Can This Radical Form Of Affordable Housing Development Make Cities More Livable?

By linking housing costs to income level, not market rates, community land trusts combat gentrification and create permanent affordable housing. As a big project opens in London, can other cities follow?

Can This Radical Form Of Affordable Housing Development Make Cities More Livable?
[Photo: TomasSereda/iStock]

When St. Clement’s Hospital, a psychiatric institution, shuttered its doors in London in 2005, it entered the waiting period for its inevitable next phase of existence in a housing-strapped city: conversion into apartments. Unlike most Victorian-era workhouses, which were designed with utility, not aesthetics, in mind, the 1848 St. Clement’s building is architecturally stunning–tall ceilings and marble pillars support expansive views over the whole city. It was a property developer’s dream, and soon after the psychiatric facility relocated to another site in East London, the Greater London Authority (GLA), which owned the building, sold it to Galliford Try, a company with successful history of developing luxury units.


But another, more radical group also had its eye on the property. The East London Community Land Trust, with the help of the activist group Citizens UK, campaigned for a decade to establish St. Clement’s as the site of London’s first community land trust (CLT).

[Photo: Johan Mouchet via Unsplash]

Community land trusts operate around the principle that housing is a necessity, not a financial asset. CLTs are member-driven nonprofits that, using a combination of public and private funds, buy up property and place it into community ownership. Then the CLTs lease properties at rates that are tied not to market forces, but to local incomes; CLTs calculate prices by taking one-third of the local median wage, multiplying it by the standard 25-year mortgage rate of 5.5%, and adding a 10% deposit rate. It’s a model that’s designed to apply in perpetuity: If tenants decide to leave the property, they must sell it at a price that remains pegged to income, foregoing the personal financial benefits of a rapidly appreciating housing market.

In 2014, with the political backing of then-Mayor Boris Johnson, the GLA encouraged the East London CLT and Galliford Try to collaborate on a plan for the site. This month, tenants will move into the 23 CLT units in St. Clement’s. While the 23 CLT units in the St. Clement’s property are just under a third of the development’s 35% affordable quota, and an even smaller fraction of the total 252 homes, they carve out a permanently affordable bastion in the rapidly gentrifying area.

[Photo: kuczin/iStock]

The East London CLT-owned properties are interspersed throughout the St. Clement’s buildings, indistinguishable from the traditionally developed units. But they differ dramatically in cost. While one-bedroom apartments in the rest of the St. Clement’s property will start at around $556,000 (£450,000), CLT one-bedrooms will go for around $161,000 (£130,000)–less than half the market rate–to accommodate people earning between $28,000 and $55,000 per year (£22,500 and £45,000).

In London, whose housing industry is producing units at only half the rate necessary to sustain any semblance of affordability, the East London CLT is hopeful that it will serve as a foundational model for other such ventures, which have the potential to act as permanent bulwarks against the pervasive forces of gentrification in the city. Even in the city’s traditionally poorer areas, like Mile End, housing is slipping out of the grasp of lower-income residents.

In 2010, in an effort to increase affordability, the London government introduced an affordable rent program that would set aside a fraction of larger, more expensive development for units leased at 80% of the market value. But that still levels out to around $430 (£350) per week–much too high for people earning less than $50,000 per year. Dave Smith, the former executive director of the East London CLT wrote in the Guardian that affordable housing in London “is rarely genuinely affordable in the first instance, and, second, it is almost never structurally affordable over time.” CLTs, he added, could be a solution.


The East London CLT is the capital’s first such development, and it’s likely not to be the last. After being imported from the U.S in 2006, the organizations have exploded across the U.K. in recent years, growing from 36 groups in 2010 to more than 255 now, and accounting for more than 700 homes. While CLTs initially took root in middle-class rural towns in the U.K. as a way to re-animate communities and preserve stability, interest in the model has spread to urban areas in recent years. Housing and planning expert Stephen Hill told the Guardian that CLTs “have the potential to be a hugely disruptive force. They allow people to say ‘the land market doesn’t work in this area, so we’re going to get together and change it.'”

It’s an idea that has driven the development of CLTs since the concept was first conceived in 1969. Born out of the civil rights movement and the desire for economic independence and control, an African-American group in rural Georgia established New Communites, Inc. as the first CLT. From there, the model spread to American cities like Burlington, Vermont, and Boston, where the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative formed in 1984 to revitalize an area of the city plagued by disinvestment.

The organization, which still operates today, transformed vacant lots into quality affordable housing, and established member-run gardens, playgrounds, and new businesses. The “classic” community land trust model takes the rough structure of a contained, intentional area managed by a board of local resident-members, Melora Hiller, CEO of CLT-advocacy organization Grounded Solutions Network, told Co.Exist in an interview. However, the CLT model is adaptable to a variety of circumstances and locations–the fact that the East London CLT is integrated with a larger development is not the norm, Hiller says, but it also doesn’t preclude the efficacy of the organization.

[Photo: David East via Unsplash]

Especially as urban areas become increasingly unaffordable, Hiller expects that CLTs will adapt to work within that framework. The early CLTs, like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, were established when some swaths of urban land were still very cheap, and as a result, were able to gain control of a whole area. Now, some CLTs operate as part of a city’s inclusionary zoning requirement, merging, like the East London CLT, with other developments.

In recent years, Hiller says that she has seen the interest in community land trusts take off. Many of the calls to the Grounded Solutions Network come from city planners, who see the model as a cost-effective way to preserve affordability over time. The traditional affordable housing structure, in which city governments offer aid to tenants in the form of down-payment assistance or another subsidy, often results in the city losing money, Hiller says, as the tenant, upon selling, retains most of the appreciation value. “Governments really like community land trusts because it means they can put an investment in an affordable unit one time and it just gets recycled. The house remains affordable without them having to keep putting money into the same property,” Hiller says.

In expensive cities like Brooklyn, the recent explosion of CLT developments elsewhere in the country comes tinged with regret. Hiller met with a community development association in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood a few years ago; the director said that if they had only adopted the CLT model in some areas, they could have preserved a great deal more affordability throughout the community. Doing so now is not impossible, but, as the East London CLT demonstrates, it will take some maneuvering.


As interest in community land trusts continues to spread, Hiller says that her organization is making a concerted effort to work with cities where affordability doesn’t yet seem to be a pressing issue. “The trick with community land trusts is that they have to be able to buy up the property before the neighborhood really gets too expensive for them to afford,” Hiller says. Cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland, she adds, may now be cold markets, but when the tide turns, CLTs will be a way for them to ensure that affordability remains intact.

The CLT model, Hiller says, doesn’t resonate with everybody–the idea that people should not be able to profit off of property “is too lefty” for some people–but to those working to keep cities accessible and affordable to people not in the highest income brackets, it’s essential, Hiller says, that land be taken off the speculative market and remain a community asset.


About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.