle class afford a home