Community-controlled affordable housing model could address gentrification in Southwest Washington

Photo of a fire truck repair shop in DC.

1101 Half St. SW, the current site of a fire truck repair shop, could be the new site of a community land trust. Photo by Kaela Roeder

Southwest residents are pushing for soon-to-be-available land to become a new community-controlled, permanently affordable housing and retail space.

At a community meeting Thursday, lead organizers Coy McKinney of grassroots organization SW D.C. Action and Vaughn Perry of the 11th Street Bridge Park project presented the concept behind community land trusts to Ward 6 residents. These land trusts, or CLTs, are community-led nonprofits that collectively own and lease access to land at below-market prices. 

The site in mind, 1101 Half St. SW, is currently a firetruck repair shop that is slated to move to a different location in three years. Under the District’s newly updated Comprehensive Plan, the land-use designation of the land has changed to allow for residential and commercial development. Instead of selling the lot to a private developer, McKinney, Perry and others are urging the District government to set aside funds to establish a CLT. 

“It allows for individuals that otherwise could not afford to purchase a home to get into homeownership,” Perry told residents at the meeting. 

Leaders in the effort are looking to local residents to decide what would be best for the area. Located on M Street, the site in question could accommodate a housing development (for rent or ownership), a small business, or a mixed-use project. If housing is selected as the favored option, it’s unclear what the pricing would be or if reconstruction is necessary, McKinney said. 

The Douglass Community Land Trust, the nonprofit behind this effort, is a membership organization; its board consists of housing professionals, people leasing from the trust, and representatives of the broader community — each constituting a third of the board. . Both McKinney and Perry serve on the Douglass CLT board, and they would like the Southwest site to become a chapter of Douglass CLT. 

[Read more: The Douglass Community Land Trust is made its first investment in 2019 to support community control among new housing development in Ward 8]

Conceptually, a resident living under a CLT model can purchase the structure, but leases the land from the CLT. Separating these costs reduces the price of the home. 

Infographic describing how a community land trust operates.
Courtesy of Wikipedia. Click to enlarge

Deed restrictions are established to ensure the property can be sold for only so much above the initial purchase price. Under this model, a single subsidy — generally from grants or a government allocation — is needed to support the CLT’s initial purchase of the property that will then remain affordable for subsequent owners and renters. To remain perpetually affordable in the traditional housing market, the same property would need an increasingly high subsidy for each new low-income renter or owner.

Perry provided residents with a hypothetical scenario: If a person wants to purchase a home valued at $555,000 but earns half of the area median income, an initial subsidy of $393,000 is required to make the home affordable. By following a traditional approach to purchasing a home in the housing market:

  • Based on current trends, after seven years the market-rate price of the home valued at $555,000 will be $632,000 and the next modest-income buyer would need an additional subsidy of $454,022.
  • After 14 years, the market-rate price of the home will be $721,278 and will require an additional subsidy of $523,838.
  • After 28 years, the market-rate price of the home will be $937,373 and will require an additional subsidy of $696,294.

But by following a CLT model for the same buyer and home: 

  • After seven years, the home will cost $178,679, and will not require any additional subsidy for the next modest-income buyer.
  • After 14 years, the home will cost $197,440 and will not require any additional subsidy.
  • After 28 years, the home will cost $241,079 and will not require any additional subsidy.

Douglass CLT members hold 219 permanently affordable housing units in trust for each other across six wards, including 65 rental units and 154 units in various ownership structures (limited equity cooperatives, condominium units, and single-family homes).

In April, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a collaboration with Douglass CLT to build affordable homes at the site of two former elementary schools.

This model of affordable housing will bring justice to the neighborhood, McKinney said. Southwest D.C. was one of the first sites of urban renewal in the late 1950s, which tore down 99% of the existing buildings, displaced 4,500 African American families from well-established communities, and included minimal moderately priced housing among mostly luxury residential developments.

“My definition of justice is those who have been historically, intentionally underserved — their priorities, their needs, their interests should be put first,” McKinney said in an interview.

The first CLT was established in Georgia in 1969 to prevent displacement of Black farmers, McKinney said. Now, CLTs are being used nationwide to address gentrification, displacement, and the lack of affordable housing. Proud Ground in Portland, Oregon, has helped more than 400 homeowners purchase housing in surrounding counties.

The Southwest Neighborhood Plan drafted in 2015 by the D.C. Office of Planning with community input promised that the neighborhood would “remain a site of equity and inclusion,” but McKinney says this isn’t the case. 

“Our elected officials, policy makers, and policy implementers did not live up to those ideals,” he said, referencing condo and rental buildings approved in recent years. 

In the adjoining Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard neighborhoods and throughout the District, steep home prices are not the only barrier in the market. Like what was built during the urban renewal project, modern housing production consists mostly of expensive apartment buildings and rental units, according to the Office of Planning’s 2019 Housing Equity Report. There’s also a shortage of homes to purchase. 

Washington has seen one of the country’s worst rates of displacement and gentrification in the country, according to the Comprehensive Plan update that passed earlier this year. In Southwest, the median home price increased by 55% between 2000 and 2019, and the median income level increased by 117% between 2000 and 2015, according to an early draft of the plan. Meanwhile, the white population has increased and the Black population has decreased in the neighborhood.  

CLTs generate lasting positive effects in neighborhoods, Perry said. The model allows for residents to bypass unattainable housing prices so they can remain in the District. 

“You want them to be able to stay in the neighborhood and give back to the community that they grew up in,” Perry said in an interview. “Because this is their roots, this is where they’ve grown up.”

Since April 2021, more than 200 Washington residents have signed a petition in support of a CLT model for the site. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen also wrote a letter in June asking the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, who oversees the Office of Planning, to consider the CLT model. 

The local advisory neighborhood commission has also expressed interest in the project. Supporters include ANC 6D02 Commissioner Jared Weiss, who represents the single-member district that includes 1101 Half St. SW.

“I would be thrilled if the site of that fire truck repair station can be transformed into something that directly helps address the affordable housing crisis in our neighborhood,” Weiss said in an emailed statement. 

[Read more: Washingtonians turn to land trusts to preserve affordability]

Representatives from other neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase (ANC 3/4G01) Commissioner Lisa Gore are excited at the prospect of a new CLT project in D.C. and are looking into how the model could fit in their own areas. 

“We absolutely in the city can put an additional tool in our affordable housing toolbox that is more geared towards a shared equity model,” Gore said in an interview. “We have to, at some point in the city, balance that power shift to where we’re really focusing on those lower income levels.”

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Correction (08.18.2018)

This article has been updated to correct a quote from Coy McKinney of SW DC Action.

Issues |Housing

Region |Southwest|Ward 6

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