West Charlotte is rapidly gentrifying. How this nonprofit wants to make homes affordable.

By Lauren Lindstrom
The Charlotte Observer

Charis Blackmon doesn’t have to look further than the ground beneath her feet to see change happening in Enderly Park.

The West Side Community Land Trust, where Blackmon is executive director, bought the Tuckaseegee Road plot last year for $16,000 as the future site of the first home in its portfolio. The adjacent lot sold in October for $65,000.

That stark price difference is just one example of rising property values, speculation and new development that demonstrates the urgency to promote affordable housing in predominantly minority neighborhoods, Blackmon said.

The goal: to make permanently affordable options for low- and moderate-income residents on Charlotte’s quickly gentrifying west side.

“Historically, the neighborhoods in west Charlotte — historically black communities — have experienced a lot of predatory practices (and) disinvestment,” Blackmon said. “We wanted to make sure as we introduce ourselves as a land trust and an organization we build trust with community members.”

Making it work in Charlotte

The community land trust model has existed in the United States for 50 years but is new to Charlotte. Residents can purchase homes at below market rates, while the non-profit land trust retains ownership of the land beneath it.

It removes the land cost from buyers’ purchase price and keeps it in the control of the nonprofit to ensure future affordability. Homeowners would earn an estimated 2% equity per year and agree to sell to the next buyer at an affordable price.

Proponents say it is a way to preserve affordable housing and promote wealth-building homeownership in communities where longtime residents are getting priced out.

“We’re utilizing the very ‘bottom up’ approach to how we’re approaching affordable housing in Charlotte in a culture where the approach usually is ‘top down,’” Blackmon said. The nonprofit’s board includes several neighborhood residents and will add land trust homeowners in the future.

Charlotte’s land trust began with a group of west Charlotte residents concerned about rising land prices and outside investors descending on their neighborhoods.

After two years of developing a business model, the Charlotte land trust is preparing to renovate and sell its first home, which was donated by a Sedgefield homeowner planning to build a new house who didn’t want to waste the old structure.

The three-bedroom home has a renovated kitchen with warm dark wood and stainless steel appliances. Instead of becoming another starter home demolished in the name of bigger and newer, it will have another life. The 1953 one-story home soon will make a five-mile journey by truck to Tuckaseegee Road after a crew removes the exterior white bricks and makes other preparations.

Even with the rehab and retrofitting necessary, the land trust will be able to sell the house to a buyer for as low as $146,000, and still make a profit to put into future projects.

Land trust leaders’ initial goal is to acquire 50 housing units in west Charlotte in five years, but they have ambitions to expand citywide. They envision a future that includes affordable rental units and community gathering space in addition to single family homes.

The ZIP code where the first home is located has an 11% homeownership rate, according to Census data.

“We seek to become a significant agent for systemic changes in these areas that are in considerable duress,” said Rickey Hall, a land trust board member and a lifelong west Charlotte resident who has been active in community development for decades.

On Friday, land trust supporters celebrated the groundbreaking for the first house. Hogan and Hillary Fulghum, who donated the house, said it was too small for their family of six, but were thrilled it had found a new purpose.

“Everything just came together,“ Hogan Fulghum said. “We’re just a small part. You guys are doing all the hard work.”

That hard work includes finding the financing for expansion, Blackmon said. The organization has received several grants, including nearly $200,000 from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and a $125,000 donation from the Knight Foundation. The city of Charlotte gave $10,000 for the land trust’s community gathering space, and is in the process of transferring two parcels of city-owned land for future development, Blackmon said.

To meet their first 50-home goal, land trust officials estimate they’ll need $2.5 million.

Selina Mack, executive director for the Durham Community Land Trustees, said it wasn’t until city leaders saw the benefit of the land trust as a force for neighborhood revitalization, and then as an affordable housing solution, that they get Durhamn public officials’ attention. The organization began in 1987 with a group of residents upset by absentee landlords and housing costs.

Durham voters in November approved a $95 million affordable housing bond. Mack said she expects her organization to receive some of that funding.

Pamela Wideman, Charlotte’s housing and neighborhood services director, said in an email there has been “no consideration to directing Housing Trust Fund dollars to the land trust,” but housing staff has discussed “the possibility of directing housing assets gained (in) foreclosure or loan default.”

Blackmon said they are open to creative solutions to acquire properties, including donations of more homes or land. They are pursuing agreements with Charlotte Douglas International Airport to acquire homes set to be demolished in its noise mitigation zones.

The urgent need for affordable housing on the west side will only be amplified by major projects like the CATS Silver Line, Hall said. The proposed east-west route will cross several west Charlotte neighborhoods that are already seeing massive changes.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt previously raised concerns about rising prices along the proposed route. She said the city should consider supporting the land trust model “in the pursuit of keeping neighborhoods affordable for the people who have lived there.”

Hall and Blackmon said they believe the first house will prove the model and open the door for more support of their work.

“I want this home … to show the community land trust model is a viable option to combat the affordable housing crisis here in Charlotte,” Blackmon said. “I want this home to represent opportunity.”

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This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation. This work was made possible in part by grant funding from Report for America/GroundTruth Project and the Foundation For The Carolinas.

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