Recently, several of the suburban counties around Washington have been considering land-use plans that incorporate a variety of measures designed to protect farm land and keep it for agricultural use.
Some surprisingly similar land-conservation techniques have been applied in inner-city neighborhoods for a very different purpose: to preserve and promote home ownership opportunities for low-income persons. One of the first communities in the country to try some of these innovative approaches was the D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights.
For that area, which runs along the 14th Street NW corridor, problems of disinvestment following the 1968 riots changed in the mid-1970s to problems of reinvestment, gentrification and real estate speculation by absentee landlords. All these conditions threatened to displace many long-term, lower-income community members.
One response to this situation came in 1976 with the formation of the Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project, an effort to put the development and use of the area's property directly in the hands of its residents through the use of a "community land trust." This was the first time such an approach had been tried in an urban setting, according to the Institute for Community Economics, which recently published the Community Land Trust Handbook (available from Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pa., or from the authors, located in Greenfield, Mass.).
Most Americans think of real estate only in terms of fee-simple ownership, in which the title holder retains all control over use and development of the property. Ownership can more accurately be viewed as a bundle of rights, some of which can be sold to or held by someone else, said Chuck Matthei, a staff member at the institute.
There are a number of situations where this principle has been applied. Several counties around Washington have already adopted or are considering programs to allow the development rights of agricultural land to be split and used elsewhere in the same jurisdiction.
In mining regions around the country, landowners routinely retain title to their property but sell off its mineral rights. For many years, conservation organizations have bought land and later resold it after placing easements on it to restrict future development.
Preservation groups have used similar techniques to save historic buildings. Rather than buying structures outright, the organizations accept easements that bar changes in the facades of the properties.
An urban land trust uses a similar approach, by purchasing land in a neighborhood and placing restrictions on it. A democratically controlled organization run by community residents, the trust holds title to the land. Any buildings on it, however, are generally owned by individuals who pay the trust an annual lease fee.
Neighborhood control over the properties comes from a long-term lease the buildings' owners have with the trust. The lease term is usually 99 years, and can be passed from generation to generation.
Value controls in those agreements keep the prices on houses and other structures on the land affordable to future purchasers. If a building owner wants to sell the property, the trust is usually given the first option to buy it. The price, however, includes only equity increases due to improvements in capital investments the owner makes.
Any "unearned" profit caused by general market forces remains with the land trust as a resource for the entire community, rather than just for an individual owner.
The trust can assist lower income families in becoming homeowners because of its standing within the community. The organization can help individuals obtain favorable financing that they could not arrange on their own to buy a house located on the trust's land.
Building owners obtain the primary rights they want, says Matthei, including lifetime security in their housing and fair equity for the time and capital they have invested.
The community also benefits in several ways, he points out. Housing stays affordable for future generations. Residents can have a stronger voice in shaping the development of the neighborhood. The community retains title to and control over land whose higher value can be used as collateral to obtain loans to purchase more land.
The Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project was the first of about 40 to 50 urban land trusts Matthei estimates have been established in the last several years. The project, howver, did not survive. The three buildings the group purchased were later resold.
Formed several years after the Columbia Heights land trust, the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union has helped a number of tenants push landlords to improve their rental property. The group has also assisted residents in purchasing several buildings and converting them to limited equity housing cooperatives.
The land trust attempt "was just too foreign to the people" in the area, said Jim Tamialis, staff director of the tenants' union. "The land trust organizers were trying to set up this idea cold, without the basis of grass-roots organizing."
One of the most successful land trusts, according to Matthei, is the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati. Set up in 1981, CLCC owns 13 properties with a total of 23 housing units. The group expects to double those figures within the year.
The Cincinnati group and other community land trusts have found that by departing from the commonly held notion that property ownership is an indivisible set of rights, they can help lower-income people achieve one of this nation's most cherished dreams, says Matthei. "For most Americans," he affirms, "there is no more basic aspiration than to own land, to own a home."