National Black United Front (NBUF) BLACK UNITY PRAYER VIGIL for TRAYVON MARTIN & FAMILY at The Big Chair in Anacostia,” Elvert Barnes

October 2, 2019; Washington Post

Two years ago, NPQ highlighted nascent efforts to develop a community land trust in Washington DC, focused on preventing resident displacement, especially in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. While development in those neighborhoods so far has been modest, the planned high-profile 11th Street Bridge Park is expected to change that.

The park, as Peter Jamison notes in the Washington Post, “will span the Anacostia River and feature paths for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as ample park space and entertainment venues.” The projected cost of the park, scheduled to open in 2023, is $74 million. The city will pick up $38 million of that price tag, with federal tax credits and private contributions covering the rest.

Now, the Douglass Community Land Trust, incorporated last month, is set to acquire its first property, the 65-unit Savannah apartment building in the city’s Congress Heights neighborhood. As Peter Jamison explains in the Post, the goal of developing a community land trust is to create “islands of affordability for longtime Washingtonians,” while protecting long-time residents “against gentrification before the process begins.”

“We have a chance now—east of the river and other places that haven’t yet experienced that kind of hyper-development that displaces folks—to create a plan,” community land trust executive director Ginger Rumph tells Jamison.

Tony Pickett, CEO of Grounded Solutions Network, a national association of land trusts, concurs. “If we get in early enough, during the planning stages, before infrastructure improvements are implemented, maybe we can stem some of this displacement activity that occurs,” Pickett says.

As Jamison explains, the way the Douglass Community Land Trust works is to buy and hold the deed to land beneath a building, leasing it back to a homeowner or developer, who owns the buildings. This helps make home ownership affordable to people with lower incomes—or, in the case of an apartment complex as in Congress Heights, ensures long-term rent stability.

Will the community land trust develop in time to protect the neighborhoods? That remains to be seen, but residents, who are well aware of the intense gentrification that much of the rest of the city has experienced, have been organizing to prevent a similar outcome in their neighborhoods. The fact that the land trust is acquiring its first property four years before the scheduled opening of the park is a good sign.

Kymone Freeman, managing partner of We Act Radio, a station that operates close to the proposed bridge park site, notes that activists like himself are often “very good at saying what we’re against, and not very good at saying what we’re for.” Freeman, originally a park critic, is now a member of the community land trust board.

Scott Kratz, park development project director and vice president of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, which has led an engagement process involving an estimated 1,000 community meetings, tells Jamison that the need for the community land trust is palpable, as prices already have begun to rise in anticipation of the park’s opening.

The way the first building got acquired speaks to some of the complexities. The building itself, notes tenant board association vice president Tiffany Jessup, was acquired by tenants leveraging a DC law—the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives renters a chance to purchase properties collectively from the landlord when a multi-unit building comes up for sale. (A similar law was passed in San Francisco earlier this year).

As Jamison explains, at Savannah, the tenants joined with the nonprofit National Housing Trust to buy the property for $7 million last year. Jamison adds, “The Douglass Community Land Trust, which is contributing $1.3 million to the project, will hold the deed to the land beneath the buildings, with the goal of keeping the rental units permanently affordable.”

Most units will be reserved for people earning 50 percent of local median income or less—in DC, for a four-person household, that works out to $61,000. Jessup says the land trust will help her and her parents, who have lived at Savannah for 26 years, “to stay in a place that we have called home.”—Steve Dubb