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Low-Income Buyers Get Homes, Thanks to Bay Area Land Trusts
Published on Thursday, December 26, 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Low-Income Buyers Get Homes, Thanks to Bay Area Land Trusts
by Janine DeFao
 

Tiffany Simpson moved so often in her young life that she needs both hands to count the number of schools she attended. In her last home, she didn't even bother unpacking all the boxes.

So the 28-year-old Oakland resident set out three years ago to do what her parents and grandparents never could: buy a house.

After several frustrating attempts to crack the red-hot Bay Area real estate market, one of the most expensive in the nation, Simpson stumbled upon a novel program that allowed her to establish a stable home for herself, and for the teenage sister and brother she was raising.

She now owns her own home -- but not the land under it.

Simpson became part of a community land trust, a decades-old affordable housing concept that is taking hold in the Bay Area from inner-city Oakland and San Francisco to suburban Livermore.

"It took the real estate market going sky-high, and having the entire middle class unable to buy anything or even pay rent, that suddenly it's bad enough that we really have to do something," said Ian Winters, interim executive director of the Northern California Land Trust in Berkeley.

Nationally, the number of community land trusts has "exploded, particularly in markets where the price of housing has become outrageously high," said Bob Reeder, director of the Community Land Trust Network near Washington, D.C. The number has doubled in the past decade to 130, with 5,000 homes in 31 states from Burlington, Vt., to Washington's San Juan Islands.

Nonprofit land trusts buy land and either build new homes or fix up old ones. They then sell the homes to people whose incomes typically are below average, but retain the land to guard against escalating property costs. Buyers like Simpson agree to a limited profit when they sell, keeping the homes affordable for future buyers.

"All the work that went into making it affordable doesn't disappear just as soon as someone decides to sell it," Winters said. "The whole idea is to take real estate out of the speculative market. Housing and land are basic human rights."

The Northern California Land Trust has developed 16 projects with 84 housing units since the early 1990s, mostly in Berkeley but also in Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco.

The group's most recent project is the Linden Street Homes in a poor but gentrifying West Oakland neighborhood, where it converted two abandoned houses on adjacent lots into four condominiums and a community garden that buzzes with neighborhood kids and hummingbirds.

Cleaning up a longtime eyesore has sparked a revival of the block.

"It's overwhelming how a garden and two old houses brought a community together," said Connie Hall, a neighbor who works in the garden.

Simpson, who manages a health clinic for the city of Berkeley, was able to buy her 600-square-foot condominium for $109,000, an estimated 30 to 40 percent less than it would cost on the open market. While it's snug, the interior is brand new, with good light, a roomy bathroom and neutral colors Simpson finds soothing.

HEFTY SUBSIDIES NEEDED HERE

Such projects have been harder to start in the Bay Area than elsewhere in the country because the high cost of land and construction means hefty subsidies are needed to bring purchase prices down to what low- and middle- income families can afford.

Oakland officials, for example, estimate it costs more than $300,000 to build one unit of affordable housing, but the price needs to be about half that to be in the grasp of the people who need it.

In October, the Oakland City Council agreed to help fund the newly formed Oakland Citywide Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that will buy land and hire developers to build homes. The city, which has committed $5 million, will pay up to $120,000 per home to help keep sale prices down.

Last month, San Francisco residents also created a community land trust. A task force that has been meeting for nearly a year plans to approach the Board of Supervisors with a pilot program in the coming months, said Marianne Love, a land trust board member.

The group is looking at condominium conversions as a way to create affordable ownership opportunities.

"We've got to look at ending the cycle of speculation on property in the Bay Area if we're going to keep any sort of diverse population in the city," Love said. "It is such an uphill battle at this point and will take a lot of money, but we still have to try."

Even in suburban Livermore, where people have been flocking for cheaper homes, officials are looking at the land trust model.

"We may be considered affordable compared to other jurisdictions, but the median home price here is $420,000. You need to make $100,000 to afford that," said Eric Uranga, Livermore's housing and human services manager. "It's a scary situation for all of us."

The median income in the nine-county Bay Area was $62,000 in 2000.

Typically, government subsidies for affordable housing are lost once the original buyer decides to sell. Until recently, under state law, affordable homes built with redevelopment funds could be sold on the open market after 15 years. The term has been extended to 45 years.

'PERMANENTLY AFFORDABLE'

By contrast, land trust homes are billed as "permanently affordable," with deed restrictions that keep prices low for up to 200 years. Sale prices are set by a formula based on the increase in the area's median income. Sellers also can be reimbursed for any improvements they've made.

Land trusts have been criticized by some as keeping poorer people from realizing the same gains on their investment as other homeowners. Reeder, of the Community Land Trust Network, said a West Oakland labor organizer told him:

"We don't need sharecropping in our neighborhood."

But buyers like Simpson say they are still building equity by paying down their mortgages, earning credit and tax benefits and getting a foothold in a housing market they otherwise couldn't afford.

"I'm really OK with it. This is an investment in the community," as well as for herself, she said.

Simpson said the importance of owning property was instilled in her at a young age by her grandmother, who never accomplished that goal.

It became more important five years ago, when Simpson began caring for her siblings, Max and Alisha, who were then 14 and 11, respectively. The death of their father four years earlier had left their mother emotionally unable to care for the younger children, she said.

"We were always renting, always at the mercy of our landlords," said Simpson, who put herself through college though her parents never finished high school.

Her foray into the real estate market, even with a preapproved $129,000 loan, was disappointing. She found a house she loved in Richmond, with a $125, 000 price tag, only to have a buyer from Marin County snap it up by paying cash.

"Because I moved around a lot when I was coming up, I wanted a place to call home," Simpson said. "Now I have some stability in my life and an economic foundation for my family."

While her brother and sister have moved back in with their mother, Simpson wants her new place to be somewhere her family can always call home, and she hopes never to sell it.

The Linden Street project, which cost $760,000, was largely funded by the nonprofit Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens. Concerned about gentrification, its founders, Margaret Majua and Dorothy Noyon, bought the land and approached the Northern California Land Trust.

Although the residents began moving in during the fall, the garden opened 18 months ago. Children from the neighborhood busy themselves infusing olive oil with their homegrown herbs or skewering vegetables to barbecue for a healthy afternoon snack.

They've already landscaped the yards of the two land trust duplexes and plan to spread the flowers throughout the block.

"There was a time when you couldn't come past here," said Hall, the garden teacher who lives across the street from the Linden Street project and used to forbid her grandchildren from visiting because of drug dealing and violence.

"When they painted these houses, it was a chain reaction," she added, counting off the six freshly painted homes along the block.

For Simpson, the garden outside her door adds to the serenity she always hoped she'd find in a home of her own.

"It's a very empowering feeling," Simpson said. "This is mine. It can't be taken away from me."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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