The five properties on Lanark Street that could become the Perry Hilltop and Fineview community land trust have a stunning view of Downtown that rivals the more-frequented overlooks in Pittsburgh.
It’s this proximity to Downtown that gives some residents a sneaking fear that their neighborhood may soon be subject to rising housing prices seen in other North Side neighborhoods.
“Perry Hilltop and Fineview right now is affordable, and our goal is to keep it affordable,” said Fred Smith, a longtime resident and co-chair of the housing working group of the Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens councils.
The key, Smith said, is to be sure affordable housing options are sustainable for generations, even if prices rise.
Durability is important, according to co-chair Sally Stadelman, because she has seen affordable housing lost in nearby communities as priorities shift toward economic development. “Their boards changed, and their priorities changed,” she said, “and they sold off their affordable housing.”
A community land trust is one long-term solution. The model has been used in the United States since the late 1960s. Land trusts retain ownership of the land below a building, leasing it to a new homeowner each time the home is sold. The goal is to preserve affordability through price controls each time a land trust home is sold to a buyer in need of affordable housing. Potential funding sources include government and foundation grants and private donations.
After Lawrenceville was the first to establish a community land trust in the region in 2015, several other communities began the process of setting up trusts or considering if the model is right for them. Oakland has a working land trust, while leaders in Garfield and the Hill District have more recently formed land trust organizations. Etna, Millvale, Sharpsburg and Polish Hill have joined an expanded version of Lawrenceville’s trust, which is continuing to grow.
Communities evaluating the model must consider how useful a tool community land trusts will be in preserving affordability and how one could work in their neighborhood. They must also decide the level of affordability they want to maintain and how they will acquire properties for their trusts.
In Fineview and Perry Hilltop, they’re still deciding if a community land trust is the right model. Stadelman said their concern is that an emphasis on homeownership could displace the many Fineview and Perry Hilltop residents that cannot afford a mortgage.
But a trust also sends a message to speculative investors. “We are drawing a barrier or a line in the sand, saying, ‘Hey, you can’t come over here,’” Smith said. “We are locking arms.”
Piloting in Lawrenceville
In Lawrenceville, Daylin Chatley searched for a house for about a year. She’d been renting in the neighborhood already, but it seemed she was priced out of being a homeowner there.
Ed Nusser, real estate and planning manager for the Lawrenceville Corporation, an economic development organization, said that 2012 was the last year that a moderate-income family could find a house they could expect to afford. Anticipating even higher prices, the Lawrenceville Corporation set a goal to increase affordable housing in the neighborhood, the result of a community visioning process that began in 2012.
That led to the creation of the Lawrenceville Community Land Trust in 2015.
Around the same time, the City of Pittsburgh was looking for more affordable housing tools by forming the Affordable Housing Task Force, and the Allegheny Land Trust, which preserves natural spaces, studied the feasibility of community land trusts in the area, using funding from The Heinz Endowments*.
Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of the Lawrenceville Corporation and co-director of City of Bridges Land Trust, said there was a need for a community to test the viability of the land trust concept.
“You’ve got to find a place where you can pilot this model,” said Galluzzo, who is leaving to join the redevelopment nonprofit Riverlife as president in September. “Nothing breeds success like success.”
The trust received funding from the Housing Opportunity Fund managed by Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], as well as the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and several local foundations, businesses and developers.
So far, the trust has built six houses on vacant lots and refurbished one home in Upper Lawrenceville. The homes went on sale at the end of 2017, with prices ranging from $125,000 to $140,000. Around 200 people have already applied for future slots, Nusser said.
Eligible buyers for the trust must have incomes below 80% of the area median income [AMI], an annually adjusted federal measure used to gauge affordable housing. In 2019, 80% of the AMI for a family of four in the Pittsburgh area is $63,900.
Chatley, a physical therapist’s assistant, bought the first home in early 2018. The narrow two-story home has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a backyard that touches another land trust property.
Since then, she has been able to adopt a dog, make changes in her house and build a small amount of equity that she hopes will help her buy another house should she choose to grow her family. “It’s been great to do whatever I want,” Chatley said. “It feels like a home, and I haven’t been able to have that.”
Chatley also joined the board of the land trust. The model requires that a third of the 14 board members be land trust residents.
Most buyers of the Lawrenceville houses, Galluzzo said, fell into the 60% to 80% AMI range. That means their income is low enough to qualify for the trust but high enough that they could get traditional mortgage underwriting.
A community land trust is a nonprofit that sells homes to low- or moderate-income buyers at an affordable rate while retaining ownership of the land beneath it.
When the buyer later decides to sell, they’ll be required to keep the price low, and the land lease is renewed between the new owner and the trust. The homeowner can build equity, though less than they might with a home that could be sold at a higher price.
Lawrenceville’s success led to inquiries from other area communities about how the model might travel.
In 2017, the group began splitting from the Lawrenceville Corporation to form the regional City of Bridges Community Land Trust; they formed a steering committee to look at the possibility of expansion before officially launching in 2019.
City of Bridges is now expanding to Polish Hill, Etna, Millvale and Sharpsburg. Its goal is to grow the trust from seven to 100 properties in the next five years.
In Polish Hill, housing prices have risen sharply in the past couple of years. The trust plans to build eight homes on URA-owned land known as Fire Site because the current buildings were damaged in a fire.
Leaders in Polish Hill see the trust as a way to ensure affordability amid rising prices. But John Rhoades, a City of Bridges board member and housing and development committee co-chair at the Polish Hill Civic Association, wrote in an email that the trust “just helps with one particular housing challenge in our community.”
Because potential homeowners need enough income to qualify for a mortgage, he noted that the trust “ends up targeting folks within a pretty narrow income range.” He said the civic association must still bring other affordable housing options to the neighborhood.
In Etna, Millvale and Sharpsburg, housing prices haven’t ballooned like in Lawrenceville or Polish Hill. To acquire properties, the trust’s Buyer Initiated Program provides up to $30,000 in assistance to homebuyers looking to buy a market-rate house priced below $150,000. The home then becomes a part of the land trust and will be subject to affordability standards on resale, which would shelter it from future inflation in the housing market.
The Buyer Initiated Program is more efficient than building houses from scratch, Nusser said. If prices don’t rise, he said, the land trust would be able to improve the housing stock in the boroughs.
“Not everyone is going to be Lawrenceville,” Nusser said. “But no one thought Lawrenceville was going to be Lawrenceville.”
Pittsburgh’s independent land trusts
In Garfield, an independent land trust is taking a resident-driven approach to combat displacement.
“We were seeing that there were a lot of African Americans being displaced without cause,” said Jeanette Coleman, board chair of the Garfield Land Trust.
Not only were home prices rising, but the area lacked financial support for existing homeowners, Coleman said. There were “elderly people that had roofs leaking, ovens not working, porches not looking good,” she said. They couldn’t afford repairs and didn’t know where to look for help.
When considering the land trust model, Coleman said she asked her neighbors not about the land trust itself, but what they thought about Garfield.
The consensus, she said, was that “it's changed, and that the community is not considered in the change.”
The trust started in 2016, and decisions are made by residents who attend quarterly meetings and pay a $1 annual membership fee.
But the trust has been slow-moving. After more than two years of meetings, the trust doesn’t have any properties. The organization is technically under the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation until it is designated as a tax-exempt nonprofit, a process that is necessary to receive the level of funding needed to operate a land trust. Coleman described that process as their “one big holdup.”
John Stullken, secretary of the Garfield Land Trust, acknowledged that things have gone slowly, but he said the process is necessary to ensure community residents have ownership over the model. Otherwise, he said, people may wonder, “Is this a Trojan horse for displacement?”
Galluzzo said Garfield was invited to join with City of Bridges but decided to stay independent. “They said, to their credit, ‘We have a vision for how we want our [community land trust] to work,’” Galluzzo said.
The Garfield Land Trust anticipates that its first properties will likely be inherited from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, meaning they won’t have to purchase market-rate houses, but the trust will still need funding for taxes and home maintenance.
In Oakland, a land trust run by the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation [OPDC] has used a number of methods to get houses into the trust. In addition to buying and building properties, the trust is looking to expand by buying land while current residents still live in their homes. The trust would take on the home when the resident dies or decides to leave the neighborhood.
The large student presence in Oakland means the population is always in flux as students move in and out with the school year. The trust is unique in that it’s also trying to create market-rate housing with permanent owner occupancy restrictions. Because the neighborhood attracts so many renters, the trust’s leaders see promoting homeownership as an attractive feature of this model, according to Annemarie Malbon, manager of the Oakland Community Land Trust.
The Hill Community Development Corporation [CDC] announced the formation of its community land trust at the beginning of 2019. Similar to Garfield, the trust is envisioned as a means to provide more community control over land use. Felicity Williams, programs and policy manager at the Hill CDC, said a majority of Hill District land is owned by the URA, the City of Pittsburgh or the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
The development corporation is considering a variety of potential owners, including businesses and homeowners who aren’t income restricted. That strategy, Williams said, would help subsidize housing reserved for lower-income buyers and provide “an entry point to homeownership for those who would otherwise not be able to be homeowners.”
‘Figure it out as we go”
As community land trusts develop in areas with unique housing needs, they have developed differently. However, they face common challenges of how to structure and build their organizations to permanently ensure affordability.
In Perry Hilltop and Fineview, community leaders are still working with consultants to figure out how their land trust should work and how prominently it should feature in their affordable housing strategy.
“Not everything can be solved with real estate,” said Valentina Vavasis, one of those consultants, who also teaches at the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture. The need for affordable housing, she said, comes from a much larger issue of economic disparity.
Smith and Stadelman, as co-chairs of the housing working group, are still considering whether to stay independent or join City of Bridges’ larger trust.
After meeting with City of Bridges, Smith was concerned that the organization was fairly new, which meant they wouldn’t know where Fineview and Perry Hilltop would fall on their list of priorities. Stadelmen is attracted to the long-term sustainability that might come with the resources of a larger organization, but understands how others may worry about control.
“It could be an argument either way,” Smith said. “We are trying to figure it out as we go.”
As leaders in Fineview and Perry Hilltop weigh their options, Stadelman stresses the need to find an affordable housing solution that preserves Pittsburgh’s affordability in the long term. “I would certainly hope that everyone is feeling the urgency to figure it out quickly,” she said, “before we become every other city in the United States.”
*The Heinz Endowments provides funding to PublicSource.
Nora Mattson was a PublicSource data and reporting intern. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Harinee Suthakar. Dale Shoemaker fact-checked the data.