A group of urban planners, academics and housing advocates hope to create a community land trust for East Harlem in an attempt to make not create increase options for real affordable housing options.
Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of residents, community representatives and housing and community development professionals. The trusts own land and lease it with the aim of building affordable housing.
“The incredible thing about community land trusts is that they ensure permanent affordability,” said Ryan Hickey, a housing organizer from Picture the Homeless, which aims to end homelessness. “Because they take land out of the private market and puts that land into community control, the community has the last word on what sort of housing development will be built.”
East Harlem is particularly in need of housing that is affordable to its residents. Its household median income, at $31,444, is below the target income for affordable housing in New York City, which is between $34,360 and $150,325, according to the 2012 U.S. Census.
George Gallego, a member of the Housing Committee of Community Board District 11, said that means that “the so-called affordable units that exist are not every affordable to the people in the community.”
Gallego noted that 46 of 247 units at 1214 5th Ave., about 20 percent, are set aside for East Harlem residents and are labeled as affordable. The remaining units are market rates: “The three-bedroom apartments are for $10,000 per month, two bedrooms $7,000 per month, the one-bedroom is for $5,000 per month, and the studio for $3,000 per month,” he said. But with a community land trust, he said, “a development will give us control of what’s created on the land, and we’d be able to decide on how much it would cost to rent it. For example, instead of 20 percent affordable units, let’s make it 80 percent.”
According to a Banking on Vacancy report published by Picture the Homeless, Community District 11 has 96 vacant building and 47 vacant lots, with the potential of housing more than 9,200 people.
Several urban planning and housing academics from Hunter College, Columbia University, City College and the CUNY Graduate Center are proposing the trust with Picture the Homeless, and New Economy Project. The trust, the New York City Community Land Initiative, does not yet have funding and the proposal to create it “is being run by organizations sort of on their own behalf,” said Hickey.
Community Board District 11 teamed up with The Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy group, and determined that community land trusts could create significant affordable housing in the neighborhood, said Nicolas Ronderos, the association’s New York director. Picture the Homeless presented the East Harlem Case-Study with the land trust initiative to Community Board 11, explaining how community-owned housing can be a way to create and preserve affordable housing in East Harlem, focusing on how would it work and what would make it work. “The executive board liked the initiative,” Gallego said.
The next step is to gain the support of community residents and find the best ways for the project to be implemented. “To establish community land trusts we have to organize people and build relationships with residents and tenants in the community,” said Hickey from Picture the Homeless. “We also have to eventually educate them about how CLTs can change their situation now, starting with identifying existing problems and building interpersonal relationships.”
The idea of a community land trust has been tried before: The Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, which tries to develop and preserve affordable housing, has a community land trust on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cooper Square’s first low-income housing project was built in 1984 using Section 8 funds, which support housing payments for low-income residents.
“We only own the land, we monitor and keep an eye on housing, keeping it affordable,” said Valerio Oreselli, Cooper Square’s executive director. “We have about 351 apartments in 21 buildings, with about 330 to 340 families.”
So far, “they are the only example in the city,” Gallego said. “We’re using them as an example to figure out what the best practices are to work with.”
The East Harlem plan would have a community land trust board that owned the land, with a housing association made up of building residents, housing professionals, and members of the community land trust board that owned the housing. “We are hoping that we’ll have an organized contingent in the next few months,” said Hickey.