Turning the tide toward an affordable community

06/06/2019

I was inspired by the participation of so many people at the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin’s annual gathering in early May. People came from across the community and beyond for the food, discussion and party. At tables, small groups reflected on why they were there and what home means to them. People responded that they came because they were thankful for a home that was created through CLAM and they wanted to invest in a local initiative that works to counter the high tide of market forces that continue to erode community life and wellbeing. Home meant safety, a sanctuary, a place to grow roots. The answers to both questions revealed that we hold a collective value for community and that we value home as a place—and an experience—that everyone deserves: home is fundamental to who we are.

Our program manager, Ruth Lopez, then gave us some startling statistics: homeownership among people of color nationwide is about 40 percent, while homeownership of whites hovers above 70 percent. The assets of white people exponentially exceed those of non-whites. Nationally, white families hold 10 times more wealth than African American families, and eight times more wealth than Latino families. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the dramatic discrepancy between owners and renters: nationwide, people who rent their homes have a mere 1 percent of the assets of people who own their homes. 

The takeaway is the dramatic and untenable gap between our values around community and home and the reality of what our market system creates—very few homes at affordable prices. In West Marin, this gap is likely wider. This is where community land trusts come in: they emerge from our values, taking property off the speculative market forever. They ensure that people of diverse incomes have a place to call home, and that a community of diverse incomes can thrive. 

A community land trust is a community organization with a local board of directors that includes people with low or moderate incomes, that removes property from the market through purchases and creates homes at prices the community needs. Community land trusts can create other things the community needs as well: affordable rental space for nonprofits, for example, or community gardens. Investment in a community land trust—such as CLAM, the Bolinas Community Land Trust, or the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association—is an investment in the community.

At the CLAM gathering, people discussed possible solutions to create housing and community stability. Significantly, there were people in the room who are already doing that in powerful ways. Nearly 20 local property owners have created an affordable rental in their spare bedroom or cottage through CLAM’s Real Community Rentals program. Two community members are finalizing plans to gift their homes to CLAM after their deaths, to serve the community for generations to come. 

Other ideas emerging from the conversations included pooling private money, restrictions on vacation rentals, additional renter protections and a tax on vacant homes, with funds going toward creating affordable homes in the community.

There was passion and ingenuity in the room, with everyone contributing ideas. The event also demonstrated the growing interest in replicating what CLAM and this community have created by people who came from Bodega Bay and Sebastopol as well as West Marin’s next-gen group, which is focused on housing solutions in San Geronimo Valley. Within the past two weeks, I have personally spoken with others from Fairfax, San Rafael and Marin City who are interested in starting a community land trust there.

There are a few important ways you can support CLAM and the other West Marin community land trusts: explore a planned gift of real estate; consider selling your property to CLAM off-market, for a reduced rate and with tax benefits; and if you are not already a member of CLAM, join at CLAM-ptreyes.org. 

You can also support our work to ensure that the former Coast Guard housing site becomes a new neighborhood of affordable homes. The county will soon hold two public hearings to share how important this opportunity is for West Marin, and how the community’s ownership of the property through CLAM is an essential part of this vision. Look for notices of these meetings.

CLAM emerged from a handful of people whose vision to ensure housing that is affordable for a broad swath of the community was far stronger than all the voices that doubted they could succeed. Now, CLAM has purchased seven properties, worked with property owners to create an additional 18 homes, and altogether has created homes for 65 community members. With our values as our guide, how far can we go?

 

Kim Thompson is the executive director of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin. She lives in Inverness.