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This Land Is Your Land / Affordable housing and even parks and office space are the potential benefits of community land trusts

With pristine beaches and secluded coves, flocks of wild

birds and some of the best fishing in Long Island Sound, Fishers Island has

long been noted as an East End vacation spot.

But by the mid-1980s, soaring home prices were sending more and more

residents of the island (pop. 275) packing. A group of civic associations

decided it had had enough; the trend had to stop.

In 1986 it conducted a study and formulated strategies to stem the exodus

of year-round homeowners from the island, a short ferry ride from Orient Point.

[CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a story in Friday's real estate section

about the nonprofit housing model called community land trusts mistakenly

identified the ferry service to Fishers Island. The service runs to New London.

A02 ALL 5/17/03]

Casting about for solutions, the civic group learned about a nonprofit

housing model known as a community land trust, which places low- to

moderate-income, first-time buyers in homes for a fraction of the prevailing

market rates.

The group formed a nonprofit organization, the Walsh Park Benevolent Corp.,

and after raising $450,000 in 1987 it purchased 24 acres on the northwest part

of the 6-mile-long island. A dozen prefabricated three-bedroom houses were set

down on the site and sold to island residents, going for $65,000 to $95,000

each.

"We're at a point now on Long Island where this model has a future," said

Frank Burr, board president of Walsh Park.

Community land trusts, known as CLTs, are nonprofit, community-based

organizations that hold land for the benefit of the localities they serve. They

often provide permanent affordable housing to a segment of their constituents.

Typically, a community land trust rents or sells the home to a buyer who

fits criteria set by its community-based board. The homeowner - usually a low-

to moderate-income family - leases the land from the trust for a period

determined by the board, usually 99 years.The trust retains ownership of the

land, thus lowering the initial home price for buyers, as well as the

subsequent purchase prices. The lease is the key to keeping the property

permanently affordable by including a resale formula that limits leaseholders

to a share of the increase in the home's value when they sell. (While

specifics vary with each agreement, profits from the sale are shared between

the seller and the trust.)

For more than two decades community land trusts have been established in

places such as Burlington, Vt., and the Lower East Side of Manhattan as a way

to help low- and middle-income families cope with expensive housing markets.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia now have at least one developing

or operating community land trust, according to the Institute for Community

Economics Inc., a nonprofit development organization based in Springfield, Mass.

Community land trusts have grown nationally from about 70 in 1992 to nearly

100 in 2000, according the institute, and more than two dozen others are in

the works. "We are seeing a tremendous amount of interest because housing costs

are slipping further from the reach of low- and moderate-income families,"

said Julie Orvis, network and events coordinator for the institute (Web site:

www.iceclt.org/clt).

Like many mature suburbs, Long Island has used up its major tracts of

developable land - a factor that somewhat limits the growth of community land

trusts here, said Jim Morgo, president of the Long Island Housing Partnership.

Also, home ownership equates to empowerment for low- and moderate-income

families, so the inability to earn full equity may turn some off from community

land trusts, he said. "If you are going to use it for rentals in lower-income

areas, it makes a lot of sense," Morgo said. "It's not a silver bullet but it's

a good way to get people into housing."

So far, two homes in the Walsh Park subdivision have changed hands, Burr

said. Initially, these homes were acquired for around $95,000 and - with

improvements - resold about six years later for about $140,000, well below

market rate, Burr said.

One current resident, Sue Horn, is a local real estate sales agent. She

came to Fishers Island - where her husband, Luis, grew up - 14 years ago, when

her son, Mason, was a toddler. Even then the home prices were way beyond the

family's means, let alone the upwards of half a million dollars they typically

go for these days, she said. They were fortunate enough to be one of the first

to get on line for Walsh Park.

"There was no way we would have been able to buy on the island otherwise,"

she said. The fact they won't benefit from market-value equity on the $90,000

purchase price is not a concern. "We had always planned to stay here."

Robert Wall, a native of Fishers Island and longtime member of the Walsh

Park board, said the land trust offered an opportunity to provide housing that

would help the island's work force - school employees, firefighters, and

emergency service workers - stay put. "The Walsh Park project has been a total

success from day one," he said.

Officials in Southold Town are working on plans to create a community land

trust on the mainland, following in the footsteps of their northern neighbors

on Fishers Island.

Women in Conversation, a Cutchogue-based community organization, hosted a

recent daylong symposium on community land trusts. Lynda Clements, a member of

the group and a pastor at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, said a video on the

subject inspired her to organize the meeting. "I fell in love with the concept

because it presented an answer to so many needs."

Co-hosted by the Institute of Community Economics, the meeting attracted a

cross-section of community members, including real estate agents, bankers,

employers, working-class families, seniors on fixed incomes and representatives

of churches and synagogues.

"People are recognizing that for a number of reasons, Long Island isn't

'working'" said Ron Stein, president of Vision Long Island, a Northport-based

group that advocates for "smart growth" practices. And one of the biggest

reasons, said Stein, is that there is no place for young people to live.

"Sensing that something is broken in the machine, people are ready to make a

change."

In particular, the mounting interest in community land trusts on Long

Island - as in other parts of the country - is due to the lack of long-term

solutions to provide modestly priced housing. "The options are getting to be

ridiculous," said Robert J. Mulvey, founder and executive director of New

Directions, a grass-roots research group in Malverne. He said New Directions

and the Institute of Community Economics are considering a partnership to

provide a local source for technical assistance in setting up and operating the

trusts.

Community land trusts also are being used to create office space and parks.

Aside from providing perennial affordable housing, land trusts also foster

hands-on grass-roots involvement and a sense of community, experts say.

In Mount Sinai, for example, New Directions helped a North Shore group form

a community land trust that, in partnership with Brookhaven Town, is now

involved in creating a park.

As the 400-acre Davis Peach Farm in Mount Sinai has been divided up into

housing developments, Lori Baldasarre, president of the Mount Sinai Civic

Association, and other members of her group set their sights on preserving a

17-acre parcel for the benefit of the community. The group formed a community

land trust, the Mount Sinai Heritage Trust, as a vehicle to tap into nonprofit

funding sources such as legislative and foundation grants and as a catalyst for

the acquisition and preservation of the property.

One member, Fred Drewes, embarked on a yearlong world bike tour that

generated pledges toward the purchase of the piece of property known as "the

wedge," a triangular lot bordered by Route 25A, County Road 83, and Mount

Sinai-Coram Road. With the funds raised from that endeavour and a grant made

available to the group by their local representative for the state, the Mount

Sinai Heritage Trust purchased close to an acre of the 17-acre parcel for

around $150,000.

Capitalizing on the overwhelming support of nearby communities Port

Jefferson and Miller Place and drawing on its reputation as a cohesive group of

committed residents, the Mount Sinai group persuaded the town to purchase the

remaining 16-plus acres with public monies designated for land preservation.

By fall, they'll have a site for a public park. The site plan has been

approved by Brookhaven Town, the property is being graded and bids are being

submitted to create a park, to be jointly developed and maintained by the town

and the trust. When completed, the park will have three ball fields, walking

and jogging trails, an amphitheater, a community center and a playground.

Construction is expected to begin soon.

"We are not just building a park, we are building a sense of community,"

Baldasarre said.

In Cutchogue, the first meeting of an organizing committee for a community

land trust convened Feb. 13, Clements said. "Starter homes, as scarce as hen's

teeth, are fetching in the high $200,000 into the low $300,000 range [on the

North Fork]," she said. "If I didn't have the opportunity to live in the church

home, I wouldn't be able to live on Long Island."

Jay Applegate, a retired investment banker and head of an affordable

housing committee authorized by Southold Town Supervisor Joshua Horton last

summer, is among the growing number of local trust supporters. The committee

has recommended that Southold create a community land trust to provide

affordable housing for people who live and or work in the town, Applegate said.

"We [the committee] were approached by many independent groups who wanted to

be part of any effort to help do something about this problem," he said.

Because community land trusts traditionally provide housing for those in

lower income brackets, they sometimes face resistance from "not in my backyard"

homeowners who fear their communities will be flooded with the working poor,

several advocates say.

"NIMBYism is alive and well," Clements said. To help combat the

stereotypes, her group has formed a subcommittee to conduct public education.

But Applegate said he does not anticipate a local backlash against any

community land trust project in the town. For one thing, he said, it would be

restricted to people who live or work in Southold. For another, it would focus

on existing properties rather than on new construction, which has been apt to

generate more opposition. Current zoning codes do not allow multifamily

dwellings in residential neighborhoods, he added.

At the same time, the downtowns of Mattituck and Southold contain more than

300 properties, including over-store apartments and older houses that have

been divided into apartments. These housing units could - providing the owners

are willing to sell - be bought by a community land trust and rehabilitated,

Applegate said. That way, the affordable housing stock would not be

concentrated on one site and special zoning would not be required. "There is a

meaningful consensus in the community, and we won't have to saddle the town

board with this," Applegate said. "If the board is supportive, it would be

great, but we don't need its blessings to move forward."

Perhaps the biggest barrier to efficient land use - and ultimately, more

modest-priced housing - on Long Island is zoning, said Stein of Vision Long

Island. Zoning policies, which call for separation of land uses, have crimped

development of vital downtowns and have outlived much of their usefulness,

Stein said. "More problematic is the fact that they promote segregation," he

said.

Beyond providing affordable housing in perpetuity, community land trusts

have a broader benefit: upholding mixed-use, smart-growth principles, which

promote a blend of income levels and ethnicity, advocates say. "The extent to

which the CLT does that it's terrific," Stein said.

Furthermore, the trusts' potential to help retain the town's work force

makes the model a very attractive option, said Horton. Previously, there's been

little thinking outside the box, he said, "but if we are to foster a diverse,

self-sufficient community, we have to take community land trusts seriously."

Lending institutions, recognizing the market opportunities, appear willing

to jump in.

Darryl Lindsey, vice president of community lending, said Citibank has had

recent discussions with several Long Island groups interested in forming land

trusts. Citibank, which participated in the recent Southold symposium, can

facilitate ventures in various ways, he said - providing construction loans and

offering down payment assistance grants and homeownership education. The bank

can also partner with municipalities and community development corporations, he

said.

Such partnerships are one option the Southold community land trust steering

committee is exploring, along with joining an existing nonprofit or forming a

new one, said committee member Karen McLaughlin, who is the director of

services for the Town of Southold.

McLaughlin said she's exhilarated about the trusts' potential for

affordable housing, despite the magnitude of the problem. "It's so exciting,"

she said. "I'd like to fast-forward 10 years from now."

NEXT WEEK: Finding Elusive Housing for the Young

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