Can Community Land Trusts help Inwood Keep Affordable Housing?

HOST INTRO: Inwood is a rarity. The neighborhood at the tip of Manhattan is full of rent stabilized apartments and working class families. Mayor Bill De Blasio sees this neighborhood as an opportunity to build affordable housing. He’s far from the first mayor to address New York’s housing crisis. But he has a new plan: rezone neighborhoods to encourage private development and then mandate that they include below-market units. In Inwood, the community wants a greater say in how the land will be used. Some are proposing a community land trust that will take the land off of the free market. Devin Briski has more. (0:37)


BRISKI 1: Normally, the Inwood Public Library is filled with whispers and librarians reminding patrons to stay quiet. The loudest sound you’ll hear is a magazine page turning. It’s the last place you’d expect to hear yelling. But now, the library is a hotbed of controversy and noise.


ESMAELI 1: You never have an answer to this question. You always say the library’s going to be owned publicly but the rest of the land is going to be given away to a developer. That’s unacceptable! Why can you not answer this question? What is the ownership structure of this plan? (0:14)


BRISKI 2: That’s Inwood resident Korouss Esmaeli. A video clip captured a showdown between him and Inwood City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez over the future of the library. Now, the library is a boxy grey brick building with three stories. But if the De Blasio Administration has its way, it will be rezoned—growing to accommodate anywhere from ten to seventeen stories. The City requested proposals from developers to build affordable housing on top of the existing building. This is the latest of several attempts to rezone and develop the neighborhood over the past two years. And residents like Cheryl Pahaham are angry.


PAHAHAM 1: When the mayor started talking about rezoning, I started posting on Facebook about it. (0:08)


BRISKI 3: Frustrated posts. Pahaham has lived in Inwood for over a decade. She’s active in local politics. Her Twitter profile describes her as an “incorruptible public servant”—one who’s currently worried about displacement.


PAHAHAM 2: Because this area is really a working class community. And it’s a place where people can still afford to pay rent. We have almost 90% of our apartments that are rent stabilized. And that’s a very big deal. (0:16)


BRISKI 4: She’s right. According to data from the Furman Center at NYU 86% of apartments in Inwood are rent stabilized. So Pahaham helped start a group called Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale to fight new development. Last fall, it protested another proposed development project in Inwood—Sherman Plaza, a luxury highrise sound from protest. Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez made a surprise appearance to announce he’d vote against the rezoning.


RODRIGUEZ 1: At this moment I will not be supporting the rezoning * cheers* (0:07)

BRISKI 5: But rezoning is how De Blasio plans to encourage affordable housing development. And many residents agree that truly affordable housing is needed. They just don’t trust private developers. They say what De Blasio has proposed isn’t affordable to them. So some community members have an idea—a compromise: give the land to us, as a community land trust. Inwood resident Cheryl Pahaham again.


PAHAHAM 3: Community Land Trusts: As soon as you say those words, it sounds enticing. Especially in a context where the developers are taking over every inch of available space in New York City and people really feel threatened. So community land trust just sounds like the sugar plum fairy is coming. (0:19)

BRISKI 6: But what is a community land trust? It’s a complicated ownership structure. Tenants, community leaders and housing experts from a board of directors. They make decisions together about how to use the land. They are stewards of the land—making sure it’s serving the interests of the community not of private developers. Tom Angotti teaches urban policy and planning at CUNY. He says these trusts take the profit motive out of land which makes it cheaper for renters.


ANGOTTI 1: It’s taking off the table option of reselling land for a profit which lowers its price of course. If it can’t be resold for a profit then it really has no value on the market. CUT (0:22)


BRISKI 7: So housing costs are much lower because no one’s trying to make a profit off the land. There’s currently only one other land trust that provides housing in New York City. But community land trusts are not new. There are over 200 of them in America. The first trust has roots in civil rights era Georgia. Its goal was to give former sharecroppers land security. There’s even a documentary about it – Arc of Justice. Here’s Congressman John Lewis in the documentary’s trailer.


LEWIS 1: It was a growing feeling on the part of so many individuals and leaders within the movement that if you had your own piece of land, you could do things — you wouldn’t be dependent on others. (0:20)


BRISKI 8: The Georgia trust survived for 15 years but eventually went bankrupt. The trust’s farmers needed a new irrigation system and couldn’t get access to credit. Still the idea lived on. One city in America has relied on trusts for over thirty years. Burlington, Vermont – ever since Mayor Bernie Sanders allocated funding to establish a land trust in the 80s. Today, nearly one in 10 housing units in Burlington is located on a land trust. Tom Angotti says the idea took hold in New York City during the 1970s…


ANGOTTI 1: When there was a lot of abandoned land and a lot of abandoned buildings—there was a major disinvestment in New York City by property owners, and that led people to spontaneously think about alternatives of managing their own housing. (0:21)


BRISKI 9: Alternatives like community land trusts. That’s when residents of Cooper Square on the Lower East Side began fighting the city for control over the public land they lived on. It’s easy to form a trust, but hard to get the land. After decades of struggle, they succeeded in 1991 with a friendly policy from Mayor Dinkins. Pahaham says for land trusts to work, they need government buy in. In New York, that means from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development—HPD.


PAHAHAM 4: A lot of people are like “Well we can form a trust without—we don’t need HPD!” Yes we do. We need HPD. They can make our lives miserable, they complicate things. Or they can assist us, aid us, and facilitate. CUT (0:14)


BRISKI 10: And some in city government are facilitating. Recently, HPD says it will consider proposals from community land trusts for the library alongside private developers. Alan Leung has worked on both sides of the equation: in graduate school, he studied land trusts. Now, he’s a project manager at a for-profit housing developer that focuses on affordable housing. He says there can be advantages to working with a for-profit developer.


LEUNG 1: A lot of times without an ownership stake or without the benefits accruing to a private owner, it can be difficult to incentivize the quality of development that one would hope for. (0:13)


BRISKI 11: Leung says private developers have access to more money so they can design higher quality buildings. But back in Inwood, residents are focused on affordable rent—most of them that is. At a meeting last week at a local church, they argued about the community land trust proposal. Activist Marshall Douglas said most of the community hadn’t been consulted about the plan.


DOUGLAS 1: What’s clear is this whole ambitious outline is not endorsed by the majority of the people.


BRISKI 12: Some at the meeting said long-term affordability should be the priority, while many wanted no changes to the library at all. HPD has yet to announce when it will be responding to proposals. The Mayor’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment. For now, all Inwood residents can do is wait. And make some more noise.
Devin Briski, Columbia Radio News.

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