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Land trusts seen as tool to combat rising costs

By STEVE BOHNEL

sbohnel@newspost.com

When it comes to affordable housing in Frederick County, Alan Feinberg believes one factor is vital to improving that issue.

“If we’re talking about affordable housing, if you don’t have to own the ground you’re sitting on, a lot more people could afford to live where they want to live, instead of having to commute to hell and back,” said Feinberg, a longtime community planner and western Maryland representative of the state chapter of the American Planning Association.

Feinberg was referring to a community land trust, a tool used by local nonprofits and communities nationwide to combat the rise in land and housing prices.

Locally, Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County has established an Affordable Housing Land Trust Program. Jennifer Minnick, housing director for Habitat for Humanity, said seven homes are currently in the program countywide.

Under a land trust, the group that operates the trust owns the land, and then the homebuyer buys the property itself. The practice is meant to reduce the barrier of rising land values.

Under Habitat for Humanity’s program — the first one in Maryland — the nonprofit buys run-down homes, homes (See LAND A7)

Feinberg

(Continued from A1) needing repair or those available at an affordable rate. Then, the home is renovated and sold as an affordable housing unit. Minnick said the program started in 2013, after the state passed the Affordable Housing Land Trust Act in 2010.

According to that act, the land trust must be run by a nonprofit or with the state. Minnick said Habitat for Humanity’s board members currently run the local land trust.

She added the land trust provides long-term affordability for properties — homeowners enter a 99year renewable lease with the land trust, and pay an annual fee to help it maintain its operations. That fee is $600 annually, Minnick said.

“Whenever a house goes into this program, it stays affordable for 99 years-plus,” Minnick said. “So say the next homeowner decides to sell their house, and it needs to be sold to another income-qualified buyer that qualifies for the program, and because it’s a shared equity program, the prices of those houses always stay affordable.”

County Councilman Kai Hagen (D) spoke at the county’s Affordable Housing Council meeting earlier this month in support of the county looking at land trust models to combat the lack of affordable housing.

He said in an interview last week that communities nationwide have set up land trusts differently, but that all of them try to reduce barriers to high land costs.

Land trusts could be valuable parts of the solution, but not the entire fix, Hagen added.

“We have a significant and growing affordable housing problem,” Hagen said. “We are not going to solve it with any one thing, whether it’s impact fees, or planning and zoning, or other incentives, or land trusts. We need to look at all the pieces.”

Land trusts have been studied extensively, including by Ed Dodson, who worked in management and analyst capacities at Fannie Mae, the government-controlled mortgage loan company, from 1984 to 2005.

Dodson wrote a study titled “Scattered-Site Properties and Community Land Trusts: A Strategy for Expanding the Supply of Permanently Affordable Housing” for the Center for the Study of Economics in 2008.

In that study, Dodson noted there were about 250 community land trusts scattered nationwide at that time, the largest one with 2,000 homes in Burlington, Vermont. He added land trusts don’t have to be interconnected, like other affordable housing models.

“No special zoning or density variances are required by the government, and the properties will be scattered within existing communities rather than concentrated, as is now the case with most subsidized housing,” Dodson wrote.

Feinberg said there needs be an expansion of land trusts countywide, and that local nonprofits and similar organizations need to work together toward that expansion.

One of those organizations is the Interfaith Housing Alliance in Frederick, which seeks to improve local affordable housing options. Jodie Ostoich, its executive director, said local organizations need to meet with Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to explore more community land trust options.

Like Hagen, however, she said land trusts are only part of the solution.

“I think this is probably going to be a vast combination of things, not simply a land trust or LIHTC [low income housing tax credit],” Ostoich said. “It’s going to have to be a combination of affordable home units and rental units.”

She and Minnick said one of the main challenges of establishing a land trust and expanding it is cost. Minnick said the startup costs for Habitat’s land trust totaled $116,000, and the rehabilitation of the initial four homes cost an additional $440,500.

Whatever future land trusts could happen, Feinberg said that and affordable housing remain a critical issue in the county.

“There shouldn’t be a reason in the world if you want to be in a place ... you’re not forced out as the economics changes and as your lifestyle changes,” he said.

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

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