A new park is expected to drive up housing prices in Ward 8. Could a land trust prevent that?

The 11th Street Bridge Park equitable development task force.

The 11th Street Bridge Park project will build D.C.’s first elevated park, utilizing the remnants of a demolished vehicular bridge connecting the Navy Yard and Anacostia neighborhoods, across the Anacostia River. While new public works often generate jobs and economic activity in a neighborhood, they can also raise its profile and subsequently its price tag.   

[Read more: The design of the 11th Street Bridge Park]

In anticipation of rising housing prices around the new park, the Bridge Park group’s equitable development task force is planning to create the District’s first community land trust to encourage homeownership and maintain affordability. The land trust is part of the group’s equitable development plan, which they hope will maintain affordability, mitigate potential displacement, and ensure that increases in employment, health, and safety are actually felt by current residents. 

The park’s “impact zone” east of the river, including the Anacostia and Fairlawn neighborhoods, has some of the highest unemployment and child poverty in the city. More than 20 percent of the area’s residents are unemployed, and over half of the children live in poverty. Homeownership is also low — renters occupy 73 percent of houses and apartments in the area, compared with an almost even split of renters and owners west of the river in Capitol Hill. 

Parks and amenities, especially novelties such as an aerial park, often bring improvements to a neighborhood. But these improvements often don’t serve current residents, who may be pushed out by rising housing prices.  

Planners of the park, a project of Ward 8 based nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, are taking lessons from similar developments, such as the BeltLine in Atlanta, an ongoing project to convert an abandoned railroad into trails. Where it has been built, housing prices have escalated, displacing low-income residents, according to Pamela Agava, the operations manager at City First Enterprises. The social-justice-minded bank holding company is advising the equitable development task force.  

“We’ve seen some of the negative consequences of development to communities, and we wanted to be able to counter that,” said Vaughn Perry, the park’s equitable development manager. 

The leading idea on the task force to preserve affordability in Ward 8 is a community land trust. Land trusts of this kind can potentially maintain housing affordability for decades. 

When homeowners buy a dwelling on a community land trust, they buy only the structure, not the earth beneath it. The land itself is owned by the trust, a nonprofit entity. The homeowner can afford to buy the home at a fraction of its market value. A restrictive covenant on the property ensures that it can only be sold for a similar cost and to people of a certain income level. Owners still get to walk away with some equity from the sale, and the house stays affordable, no matter how neighborhood property values change.  

[Read more: How community land trusts work]

A typical community land trust is governed by a board, one equally split between the land trust residents, community members, and housing and nonprofit experts. Residents pay a small monthly land lease to the trust, which helps cover operating costs and works as a warning system. If a resident hasn’t been paying their land lease, that might signal they are struggling financially, and the board could intervene with workforce training and work with the homeowner to prevent foreclosure. The equitable development task force is also planning to coordinate workforce training and prioritize residents from Wards 6, 7, and 8 in hiring for post-construction jobs. 

“Affordable” can have many meanings, especially in D.C., which has the highest income inequality of any metropolitan city in the country. “When we use the word affordability, I think a lot of people initially ask the question, ‘Well, affordable for who?’” Perry said. 

“Incomes, especially in the footprint of the bridge park, are lower than the average for the greater Washington area metropolitan region,” said Adam Maloon, vice president of affordable housing at City First Homes. “Some people will say that 80 percent of [the area median income] is affordable. Well, who is that affordable for?” Eligibility for housing assistance is often decided by how much a household earns as a proportion of the area median income. The median income for an individual in the D.C. metro area was $76,020 in 2016.  

According to Maloon and Agava, when the Bridge Park project reached out to Ward 8 residents, they found significant community will for a land trust of this kind. The project team formed a monthly community land trust advisory committee, made up of two-thirds Ward 8 residents and business owners. City First Homes is advising the committee and project on the technical specifics of the trust.  

“It has always been a community-driven and equity-first approach,” Perry said. “We went out to the community and had hundreds of meetings to just first ask the question, ‘Is this something that the community even wants?’” 

Sheldon Clark, an architect who lives in Ward 8 and a member of the community land trust advisory committee, has heard mostly positive things from community members. Still, he emphasizes that it is difficult to reach everyone.  

“People have to recognize that to be able to show up at a community meeting, you kind of already have to come from at least a little bit of privilege,” Clark said. “You’re not picking up kids at that period of time, or you’re not trying to feed your kids at that period of time, or you’re not at work at that period of time.” The group is trying to reach residents on social media and with door-to-door walks. 

Though the Bridge Park is set to open in 2019, the land trust will likely move at a slower pace. Perry indicated they would like to hire an executive director for the project and acquire at least two properties for the trust in the next year. Though Perry believes sustainable community land trusts require somewhere between 250 and 400 units, the project will likely start with a pilot of 10 to 15 units to demonstrate capabilities and budget, potentially earning a partnership with the city. 

Acquiring the properties may require building from the ground up. The equitable development team is in early conversations with Mi Casa, a nonprofit affordable housing developer and potential partner to build some dwellings in the area. “Community land trusts are often agnostic about how properties are brought in and what exactly they look like,” Maloon said.  

The units may be scattered or include rentals. For small businesses, a land trust can provide a low rent, so business owners can stay in the neighborhood and provide their goods and services for below-market value. As part of a larger investment in Wards 7 and 8, JP Morgan Chase has provided a grant to the project, $3 million of which will go to acquiring properties for the trust.

[Read more: JPMorgan Chase announced an initial $250,000 investment in March] 

Clark emphasized that the land trust is not the single answer to preserve affordable housing in the District. “The idea of a community land trust is not a panacea. It’s not a cure-all for affordable housing or to address all the housing issues that we have in the area. But it does have the opportunity to provide a much lower price point for people to purchase a home and get into home ownership,” he said. Clark stressed that although homeowners wouldn’t receive all of the price appreciation from the home, they would still take away more than they would if they were renting. “The idea is that this is kind of a stepping stone to get people into market-rate housing,” he said. 

Perry stressed that the land trust is flexible to community interests. “We’re not developers. We’re not a for-profit organization,” he said. “As we need to pivot, we pivot.” 

Issues |Gentrification|Housing

Region |Ward 8|Washington DC

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