Keeping it in the Community: Discussions with Miriam Avins and Jim Kelly on Land Trusts in Baltimore

Keeping it in the Community: Discussions with Miriam Avins and Jim Kelly on Land Trusts in Baltimore

Miriam Avins in here Waverly Garden

Amidst the mega-gentrification of cities in the U.S. and around the world, community leaders are frantically searching for ways to put the brakes on development projects that don’t consider the needs of existing residents. Community land trusts may be a step in the right direction. A land trust is an agreement in which one party holds the ownership of a piece of land for the benefit of the other. However, in a city like Baltimore, where promises from local government officials and developers often seem half-hearted at most, some might be skeptical of the potential for such measures to take root. Miriam Avins and Jim Kelly are both working to implement long-term land trust programs in Baltimore. I corresponded with them by e-mail to shed some light on the subject. Part 1: Miriam Avins, Baltimore Green Space How did you get involved in the effort to create a land trust program in Baltimore? Five years ago, I worked with my neighbors to create a community vegetable garden in Better Waverly, on a lot where the city government had recently demolished a fire-damaged house. Homestead Harvest quickly became one of the major places where community members could work and socialize together, as well as a source of fresh, organic vegetables that members often shared with friends and people walking by. But we’ve had a few problems: we couldn’t get water turned on, and the lot’s owner—who hadn’t taken care of the property in years and owed the City a pile of money—could have sold the lot at any time. These are both problems that a land trust can help solve. Baltimore Green Space is focused solely on community-managed open spaces. That means community gardens, pocket parks, horseshoe pits—any space that is taken care of by people in the neighborhood. Communities that feel they could benefit from what the land trust has to offer—security that the site will not be sold for development, liability insurance, better access to water, and stewardship—can apply to have their green spaces included in the land trust. The idea is to respond to communities’ interest in sustaining their public open spaces. What are community-managed open spaces used for? Some community-managed open spaces are vegetable gardens. Others are quiet places to sit, or gardens that beautify street corners. A tree park in Reservoir Hill is the site of an annual fair. A sculpture garden in Waverly, with sculptures by neighborhood kids, is a lovely spot for community celebrations. A horseshoe pit in Pigtown hosts an annual tournament that brings in players from around Maryland, as well as casual games. Every space has its own mix of uses. What are some of the functional benefits of these community-managed open spaces? Community-managed open spaces provide social and environmental benefits to neighborhoods. For the activists who make these spaces, I think that the social benefits are probably the ones they think about most. For example, many vacant lots have been greened as a way to clean up and deter dumping or drug use, often with the help of organizations such as the Parks and People Foundation and Bon Secours. In the process of doing the work, neighbors get to know each other, and also learn how to bring outside resources into their neighborhoods. The more a space is used, the more eyes are on the street, making it safer. And there’s research to show that plants and trees improve people’s wellbeing. If the space grows food, then more people will be able to have fresh vegetables—and most gardeners share. All of these things strongly improve a neighborhood’s livability. At the same time, the green spaces are good for the city as an ecosystem. For example, rain that falls in a green space isn’t falling onto paved surfaces. So it doesn’t run into the street, washing trash and pollution into the Bay. Instead, the rain soaks into the ground. Trees help cool the community, and even if there are no trees, the space will be cooler than the surrounding pavement or a roof. And any food grown right here in Baltimore reduces the greenhouse gasses pumped into the sky when our tomatoes or cabbage come from 1,000 miles away. All this adds up to do-it-yourself environmental action: neighborhoods without good access to green places, space for recreation, and fresh vegetables have created their own. The role of Baltimore Green Space is to provide the legal mechanisms to ensure that these grass-roots amenities are not lost. One benefit that you have mentioned before is the effect that community-managed green space can have on property values. Could you explain that? There’s been some recent research that documents how green space enhances property values. This research is important for two reasons. First, some people worry that community-managed open spaces will reduce their property values; so it is helpful to put that concern to sleep. Second, cities traditionally need to receive property taxes on all lots, and so a lot in use as open space is seen as a lot not paying its way. The new research helps show that green spaces do a great job of reversing the effect of blighted lots on housing, at the same time that they are providing social and environmental benefits. Many community-managed open spaces are in places where people have created beauty because they didn’t want to live with blight. It’s not surprising that other people also prefer beauty to blight, and so are more likely to choose to live where blight has been eliminated. This is something that I think most people understand intuitively, but for government policymakers, who often need to reduce complex issues to a statement of costs and benefits, it is helpful to have the research that spells this out. We hear a lot of familiar terms when developers and city officials talk about greening space: social capital, strategic development, land banking. These are terms that many people associate with gentrification. Is there any concern that this process (of greening space and creating open space land trusts) might be abused in a way that it could contribute the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods—for example, increased property taxes and middle-class-oriented revitalization initiatives? By responding to communities that want to see their community-managed open spaces in a land trust, Baltimore Green Space can contribute to communities’ self-determination. Sometimes greening is seen as an interim use of land that will eventually be redeveloped. That may be a fine thing—but it’s not what Baltimore Green Space is for. The land trust will preserve community-managed open space for the long haul. All communities need access to green space, and when activists in low-income neighborhoods take matters into their own hands to create green space, I don’t think they are worried about gentrification. For example, the site of the Duncan Street Garden, a large vegetable garden in East Baltimore, sits where all the houses on both sides of a narrow street had been demolished. This was once the site of dumping, rapes, and other crimes, according to one of the men who works in the garden. Now the garden is safe enough that people come and work alone and more people eat well. As a land trust, Baltimore Green Space works to ensure that communities facing development pressure don’t lose their precious green spaces. To a developer, green space looks like vacant land. As one activist in Philadelphia put it, “When developers come, they often destroy the gardens and then wonder why the neighborhood is not as vibrant as they remember.” What do you see as the role of the city government in the creation of a land trust program? Who really owns the property, if the city is providing financial support? There are good reasons to partner with government. Baltimore Green Space will be far more effective at preserving community-managed open spaces if it works cooperatively with city government, which is such a major owner of undeveloped properties. The basic model is borrowed from Chicago’s NeighborSpace land trust, which was actually formed by government, because of its own concerns that there wasn’t enough open space in the city, and now protects more than 60 gardens. And yes, NeighborSpace does receive government funding. In contrast, Baltimore Green Space was founded by four community gardeners who were concerned for the future of the gardens they work in. I think that Baltimore is ready to follow a model like Chicago’s because there’s a growing understanding of the need for varied land uses and green spaces, and recognition that community greeners bring resources to Baltimore’s neighborhoods in an effective way. It’s very encouraging to work on this project at a time when city government increasingly prizes the social and environmental benefits that residents create when they pick up a spade and plant trees, flowers, or tomatoes. No matter how Baltimore Green Space is supported, the land trust will protect the green spaces it owns on behalf of the communities that create and sustain them. Miriam Avins is the President of Baltimore Green Space. She can be reached by telephone on 443-695-7504, or by e-mail on bgreenspace@gmail.com Part 2: Jim Kelly, Charm City Land Trust What is a land trust and where does the idea come from? How did you get interested in this? Generally speaking, a land trust is an organization designed to hold or control land perpetually or a very long time for some purpose. Community land trusts and conservation land trusts are non-profit organizations that control land for a publicly beneficial purpose. Community land trusts typically have democratically elected boards to guarantee community control of land resources, especially for affordable homeownership. Although CLTs claim a 40-year history, the movement did not really move forward until about 1980. Conservation land trusts often have self-selecting boards of directors to ensure common commitment to the ideals of preserving land in its natural state. Their history is significantly longer. I became involved with the Community Land Trust movement in 1988 through my friendship with Chuck Matthei, a founder and leader in the movement. I helped form the New Columbia Community Land Trust in Washington, DC in 1990 and am now working with the Charm City Land Trusts, Inc., here in Baltimore. It seems that most of the discussion around community land trusts deals with “green spaces” and beautification efforts, and some people are concerned that these initiatives will ultimately be used as yet another tool for the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods. What about Affordable Housing Trusts? Are there working examples of land trusts that actually safeguard affordable housing and those residents who want to improve their neighborhoods without being forced out by speculators and rising property taxes? Actually, I would say that the creation and preservation of permanently affordable homes has been the mainstay of the Community Land Trust movement. I would refer you to the Institute for Community Economics website and the Burlington Associates website for further information. CLTs have been especially popular in gentrifying areas (e.g. northwest D.C.) and areas with high land values and low wage bases (attractive coastal areas, academic areas such as Rochester, Minnesota). In Baltimore, we have chosen to focus on open space first as a means of responding to immediate needs and opportunities for community beautification; CCLT is also committed to providing stewardship over permanently affordable homes. Let’s say that a large portion of the land that Johns Hopkins is currently developing in Middle East Baltimore had become a Community Land Trust before the project was approved. Would the outcome have been different for those residents who were displaced by the development project, or can a land trust still be acquired by the city, state, or federal government through tactics like eminent domain? Although my answer is “no” in the context in which you have placed the question, I think the question is very interesting. Prof. Nancy McLaughlin has a new draft article about the condemnation of conservation easements . I think non-profit land trusts can be deprived of their ownership rights through eminent domain as readily as any person or party, but conservation land trusts often do not own the land they protect. Often, they only control the right to prevent development on the land. It’s not absolutely clear what happens to this commitment to not develop land when the government acquires it by force. Are there any existing community housing trusts in Baltimore? Charm City Land Trusts, Inc., (Baltimore) and Gateway Community Development Corporation (Mt. Ranier) are the two groups listed as CLTs on the ICE website . Neither of us have any single-family homes under permanent resale restrictions because, among other reasons, we are trying to get a law passed that will allow us to enforce, through a ground lease, a subsidized homeowner’s promise to pass the good deal on when she decides it’s time to move out. Currently, the law in Maryland allows single-family homeowners to buy their way out of ground leases. We will be going back to the legislature in the years ahead to explain the importance of allowing CLTs to operate in Maryland as they do in other states. Do you believe Baltimore will become a city where residents can establish large-scale affordable housing trusts in the near future? Right now, I think there is an enormous challenge with regard to financial resources and the real estate downturn should lessen concerns about gentrification displacement. That being said, I think the current attention to the creation of a land bank authority and the inclusive housing system in Baltimore makes an affordable housing land trust a natural next step. Chicago is now requiring that all its new significantly subsidized homeownership units be put into a citywide land trust to stay affordable forever. Charm City Land Trusts is focused on establishing community control of land for a particular group of neighborhoods in East Baltimore, but we are looking to partner with nonprofit developers interested in creating perpetually affordable homeownership opportunities in those communities. Jim Kelly may be contacted by telephone on (410) 837-5649 or by e-mail at JimK@communitylaw.org. Endnotes 1. http://www.iceclt.org/clt. 2. http://www.burlingtonassociates.com. 3. McLaughlin, Nancy A., “Condemning Conservation Easements: Protecting the Public Interest and Investment in Conservation,” UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 41, p. 1897, 2008—available on the Internet at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1136963.