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Rethinking housing and land use

In a time where housing prices are through the roof, and eviction moratoriums dominate the headlines, different approaches to homeownership could pave the way for a brighter housing future.

The folks at the Atlanta Land Trust are using a model they believe can be implemented nationally to create affordable housing — permanently. 

Here’s how it works: The land trust acquires the land and maintains permanent ownership. The home on the property is sold to low-income residents at an affordable price, and they lease the underlying land from the trust. 

When the homeowner is ready to sell, they must agree to a resale-restricted, affordable price. 

The goal here is to “create homes that are affordable for generations of families over time,” Executive Director Amanda Rhein told SaportaReport

The nonprofit serves 49 neighborhoods, mostly surrounding the Atlanta BeltLine and a few in the Westside, due to high levels of gentrification and displacement in those areas. 

Homeowners in front of their new digs. (Courtesy of the Atlanta Land Trust)

Permanent affordability is a central pillar of the land trust’s mission. The second is community control.

The Trust operates with a tripartite Board of Directors, meaning three groups are represented, including community members, nonprofit representatives and public and private stakeholders. 

“We’re working hard to make sure that there is good representation in our governance and on our board from the communities that we serve so that all of our decision-making is informed by their experiences and their understanding of what their communities need,” Rhein said.

The Trust has about 200 units in its pipeline, she added, with a goal of 300 by 2025.

Rhein hopes the land trust framework will be used more widely because it supports both the community and residents.

“It’s a great way to provide both community stabilization and stability for homeowners. Because it’s affordable housing, you’re paying a reasonable portion of your income on housing and that means that you have income available for other things,” she said. “[Ownership means] you can control how long you stay there, your monthly payment is predictable, you’re not subject to a landlord increasing your rent and you’re better able to plan financially for your future.”

The Athens Land Trust has a similar mission, to steward permanent affordable housing, with an added focus on land conservation. The Trust was founded on the idea that the two principles work in tandem, not separately.

Local students learn about agriculture and work at the Athens Land Trust’s West Broad Farmers Market. (Courtesy of the Athens Land Trust)

“There are parts of our community that need to be protected. Around our drinking water and a certain amount of farmland needs to be protected so that we’ve got ways to grow food for our community,” Executive Director Heather Benham said. “If you’re protecting land, then where are you thoughtfully building affordable housing?”

The Trust has developed over 60 single-family homes available to first-time low-income homeowners, and around 120 units are available for rent.

Benham, who holds a master’s in historic preservation, puts an emphasis on preserving as many houses as possible because the homes are “an important part of a [neighborhood’s] cultural identity.”  

Once the owners move in, the Trust helps them learn the ropes of owning a home.

“Some people might be surprised at all the predatory systems that are in place to take advantage of some homebuyers,” Benham said. “There’s just stuff that comes up over the long term that if you haven’t done it before, who do you ask? Who can you trust? So a lot of the families come back to us with things that they’ve got questions or concerns about.”

The Trust prioritizes reaching longtime renters in majority-Black neighborhoods where rates of displacement are high.

In Athens, one cause is an influx of student housing.

“[We need] housing that’s going to stay affordable for the community, rather than just instantly flip and, in Athens a lot of times, affordable housing can flip and turn into student housing in intown neighborhoods,” Benham said. 

“A lot of [students] are coming from the metro Atlanta area, where I think the families tend to have more resources,” she added. “So it skews our housing market toward what they can pay versus what the residents of our community can afford based on our jobs and pay rates here.”

Stable housing isn’t the only ingredient for a healthy community, and the Athens Land Trust sees itself as “a resource” to protect open spaces.

Benham recalls a neighborhood with open land, with intentions to become a park, which sat for over 20 years with no progress.

The Trust worked out a plan with the neighborhood, where they held the land while the park was installed, and then turned it back over to the local government once the plans were completed. 

“We’re a tool that can be used to help communities access resources and help write grants,” Benham said. “Not everybody knows how zoning and planning and all that stuff works, so we try to be a resource for those things.”

The Lake Claire Community Land Trust is founded on similar conservation ideals, and the neighborhood-based nonprofit preserved and maintains nearly 2 acres of nature lovers paradise. The Trust is tucked away in the trees, serving as a natural oasis in a bustling metro neighborhood with DeKalb Ave sitting just a few yards away. 

The pocket park includes communal garden plots, an amphitheater with a fire pit and an emu named Big Lou. 

President Stephen Wing describes the Trust as a place to enjoy nature and bond with fellow community members.

“It’s kind of a place where people cross paths,” Wing said. “The gardeners for one, and then the people who come to use the playground, the people who have come to the drum circles, and even come to sit and read or chat with their friends. I like to see the cross-pollination that goes on.”

The trust doesn’t include housing, but Wing dreams of buying nearby houses and turning them into affordable housing. Right now, that’s just a “fantasy” because “the houses here are getting so expensive, I don’t think we can afford to buy one.”

Even still, people are interested in what Lake Claire has to offer.

“We’re a little embarrassed by how far some people have come to hang out at the Land Trust,” Wing said. “It’d be wonderful if every neighborhood had a space like this because it not only provides something for people as individuals, it’s a point of contact where community can blossom.”

The folks at these three organizations are thinking of different ways to approach our relationship with housing and land use, and it seems they might be onto something. 

If you’re interested in learning more, log on for the Atlanta Land Trust’s virtual community information session on Aug. 14.

Header image: Courtesy of the Atlanta Land Trust

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native who recently graduated from Georgia State University, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah is excited about the opportunity to serve the City of Atlanta and its people. Hannah can be reached at [email protected]

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