New legislation could allow DC to help tenants purchase their buildings. Some worry it could encroach on community land trusts.

Photo of a set of house key next to a small model home

Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau intends to introduce legislation to the D.C. Council that would give tenant groups more support from the city to purchase property.

Dubbed the “Prioritizing Public Land Purchase Amendment Act” (PPLPA), the legislation aims to reduce the overall financial stress tenant groups face when purchasing properties. Under the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act” (TOPA), tenant groups have the first opportunity to purchase their buildings when landlords put them up for sale, but the high combined cost of the land and building can sometimes prevent them from taking advantage of it, according to Nadeau.

The legislation would provide tenant groups with the option to work with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development to coordinate the purchase of the land where the building is located. Under PPLPA, tenant groups would purchase the building while the city would purchase the land. Then the city would enter into long-term ground leases with tenant groups in order to maintain tenant control of the property. The program also functions similarly to the District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA) which allows the city to purchase apartment buildings to help maintain affordable housing.

Nadeau announced the legislation on April 25, though she has not formally introduced it yet. A press release from her office called the bill the first of its kind in the District and potentially the country. In an interview, Nadeau said the bill is intended to build off of previous affordable housing solutions in the District and push the city closer to meeting its housing goals.

“It’s really important and special that we have things like the Housing Production Trust Fund and that we’re growing land trusts and that we’re strengthening TOPA and DOPA,” Nadeau said. “This really builds on that track record and gets us to the next level and provides more opportunities for us to meet our housing goals and our affordable housing goals in particular.”

But the similarities to what other affordable housing solutions are already doing has made advocates for community land trusts question if the bill is necessary.

Community land trusts (CLTs) have been operating in the District for years and play a similar role in TOPA. CLTs buy the land that a building sits on, so a resident or tenant group only needs to buy the building and can lease the land from the CLT in long-term leases. If they chooses to sell, the CLT retains ownership of the land, and the resident must sell at a restricted price to keep the building affordable.

CLTs in the District have been partnering with tenant groups for years. In 2019,  the Douglass Community Land Trust worked with tenants of Savannah apartments to buy and renovate the apartment block. And recent legislation, like the “Community Land Trust’s Access and Homeowner Support Amendment Act of 2023” introduced in early February, plans to expand CLTs’ purchasing abilities by giving the groups early access to TOPA-eligible properties, right behind tenant groups and the District.

PPLPA could make CLTs less effective, as CLTs are the most successful when they don’t have to compete for scarce resources, said Coy McKinney, a representative on the board of the Douglass CLT and a lead organizer for SW D.C. Action, which aims to expand the Douglass CLT into Ward 6.

“If we bring all of these tools into the kitchen, then it’s going to make the other tools less effective,” McKinney said. “And so for me, it’s just kind of stepping on the toes of what a community land trust would do.”

McKinney also pointed out that the private and nonprofit structure of  CLTs brings expertise. Tenant groups on their own may not have the experience or background necessary to maintain a building, a benefit CLTs can bring. Along with residents and community members, CLT boards also tend to include industry professionals who can help run the property, McKinney said.

McKinney said he worries that without additional technical support maintaining the property, tenant groups who are aided financially by the District won’t have access to the resources necessary to succeed.

“They’re running a co-op as like a part-time job,” McKinney said. “So then they might run into issues with maintenance and governance and all that stuff, that a CLT could provide more assistance with and more expertise.”

In a written statement to Street Sense Media, Nadeau said that her intention with the bill is to increase the District’s access to public land. CLTs are private nonprofits, and the land they acquire and lease is private, not public, which means the District can’t turn to them to solve the city’s lack of available public land.

“I’ve been a big supporter of land trusts, which are also a great tool, and different than what I’m proposing,” Nadeau said in the statement. “My bill increases the amount of public land for community benefit. Community land trusts do a great job as a private partner helping with preservation and stabilizing things and preventing displacement on a neighborhood level.”

Nadeau co-introduced the “Community Land Trust’s Access and Homeowner Support Amendment Act of 2023,” and the PPLPA would not prevent the public land acquired by the city from being stewarded by a community land trust, she said. 

Instead, it would serve to streamline the District’s ability to purchase land for properties not included under TOPA. Given both D.C.’s population density and it’s lack of undeveloped land, acquiring more public land and property could allow the District more freedom in what they build, rather than having to choose between affordable housing and public amenities.

The act would establish a five-day window where the city would have the first opportunity to purchase non-TOPA eligible properties on the market. Sellers would not be obligated to accept the city’s offer, but if they did, they would be exempt from the deed and recordation tax usually imposed on property sales in the District.

Nadeau said that she was hopeful that sellers would see the appeal, but that the greater point of the bill was to give the District a greater directive to make offers and acquire land. 

“At least this gets us in the game, and I think that’s the key here, is creating that mechanism for us to purchase property,” Nadeau said.

Issues |Housing|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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