Houston wanted to lead the nation in long-term affordable housing. Now it's backpedaling.

ByLucy Tompkins, The Texas Tribune
Monday, February 20, 2023
2015 state law on affordable housing has Mayor Turner taking a 'closer look'
The concerns stem from a 2015 law enacted by the state legislature that gives private apartment owners a tax-exempt status if they change some of their units into affordable housing.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Four years ago, as Houston recovered from Hurricane Harvey, city leaders turned to a decades-old model devised by civil rights activists and Black farmers to create permanently affordable homes at a scale and pace that no one had ever tried before.

The video above is from an ABC13 report in February about a 2015 state law on affordable housing that has Houston Mayor Turner taking a "closer look."

The city's ambitions caught the attention of housing advocates across the country.

"Mayor, I want to say the nation is excited about Houston," Assata Richards, a third-generation resident of Houston's Third Ward, told Mayor Sylvester Turner in the November 2018 City Council meeting where the project was unanimously approved.

"Houston could be the largest community land trust and a model for the nation," Richards, the new program's board chair, said. "All eyes are on Houston."

The city allocated around $60 million to help the Houston Community Land Trust create 1,100 affordable homes within five years. As housing prices in Houston skyrocketed, the land trust helped low-income residents buy homes and stay in their neighborhoods. And unlike other programs, it guarantees that even if housing prices continue to rise, these homes will always remain affordable.

But with just 136 homes in its portfolio, the land trust is nowhere near meeting its original goal. And Turner, who has made affordability a cornerstone of his mayorship and once championed the program's creation, recently pushed to cut its funding by more than half because it wasn't growing fast enough. Earlier this year, the Houston City Council voted to redirect the money to other housing initiatives that critics say provide only short-term relief and may be doomed to repeat past mistakes.

The land trust is no longer taking in applications, leaving supporters wondering how the city's zest for one of the most inventive and ambitious attempts to address its housing crisis could have faded so quickly.

"We did not get the support needed to really be as successful and as thriving as we wanted to be," Ashley Allen, the executive director of the Houston Community Land Trust, said. "This is what happens when you're trying to help those most in need, when you're trying to create systemic change, to do something that is new for a lot of people."

READ MORE: Houston public housing waitlist now accepting applications for first time since 2018

A growing housing crisis

The idea for a community land trust came at a turning point for the city.

The Houston metropolitan area is home to more than 7 million people and has long enjoyed a reputation as an affordable place to live. But about a decade ago, as its economy thrived and it became one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, that began to change.

About half of renters, who make up most of the city's residents, now spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs and may have a hard time affording food, clothing, transportation and medical care, according to 2021 census data.

Home prices have doubled over the past decade and now cost roughly twice what the average renter can afford, pushing low-income families out of their neighborhoods in the city's core as wealthier residents move in.

"Starter homes are largely gone," said Tom McCasland, former director of Houston's Housing and Community Development Department. "You used to be able to 'drive until you can afford it,' but at a certain point that model didn't work anymore."

This housing crisis was brewing in 2016 when Turner appointed McCasland, who soon realized that the city had been fighting an uphill battle for a long time. Most of the homes and rental units that the housing department had invested in over the previous decade were no longer affordable, a 2017 Houston Chronicle investigation found.

One of the city's main housing initiatives gave low-income families a loan to buy a home. After five years, the loan would be forgiven. But families in gentrifying areas struggled to keep up with their rising property taxes and would often sell their homes at market rate after the loans were forgiven and move elsewhere, fueling the same displacement the city was trying to prevent and keeping the homes out of reach for future low-income families.

There was growing pressure to do things differently, and to find a way to make the city's investments endure.

In Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood where longtime residents were increasingly being displaced, a group called the Emancipation Economic Development Council organized around a bold alternative.

McCasland met with the group and became convinced that their pitch could be an answer to the city's dilemma: a way to create housing that would remain affordable not just for five or 10 years, but for generations.

A not-so-new idea

In the 1960s, fed up with the rapid loss of Black-owned farmland and the insecurity faced by sharecroppers who lived on white-owned land, a group of civil rights activists and farmers came together to find a solution.

Inspired by agricultural cooperatives in Israel and India, they formed a nonprofit and purchased more than 5,000 acres of land outside of Albany, Georgia, creating what is widely regarded as the first community land trust in the U.S.

Families could lease portions of the land to live and farm, and the land would be held in "perpetual trust" for the benefit of the community, according to the land trust's records.

The idea soon spread from rural communities to towns and cities, where it morphed into a way to slow displacement, increase homeownership and create permanently affordable housing.

Nowadays, community land trusts are typically run by local nonprofits that sell homes to low- or moderate-income families while retaining ownership of the land. Families have to pay a low monthly fee to lease the land under their homes, but in the end the total costs are significantly lower than what they'd pay for market-rate homes.

What makes land trusts so attractive to cities grappling with a shrinking supply of affordable housing is that every time a land trust home is resold, it remains affordable, meaning a single investment in a home can benefit generations of buyers. A land trust home's appreciation is capped each year, and families agree from the outset to forgo some of the equity they might have gained in a traditional home so that the affordability they enjoyed can be shared if they move on.

That's not to say families don't build some wealth. A land trust home is often a stepping stone, and most families that sell them go on to buy traditional homes, according to a 30-year study of land trusts and similar programs.

The model has spread widely in the 50 years since it was invented. There are now more than 300 community land trusts across the U.S., including several in Texas. But Houston's ambitions far eclipsed what any other city has attempted.

Taking flight

The concept took some explaining at first, but once Houston leaders understood its potential, it seemed everyone was on board.

Both conservatives and liberals saw it as a promising way to increase the supply of affordable single-family homes while protecting the city's investments. Even groups worried about changes to their neighborhoods approved of the project, since the land trust wouldn't concentrate affordable homes in any part of the city or create new apartment complexes.

The full support of the nation's fourth-largest city promised to bring the concept of the land trust into the mainstream. It seemed to signal a shift in how big cities think about the longevity of their investments.

"We didn't have to make the argument that short-term affordability is not a solution," said Michael Brown, a consultant and lifelong advocate for community land trusts who helped design the Houston program. "Here's a major U.S. city that says, 'We're going to embrace this model because it's the right way to deliver housing and to use city resources well.' To me, that was exciting."

In November 2018, the City Council approved $1 million to start the Houston Community Land Trust as an independent nonprofit. More funds came in later, with the most significant show of commitment in 2021, when the city allocated $52.7 million for subsidies of up to $150,000 to help families buy homes anywhere in the city, which would then be added to the trust.

It was enough money for around 400 homes - one of the largest single investments a U.S. city has ever made in a community land trust.

The Houston Community Land Trust sold its first home in the summer of 2019. As word spread, people turned to the new program looking for a way to stay in their neighborhoods as rising housing prices threatened to push them out.

Gwendolyn Mitchell, who is 76 and retired, had planned to spend the rest of her life in her apartment complex for seniors in Acres Homes, the neighborhood where she's attended the same church for more than 40 years and where generations of her family have served as pastors.

But when a new owner hiked the rent by hundreds of dollars, she couldn't keep up with the costs on her fixed income. She feared this would happen again as long as she rented, but she couldn't afford to buy a home in her neighborhood and worried she would have to move elsewhere.

It was a reminder of something she'd long felt to be true: "The less you own, the less power you have," she said. "More ownership means you're part of something."

The land trust made it possible for Mitchell to stay in her neighborhood, giving her the sense of stability she had hoped for in her later years. She bought a newly-built three-bedroom house in Acres Homes, a short drive from her church, and pays about $650 a month for her mortgage and the lease to rent the land.

The land trust has also been a safety net for families churned out of short-term affordable-housing programs.

Nakisha Platt, a 47-year-old single mother who works as a medical biller, lived with her two children in an apartment complex with some affordable units for low-income families.

But after she lived there for eight years, Platt's unit was converted to market rate, and her rent eventually rose from $750 to $1,200. It was more than she could afford on her $47,000 annual income, so she and her kids moved in with her sister.

In December, with help from the land trust and another smaller grant, Platt bought a new four-bedroom home in a suburb north of Houston. The home is valued at $255,000, but through the program, she paid only $90,000.

"I've always felt, being a single parent on one income, it's not going to happen," Platt said of buying a home.

Platt's daughter and 9-month-old granddaughter live there with her. As with a traditional home, Platt can pass it down to her children, as long as they agree to the land trust's terms. If Platt decides to sell, the appreciation cap on the home will ensure it stays affordable for another low-income family.

It's impossible to tell a land trust home from any other on the block. The homes are scattered all over the city, a purposefully different approach from public housing developments that concentrated - and sometimes segregated - low-income residents in underserved neighborhoods.

More than 300 people, from children to retirees, live in Houston land trust homes. On average, they pay about $870 a month in mortgage payments and fees to the nonprofit - significantly less than the $2,250 median mortgage payment in Houston.

In keeping with the racial justice mission of the first community land trust, Houston's program has mostly served Black households led by women, a group that has faced decades of discrimination in the housing market.

But despite these successes, tensions were brewing under the surface.

"In the back of my head, the concern was always, I know that the winds shift in these democratically managed entities called municipal governments," said Brown, the consultant who helped start Houston's program. "What seemed like a good idea a while ago, how long will this go?"

Free fall

In September 2021, McCasland shocked city leaders by publicly accusing Turner of abusing his power by steering money toward a developer against the recommendation of housing staff. In a housing committee meeting, McCasland said he could no longer participate in what he felt was a "charade" of a competitive process for deciding how the city's money should be used.

Turner denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations "puzzling, inflated and wrong," and fired McCasland immediately.

Although his firing had nothing to do with the land trust, McCasland's sudden absence was felt by the fledgling program. McCasland had helped bridge the gulf between the city and the nonprofit, which relies heavily on the city's financial and political support.

In the year that followed, the land trust grew at a sluggish pace, adding an average of four homes a month instead of the expected 15. Some of the delays had to do with its own growing pains and an especially competitive housing market, but the city had also failed to deliver on some of its promises.

For the first couple of years, the land trust depended on the city's housing department to build the homes it sold. The city was supposed to fund the construction of 240 homes in a year, many of which could be added to the trust. Instead, just 59 homes have been completed since 2018.

About 30 of those homes had been added to the land trust when families began reporting all kinds of issues. Builders had buried trash in the yards, making it impossible for families to plant gardens. Roofs leaked, floors warped and sewage came up through the bathtub and sink faucets. The homes had so many problems that in late 2021, the land trust stopped allowing its clients to buy them.

Houston's housing department said it has made changes to improve the quality of new homes, like establishing stronger construction standards, setting stricter timelines and cutting ties with bad contractors. It did not give a reason for why construction was slower than hoped.

After those problems, the land trust focused entirely on offering subsidies to help low-income buyers purchase homes already on the market. But every applicant had to be approved by both the land trust and the city's housing department, a back-and-forth that often took months.

Last fall, Allen, the land trust's executive director, went to Turner for help. In September, the land trust was allowed to approve applications on its own, and the approval process immediately started to pick up.

But ultimately it made no difference. A month later, Allen was notified that the housing department planned to dramatically reduce the land trust's funding - from $52 million to $24 million.

The $28 million that the land trust is losing will instead go toward meeting a new housing goal that Turner announced in September: building 3,000 single-family homes - some affordable, some market rate - by the time he leaves office at the end of this year. About 700 homes have been completed already, according to the housing department.

The land trust only serves people below a certain income level, and city leaders say that by redirecting the program's funding, they're trying to provide housing for a broader range of people.

City Council member Tiffany Thomas, who directs the housing committee, said families that earn too much to qualify for the program but still can't afford a market-rate home should also receive help.

The cut to the land trust's funding suggests a shift in how city leaders are prioritizing long-term affordability.

Unlike the land trust's investments, the homes funded through the city's other initiatives are not required to stay affordable beyond five or 10 years. Thomas said the time limits on other housing programs' affordability protections are intended to give people freedom to keep or sell their homes once their loans are forgiven. Extending the number of years before they can sell their property at market rate would be predatory, she said.

"We have to make sure all those options are available with the very limited funding we have," Thomas said. "But the relationship with land trust continues to stand. The form of it may change, but the relationship is still there."

On Nov. 15, more than a dozen housing advocates, community members and developers that work with the land trust asked city leaders to reconsider the funding cut.

"We all agree that we need to build more affordable housing at all pricing points," Elaine Morales, a board member for the land trust, told council members. "But putting units on the ground without adequate affordability protections ... only contributes to our affordability crisis down the line."

Turner pushed back, saying the land trust is one of many tools for creating affordable homes.

"We set aside over $50 million for the CLT, and quite frankly it's for housing, to put people in housing," he said. "Not just to bankroll or to take $50 million and put it on the shelf."

When the land trust uses all of its money, it can ask the city for more, Turner added. "They do more, they get more."

In December, the land trust added 14 homes - the most yet in one month. It added another 11 in January.

But lawmakers were not swayed. On Jan. 25, the Houston City Council approved the reduction in the land trust's funding. Allen expects the program to run out of money to buy new homes by this spring.

Looking ahead

On a recent sunny afternoon, Allen drove through the historic Acres Homes neighborhood in northwest Houston.

Named for the acre of land buyers used to get with their houses, it was once the largest unincorporated African American community in the southern U.S. Turner grew up and still lives in the neighborhood, where his parents bought a house in 1954.

Although it's only 20 minutes from downtown, Acres Homes still feels like a rural enclave. But the neighborhood is changing.

Home prices there have risen 40% in the past two years. The changes are visible in the jarring combination of overgrown, wooded lots and boxy new developments that tower over the area's single-story homes.

Every now and then, Allen pointed out the car window to the homes that the land trust has turned into islands of affordability. Over the past few years, the program has helped more than 50 low-income families afford homes in the neighborhood.

"If it wasn't working and it wasn't getting the results that were intended, that's one thing," Allen said. "But we're actually getting people who normally wouldn't be able to afford the rental market or the housing market into some permanently affordable housing."

The land trust will continue to help families stay in the homes it manages, but whether it will be able to grow to the size that leaders first envisioned will depend on its ability to get more funding - from the city of Houston or elsewhere.

For now, Allen said she'll have faith in Turner's promise that when the land trust's money runs out, the city of Houston will be ready to give it more. And despite the challenges, Allen is proud of what the program has accomplished. Other cities have taken decades to achieve what the Houston Community Land Trust has in a few years.

But the program's leaders still feel the work is unfinished and lament that enthusiasm for the program has dwindled. Third Ward, the neighborhood where the idea to create a community land trust in Houston originated, doesn't have a single home under the program, partly because home prices there have soared so far out of reach for low-income families that even the land trust's $150,000 subsidies are not enough.

"It is tragic and devastating in so many ways, because when you drive through Third Ward you see the necessity and you see the missing people," said Richards, the land trust's board chair and one of the Third Ward residents who first organized to start the program on her neighborhood's behalf.

"I'm not discouraged, but I am mournful," she said. "And I am aware of the slipping opportunity."

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