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In Gentrifying Neighborhoods, Land Trust Model Helps Protect Affordable Housing

Freda Green Bolling (second from right) joins non-profit leaders and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille at the groundbreaking of the first Maggie Walker Community Land Trust house.
Freda Green Bolling (second from right) joins non-profit leaders and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille at the groundbreaking of the first Maggie Walker Community Land Trust house. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Richmond has a new tool to slow gentrification and create permanently affordable housing stock. The Maggie Walker Community Land Trust is nearing completion of its first home and advocates aim to expand the model. 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


In North Church Hill, Freda Green-Bolling opens the door of her mossy green Italianate style home.

Freda Green Bolling: Would you like some lemonade?

With help from the Better Housing Coalition and other non-profits, Bolling bought this brand new property for $127,000 back in 2006. It’s energy efficient, with hardwood floors, three bedrooms, and a modern kitchen.

Bolling: I got more than I asked for (pauses), and I’m thankful.

When she closed on the property at age 49, Bolling became the first single woman in her family to own a home. Then, she became a certified housing counselor.

Bolling: I knew that it was something that I needed to do in order to break the cycle.

Bolling spent some of her early childhood years in Church Hill, on North 33rd Street. She lived with her grandparents, mother and aunt in a rented upstairs flat.

Bolling: What I remember most about the neighborhood in Church Hill was that it was a community. There was Davis Market on the corner, we could go over there, there was a Hudson Brothers, a grill where you could get a hamburger. There was another store around the corner. I was about 4 or 5 almost 6 when we left; I walked to school, I went to Chimborazo school at the corner of Marshall Street and my mother and I would walk to the movies on Saturday...

Today, that building’s been renovated, says Bolling; it costs a few hundred dollars more in rent than her current mortgage payment.

Bolling: I couldn’t afford to buy in Church Hill right now.

Jonathan Knopf: Church Hill is definitely a neighborhood in transition.

Jonathan Knopf is a researcher with HD Advisors, an affordable housing consulting firm. He says in 2012, the median sales price of a home in Church Hill was $165,000. Four years later, those numbers jumped.

Knopf: Last year in 2016, the median sales price was $215,000, so that’s an increase of 65%.

The number of homes sold also increased, from about 70 in 2012 to about 290 last year. Knopf says demographics are changing too. In 2000, nearly 90% of all households including renters in Greater Church Hill were black. That includes Mosby Court, but not the other public housing communities. By 2015, that number declines by 20%.

Knopf: We don’t know if these households moved out of Church Hill or if they were specifically displaced because of housing issues but it certainly points us in a direction to study this issue with more focus and depth.

In that same time period, the number of black homeowners in Greater Church Hill fell by 23%, while the number of white homeowners grew by 159%.

Knopf: We know empirically that communities that are diverse, that have mixed incomes are stronger and more resilient and better places to live. When a community is homogeneous, it is not a place that helps our entire city succeed, so we need to make sure there are stop gaps and measures in place to preserve families that have been living in Church Hill for decades that have really made the neighborhood attractive and have been paying their taxes and making investments in their own community and we need to ensure they are able to reap the fruits of their labor and remain in the communities that they are connected to. People that are moving into Church Hill and making investments are certainly doing good and making the neighborhood more attractive but they need to make sure they’re not excluding the people that really laid the foundation to make Church Hill an attractive and desirable place to live.

In the last two decades, the City and non-profits have helped revitalize Church Hill by turning dozens of vacant lots and boarded up properties into quality, affordable housing. But Knopf points out a limitation.

Knopf: Most affordable housing programs begin and end at the first transaction for the homebuyer; so they are made affordable to low income persons that traditionally wouldn’t be able to afford a home on their own through many different types of subsidy whether that’s from the state, from HUD, from a non-profit of some kind. But in many cases, the second transaction of that home does not preserve that home as affordable to that home buyer.

For example, one of the Jefferson Mews homes built by Better Housing Coalition two decades ago sold recently for $273,000. Another property on the same block as Freda Green Bolling sold a few months ago for $190,000, about $63,000 more than original affordable housing price in 2006. Knopf’s research shows that housing prices are going up all over Church Hill.

On North 26th Street, a number of homes are being built and renovated - but one of them is different. It’s the first for the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, a model used across the country to keep houses affordable in perpetuity. Nikki D'Adamo-Damery is the non-profit’s community coordinator.

Nikki D'Adamo-Damery: One of the neat things about the Community Land Trust is that it’s trying to keep homes affordable forever.

The Land Trust maintains ownership of the land, so they can sell the house at a reduced rate to income qualified buyers. Those buyers can pass the property down to children or a spouse who plan to live in the home. If they decide to sell, they agree to share the equity, a model also known as paying it forward.

D'Adamo-Damery: So what that looks like is we split it 50/50. So if the property has appreciated by $40,000 over the course of their ownership, the home seller gets $20,000 and the other $20,000 stays in the house which allows us to sell it for $20,000 below the market rate, and that trend will continue with each homeowner so with each sale, in theory, the home is going to be more affordable than other homes in the market.

D'Adamo-Damery says she’s heard concerns that land trust homes could negatively affect neighborhood property values. But she says assessors don’t generally include these homes when putting together comparables. She adds the model is especially helpful for working class residents who might make too much for some housing programs, but too little to afford market rate. Applicants can make up to 115% of area median income or AMI, which is about $58,000 for one person, about $75,000 for a family of three.

Marion Cake: We have several designs that we use, this is a great one… This is a 24 foot wide house

The twenty-five year old non-profit Project Homes is building the first land trust house. Director of Neighborhood Revitalization Marion Cake shows me around.

Cake: The ultimate compliment for us is when you can’t tell whether it’s an old house or a new house. So this one has a lot of Church Hill design elements… you’ll notice out front the cornice work, the corbels, it matters the distance between the roof line and the top of the windows...

Inside, there’s a lot of natural light, ample living spaces, and three big bedrooms upstairs. The drywall just went up, high quality finishes and appliances come next.

Cake: It’s a privilege to be able to build the first Community Land Trust House, we were excited to take the opportunity.

Combined, Project Homes and the Better Housing Coalition have built about 160 single family homes in Church Hill. Cake points some of them out on nearby blocks, attractive two-storey homes, one with a wrap-around porch.

Cake: This is a great rocking chair porch to kinda just take it all in. It also has a direct impact on the community if you put porches in because porches draw people outside, people being drawn outside ends up introducing them to one another, people who know one another, know what’s normal and what isn’t and they spot something that’s abnormal and they’ll take action. I think porches really are a bit part of neighborhood revitalization.

Project Homes sells to first-time buyers making about 80% or less of Area Median Income or about $58,000 for a family of four.

Cake: We’ve gone 10 blocks, it’s taken 17 years. We are not finished, Church Hill and other neighborhoods around Richmond have plenty of work that we need to do and there’s always going to be a need for affordable housing.

Cake says out of the 37 houses Project Homes has built in Church Hill, he counted five that went back on the market. Some sold for over $200,000.

Cake: We do a great job revitalizing neighborhoods through the production of affordable housing. We don’t do as a great a job making housing perpetually affordable. Our work as I’ve shown you is slow and steady and one house at a time, but if you’re really going to address in a meaningful long-term way the affordability of single family housing in these neighborhoods, you’re going to need something that keeps the houses affordable transaction and after transaction, so that’s the idea of the community land trust.

Maggie Walker Community Land Trust is partnering with other non-profits. Bon Secours and Virginia Credit Union donated funds. Housing Opportunities Made Equal is offering homeowner training. The Richmond Association of Realtors is providing marketing and support staff. And HD Advisors is providing staff and administrative support.

The Land Trust is starting in Church Hill, but will eventually operate city-wide. One challenge for the non-profit and other affordable housing groups is acquiring properties. Jonathan Knopf says there are thousands of properties across the city with five or more years of tax delinquency.

Knopf: Those properties are often blighted, they’re often vacant and often a drag on the neighborhoods they are located in. The City of Richmond is currently able to auction off a few dozen of these properties every year on the private market; many of those properties are purchased by developers that are sometimes able to turn housing into new homes or new investments, but many of them have still sat vacant and have not seen the level of investment we want to see in the city.

A solution is on the table says Knopf - designating the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust to also operate as a land bank.

Knopf: A land trust is a non-profit that has the distinction of providing housing opportunities that are perpetually affordable for low to moderate income homeowners. A land bank is also a non-profit or municipal authority that receives vacant, blighted properties from a municipality and then holds them does basic maintenance and then through a strategic plan unloads those propers to nonprofits or individuals or private developers with the goal of sometimes providing  affordable housing or providing community spaces or other land uses that are beneficial to low to moderate income people or the community as a whole.

The General Assembly passed enabling legislation to help localities set up land banks a few years ago. Danville was the first in the state to do so and Knopf and other advocates hope City Council will pass a resolution making Richmond the second.

Knopf: We would continue to provide affordable housing through the land trust model but as a land bank we work collaboratively with other afford housing non profits in the city and the region to create a strategic plan to use vacant blighted properties that we receive from the city together to provide more housing opportunities for families in Richmond.

For Freda Green Bolling, the house she bought in 2006 was a game changer. The process was long and steep, she worked two jobs and had to get out of bankruptcy.

Bolling: My stuff was tore up from the floor up...

There were times she wanted to quit, but her loan officer pushed her on.

Bolling: So I wrote the letter explaining how life had come… I signed my contract in January, my bankruptcy was discharged in February, I closed on my house in April and I didn’t have a Plan B. Every step of the way, I kept saying ‘I have my house, I have my house.’

Being a homeowner isn’t just about stability, Bolling says, but also being rooted in a community. Within months, she was certified to teach homebuyer classes, which she still does more than a decade later.

Bolling: My teaching the class is my way of paying it forward, because whatever you sow you’re going to reap.

Bolling, Knopf and other advocates also say housing focused groups can’t solve the problem of affordable housing alone. The quality of education, good wages and transit options also play important roles in who can access safe and affordable housing, whether one’s renting or achieving the dream of home ownership. For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.