Atlanta’s home prices are soaring. Can a new model keep some affordable forever?
By Sonam Vashi
In 2011, Fayette County resident Jenelle Harris wanted to buy a home closer to her job as an Atlanta Public Schools teacher, but she didn’t make enough money to buy in the quickly gentrifying east side of Atlanta. Then, she heard about a new program through the Atlanta Land Trust that would let her purchase a unit in the Lofts at Reynoldstown Crossing—right where the fledgling BeltLine would eventually hit Memorial Drive—that was perfect: affordable, walkable, less of a commute. And it had another benefit that interested her: Years later, after the BeltLine’s arrival to the neighborhood would make prices skyrocket like never seen before, the home would stay affordable, not only for 10 years or 20 years, but forever.
For years, Atlanta has been losing more affordable units than it can produce. A growing market continues to push property values up, pricing out renters and homebuyers. Between 2010 and 2014, the city lost more than 5,000 units, or 17%, rented at $750 or below. Recently, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a plan to create or preserve 20,000 affordable units in eight years; more than half of that number aims to simply make up for ones Atlanta is losing.
Part of the problem is the way affordable housing is usually funded: Grants and programs—like the federal low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) or project-based rental assistance (PBRA)—that most often fund affordable developments come with contracts that expire. In Fulton alone, the subsidies for more than 11,000 units are set to expire in the next 10 years, according to an Atlanta Regional Commission analysis. While owners could re-up those contracts, it’s less likely that they’ll do so in a hot housing market like Atlanta.
This problem is what makes community land trusts a unique solution to affordable housing needs. With the Atlanta Land Trust (ALT), the city’s only community land trust dedicated to housing, affordability is permanent; there’s no subsidy that expires. “If we’re going to make a strategic investment in affordable housing, we need to make sure that it’s done in a way that it will be sustainable, so that in 20 years, we’re not going to be faced with the same problem that we are today,” says ALT executive director Amanda Rhein. (Another Atlanta community land trust, the Lake Claire Land Trust—the place with the emu and drum circles—was founded in 1983 and preserves greenspace in the east side neighborhood.)
The way it works: A nonprofit like the ALT owns the land that the home stands on, but an ALT resident like Harris owns the home. The ALT structures the value appreciation of the home to keep the price down—meaning that, when Harris eventually decides to sell, the loft won’t be the half-million-dollar price of other nearby lofts; she’ll get some increase in its value, but ALT will manage the resale process so that the home is affordable to another homebuyer, someone who might not otherwise be able to live there. The ALT will also provide resources to Harris if she has trouble paying a mortgage or needs help with home repair; community land trusts nationally have low rates of foreclosures. “It allows you to have the stability of homeownership—both financial and actual physical stability,” Rhein says. “You’re not going to have to move. You’re not going to get evicted. Your mortgage payment is predictable.”
Rhein says the process is structured so that ALT residents “can earn some equity on your home—not as much as you would if you own the land, but you’re able to earn some equity which can then be used as a down payment on a market-rate home.” In hard numbers: Another ALT resident bought their home in 2012 for $150,000, Rhein says; the appraised value of their unit today is $400,000. The resident, who’s reselling, will get to participate in 25 percent of the appreciation—$62,500—and ALT will aim to keep the resale value below $150,000. The resale “worked exactly as we intended it to,” Rhein says. “Because no low-income person can afford to live in that building today at $400,000.”
Rhein joined the Atlanta Land Trust last August, after running MARTA’s transit-oriented development arm and spending a decade at Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development entity. “I always did feel that a lot of the programs that I’ve worked on, we were making these big investments, but we weren’t putting the controls in place to ensure that people were able to stay there long term,” she says. “The unintended consequence was that there was sometimes displacement. People just couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
ALT is focusing on creating homeownership opportunities along the BeltLine, particularly in the south and west sides. But can the land trust scale the model enough to truly make a difference?
Reenergized after hiring Rhein, ALT is just ramping up: The only homes currently online are three units at the Lofts at Reynoldstown, created through a partnership with the Atlanta BeltLine, but dozens of other homes are in the pipeline. In Oakland City, ALT will oversee 23 townhomes and condos on Tucker Avenue through a partnership with Enterprise Community Partners. With the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, the land trust will gain eight new or renovated homes in Pittsburgh to its roster. Last month, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation announced it would renovate two homes in Washington Park and Mozley Park; ALT will own the land for both. New nonprofit Swope Dreams will partner with ALT for another home in Pittsburgh. “This neighborhood is poised for a lot of change,” says Swope Dreams president Zack Mellette. They partnered with ALT “to create pathways to homeownership for the people who might get priced out in that change.”
Those partnerships are essential for a small nonprofit like ALT, Rhein says. “Because the community land trust mode—and certainly the Atlanta Land Trust—is still unfamiliar in Atlanta, it’s important that we had established these early wins to kind of prove the model and demonstrate that, as an organization, we have the capacity to actually do this work.”
Over the next 10 years, Rhein wants ALT to oversee 1,000 units. But the challenges of acquiring property along the BeltLine—where values skyrocket in a matter of weeks and private developers come in with all-cash offers—require significant funds to act fast. She’s focused on fundraising and creating other streams of income. The land trust homes come with small stewardship fees, and a portion of the home value at closing goes to help pay administrative costs, but Rhein is looking toward other methods—potential developer fees, rental income—to make the model sustainable.
For the south and west neighborhoods along the Atlanta BeltLine, where the 2008 recession—and predatory loans—disproportionately impacted black residents, education about the land trust model is important, but so is building trust. In the U.S., the community land trust arose out of the Civil Rights movement; in 1970, a group of activists purchased tracts of land in Albany, Georgia, to create black-owned agricultural cooperatives and economic power in the South. At one time, the land trust, New Communities Inc., was the largest amount of land owned by black people in the country.
For many of ALT’s new projects, Rhein says it’s paramount to incorporate what the surrounding community wants to see (in Oakland City, ALT originally thought to build single-family homes but switched to townhomes and condos after hearing that residents wanted more density) and walk potential homebuyers through the entire process. Creating trust is also important when it comes to the tricky resale process, where ALT has to ensure that “when somebody sells their home, there is some equity that they can realize, but that there’s not so much equity that we’re having to come back in and reinvest in it so that it’s affordable for the next buyer.”
Rhein emphasizes that ALT isn’t the perfect solution for everyone in need of affordable housing. For example, the model doesn’t necessarily work financially for the most vulnerable, who might make less than 50 percent of the area median income (less than $37,000 for a family of four). “We’re a great solution for people who are interested in homeownership, who need to transition from being a renter to being a homeowner, because we really see ourselves as kind of a stepping stone between the two,” she says, noting that 70 percent of community land trust homeowners then move on to buy a market-rate home. “We’re certainly not going to solve the affordable housing problem on our own.”
Harris knows that she won’t be able to capitalize on the full value of her Reynoldstown home when it comes time to sell, but she still feels like the trade-off is worth it, since she wouldn’t have been able to afford a home in the area otherwise. “I feel like I’m contributing to leveling the playing field a little bit.”
Harris still wonders whether ALT can scale enough to really impact the Atlanta community, but she’s optimistic. For her, the home she and her father live in has already given her something she didn’t think was possible anymore: Her father was raised a few minutes away from where her home sits. “Now, people can have the option to live in the communities they grew up in.”