In spite of the real estate crash that continues to be felt around the country, many regions still struggle with housing affordability for large parts of the workforce. Tighter access to mortgages and federal housing program cuts have challenged communities to get creative and forward-thinking about solutions to residents’ housing needs.
Fortunately, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
When the federal government first withdrew funding from housing and community development in the 1980s and interest rates were in the double digits, the small city of Burlington, VT, turned to what was then a very new and relatively untested model to address its housing needs: the community land trust (CLT). The city helped citizens establish the Burlington CLT, now known as the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT).
What started out as a strange idea has become a beloved local institution tested through 30 years of up and down markets. CHT touches the lives of thousands of people per year and pumps millions of dollars into Burlington’s local economy. Today, CHT is the nation’s largest CLT. CHT’s 2,600 permanently affordable homes, which range from single rooms to single-family homes, provide citizens with security, mobility, and opportunity.
Most of CHT’s homes are rental housing serving the city’s workforce, as well as people on fixed incomes, but CHT’s 530 shared-equity homes provide an innovative way to boost people into homeownership. Shared-equity homeownership, a singular innovation of CHT, has won the UN World Habitat Award. Through shared-equity homeownership, CHT boosts low-income renters into affordable and sustainable homeownership. CHT recycles an initial subsidy to subsequent buyers with no additional public subsidy, through resale restrictions. Two thirds of CHT’s sellers go on to buy in the private market, and as a group their rate of foreclosure is more than ten times less than what you see in the market.
CHT’s ability to create a continuum of housing choice grew out of a strong partnership with the city of Burlington. The city’s contributions included policy initiatives, ordinances, and direct investments. Most importantly, the city enacted a policy to direct all city-controlled housing dollars to permanently affordable housing. Burlington’s direct investments include all the federal sources available to cities and counties like HUD CDBG and HOME, and infrastructure improvements coordinated with CHT’s neighborhood revitalization activities.
CHT serves the three-county region surrounding Burlington, in addition to serving the city. CHT invites all citizens in the region to become members who annually elect the board of directors. The board includes residents of CLT homes, representatives of local government, and advocates for lower-income citizens, renters, and neighborhood associations. This model has helped CHT garner policy support over the past three decades. The “big tent” structure of the CHT — with all citizens invited to become members — has brought together broad public support for a range of ordinances passed by the city to protect vulnerable residents and promote production of permanently affordable housing. Burlington has created a housing trust fund funded by a penny on the property tax, and has adopted a housing replacement ordinance, inclusionary zoning, condo conversion protections, and tenant protections.
CHT’s target neighborhood in Burlington is visibly improved and private investment and homeownership have increased there. The homeownership model has been embraced by local banks and credit unions, realtors, brokers, and the community at large. Today, the city of Burlington has a vital economy and frequently wins livability awards.
CHT has also built support for affordable housing and brought income diversity and much-needed rental housing to more expensive suburbs.
Throughout the nation, there are now more than 200 CLTs addressing the needs of their regions. CHT has helped spread the model worldwide, with CLTs underway in London, Brussels, and as far as Australia. Together, CLTs point the way to a 21st century local housing solution with global potential.