Mid-Town Center, photo by the author
Mid-Town Center, photo by the author

One of the more interesting developments in Seattle’s recent building boom has been the conversation among some residents of the Central District to attempt to organize in the face of displacement. The community is looking to purchase the Mid-Town Center property on the Southeast corner of 23rd & Union. CHS and The Stranger have covered the issue recently. Here’s a quote from The Stranger’s piece, in February:

Among the possible solutions: buying the property. Bangasser has offered to give the Union Street Business Association (USBA)—a small group composed of people who care about the black business community—site control, kind of like a down payment, for just 10 percent of the asking price. (Bangasser is currently the USBA’s director and treasurer, although he said he’s being replaced given his conflict of interest.) And at the community meeting, the total cost to purchase the property was put at $16 million, but Bangasser’s response to that number was, “I don’t know where that came from.”

“The USBA is now trying to come up with the money,” said local architect Donald King, who’s an adviser to the USBA. “If it’s successful, it could be a model for not only other neighborhoods in Seattle, but other neighborhoods across the country.”

CHS adds that “a Public Development Authority or a land trust [are] still on the drawing board.” Indeed, a land trust would be an interesting model for a large, urban site like this. While rent control and zoning restrictions are usually ineffective in combatting housing affordability, and may even exacerbate it, land trusts are a proven model for permanently affordable home ownership.

In a nutshell, land trusts work like this: the trust acquires land. It then enters into an agreement with a buyer (pre-qualified to meet the necessary income requirements) whereby the buyer purchases a house on the land at an affordable rate. When the buyer is ready to sell, they agree to sell to the another pre-qualified buyer, allowing the seller to earn a reasonable return on their purchase. By sharing the cost of purchase, the trust is able to acquire land less expensively, and the buyer knows they won’t be evicted because they “own” the property.

Occasionally entire neighborhoods can be acquired by land trusts, as was the case with the Dudley Street neighborhood in Boston.

In an effort to learn more about land trusts, I spoke with Erika Malone at Homestead, the largest land trust in Washington State. Homestead receives about 300 applications per year from would-be homeowners and has a waiting list of 700. They currently have 2- and 3BR houses within the Seattle city limits for around $200,000. And since they only require a 1% down payment, it can often cost less up front to buy a home from Homestead than it would to put down first/last/deposit on a 2BR rental.

“Some people think it’s a scam,” Malone joked. It may not be a scam, but it is something of a rarity. Homestead had 36 house transactions in 2013. “Our challenge is supply,” she said. “We need capital and land like any other developer.”

On the plus side, the joint relationship between the trust and the homeowner can help keep the property affordable for the long haul. Today’s affordable housing can become tomorrow’s unaffordable housing as soon as it’s sold. Homestead’s renewable 99-year leases keep the property affordable, theoretically in perpetuity.

For a multifamily development, the land trust could be even more powerful. One reason we don’t see more small condo buildings in Seattle these days is that condo owners have an almost routine habit of suing the developer. Developers have generally decided that it’s not worth the risk unless the building is a large tower. In the case of a land trust condo, the developer and the buyer would jointly own the property, thereby making the relationship more cooperative than adversarial.

Like any developer, Malone says they’re attracted to fixed rail because it offers a sense of permanence, which is important when you’re thinking about a 99-year lease. She said they’d like to get more involved in transit-oriented development, but they “aren’t in a position financially” to take advantage of opportunities around LINK in places like Othello Station. One wonders what a land trust might have done with a free piece of land right next to Roosevelt Station.

While Malone stresses that land trusts are “not a silver bullet,” they are a useful tool in the affordable housing belt, preventing displacement and building equity in a sustainable way.

27 Replies to “Community Land Trusts in the City”

  1. I hope the land trust believes in density. I don’t think the John Foxes of the world do, but if you’ve got a limited piece of land and a long waiting list, small row houses or condos would meet the need better than new row houses. And since this is a new development, parking could be consolidated for the whole block rather than a garage in each house. Of course, parking will be minimal to make it more affordable, right?

    1. I hope they do, too. In spite of the “nickname” I use to post here, I live in the CD near this property. The worst thing to happen to it, in my opinion, would be a spate of regular, detached homes, or even just a three-story owner-occupied condo building. Rowhouses or the mixed-use plan described in the CHS link would be awesome. On the other hand, I feel like my ability to have input in this neighborhood activity is very limited, given the reactions I’ve gotten back the few times I tried to engage.

      And, with respect to CharlotteRoyal, I disagree about the look of the newer townhomes and six-story residential buildings going in. Everyone has their personal preferences I and I like how they look.

  2. Part of me likes the concept, until one has looks at the “Am I Eligible” page. Once again we are faced with the conundrum of, “I make too much for housing subsidies. …and now I make too much to take advantage of Homestead Land Trusts within the city.”

    I don’t want to live in an apartment during my entire adult life and want to afford a nice SFH void of HOA drama. …and see that this does little to help those singles and small families making between $50k-$80k that are taking the biggest beating in Seattle.

    The Land Trust issue further perpetuates the gap between the wealthy that can afford to live in the city, the poor that get benefits, and those willing to fork over the cash for (as some would put it) mediocrity. Eventually, the free land will be gone. …and the land left will be undesirable. All this will do is put more money into the belts of those owning single family homes in the form of increased home values.

    1. Netherlands are doing some unique things turning shipping containers and barges into houseboats. How many could be tied up to our floating bridges?
      Poof, instant blue collar log-boom housing. Add a couple of transit stops, and it’s TOD.

      1. Now called “floating homes”. When I came to Seattle in ’74, they were houseboats- and not universally well-thought-of. I think this is a terrific idea, just for the character it gives a city.

        However, I also know that there are sanitary and utility considerations that could make them more expensive than land housing.

        Any residential builder want to weigh in on this?


      2. “Netherlands are doing some unique things turning shipping containers and barges into houseboats.”

        Great idea, put the poor in shipping containers. True urbanism!

    2. Charlotte, I, too want a home void of the HOA drama, but it seems that those do not exist. Nothing in suburban King County exists without an HOA, with the exception of a few slums of older homes that have been allowed to fully deteriorate. Nothing in Seattle is within the price range of a middle-income family. I’m stuck with one where I have sunny land that would be prime for vegetables, a fenced back yard perfect for chickens, and an HOA to protect me from my neighbors. Vegetable gardens are not allowed in front yards, chickens are not allowed within the HOA, and no rules exist to protect me from the dog that has twice destroyed my fence.

  3. My wife and I actually went in to apply for the new Columbia City development, and it seemed like a dream. New townhouses just 3 blocks from the Link station, halfway between MLK and Rainier, it seemed like where we’d want to raise a family. And the income restrictions fit us perfectly, as they were only selling to households making between 30-50k who could afford to put 2-3k down.

    But the fine print turned us away, as we found out that our student loan payments weren’t what mattered, but what our payments would be if they were not subsidized by Income-Based Repayment. In an instant we went from being their perfect client to not even being close to qualifying. :/

  4. You make one excellent point early on, CharlotteR. From past personal experience, people who make too much money to qualify for breaks, but too little to live earn liberal government its worst enemies. Among people who should be its natural political supporters.

    Like housing or anything else that can be bought, the more land trusts there are- an excellent idea, incidentally-the more chance everyone will have to join one. Or help form one.

    Why does this arrangement assure that every home be “mediocre?” Are you saying that it’s impossible to design and build a house beyond the income range of ever single buyer?

    Or that a home’s quality is strictly a matter of price? Any afternoon drive from Lake Washington east takes you past thousands of acres of ugly homes whose whole ridiculous cash value depends not on quality, but on speculation.

    Ever hear those ads on KIRO from companies promising to show customers how to “flip” houses- meaning buy a house and sell it as fast as you can, profiting from market whose price depends on nothing but projected demand?

    Again from personal experience before escaping from Ballard, the developers making the most money on the worst housing aren’t interested in being landlords at all. The real money is in holding onto the property- with minimal or no improvement- and then selling it when the price goes up. Not business- gambling.

    Think future home of Roosevelt Station!

    Check out the “Cottage” complex across Greenwood from Shoreline Community College. Every resident gets a good-quality house and garden. Arranged around a park, with a single garage at the entrance.

    Likely the trust movement will generate the best political force to make these places legal in Seattle. I also think your general idea of what’s “desirable” has been formed by years of reading magazines owned by the people who want to sell you the worst home at the highest price.

    But your first point tells the story: best guarantee of a good home at every price range is replacement of forty years without a raise by at least same amount of time at living wages and salaries.

    Voters: demand it. Democratic Party: start offering it. Giving other parties and their voters an example from your own past to follow in the future.

    Mark Dublin

    1. When I refer to “mediocrity,” I describe the blasé six story cubes that are popping up around town. The new Terry Hall, replacing the concrete tower, is an example.

      The cubes are replacing urban surface parking lots, green space, older medium/low density residences and apartments, and iconic/historic buildings throughout the city. I understand density has its place, but from a streetscape point of view, the lameness and lack of real architectural design of these developments is horrible. The DPD has guidelines for such developments, but they don’t get heeded. What I’m describing is no different than the plethora of generic cookie cutter homes in exurbia and suburbia.

      1. CharlotteR, there’s nobody that agrees with you more on that point. You’re also describing the ruin of the Ballard I’d lived in since 1985, and where I hoped I’d finish my life.

        But the architects who build every one of these piles of blight don’t own them, and didn’t write their own orders. And none of them worked for a trust.

        Like every general term in public life, “density” says nothing about quality. It’s just a measure of things, including people, per unit of ground space.

        I wish STB could coin a word or phrase that includes some elements of the intelligent human requirements to create life from bare survival. Which Auschwitz itself provided for its temporary residents.

        One reason people usually favor single-family homes is the belief that low home count guarantees privacy. Again, not wishing a visit on anybody, but even drive past brand new single-family developments. Similarities to the worst of what you’ve seen called “density” outweigh difference.

        Even giant houses with large yards don’t provide most necessary element of privacy: the ability to leave your own house without your whole block knowing the exact time. Or when you have guests.

        However, the unfriendly kind of “individualism” that these places often breeds the kind of atmosphere where non-conformity draws harsher attention than burglary.

        Also, the spooky sameness of general home style makes a joke out of individualism in every way.

        A lot of the conformity written into the rules of the “homeowner association”. Which in some places have the power to levy fines that can cause their members to face foreclosure.

        Tenant’s associations are no angels either. But as with architecture, it’s within the law’s and citizens’ power, and buyer choice, to control abuses. Providing other buyers haven’t moved in for precisely the exact conformity and control that their own definition of “individualism” provides.

        In theory, a democratically owned and run cooperative should protect against residential evil. But cooperatives, trusts, and every other institution is run by human beings with human faults. Which I’d still pick over corporate ones, the end of whose person-hood is worth a fight.


      2. They do follow the guidelines and often take specific feedback. The guidelines and feedback are powerless to ensure attractive designs because they don’t address the root problems. Some things that I think are big differences in new and old buildings:

        – Large-footprint buildings. These are driven by desire to consolidate grade-separated parking infrastructure, improvement in ventilation technology eliminating the need for courtyards, improvement in construction technology.

        – Shallow retail spaces. This is all about parking butting into ground-level land use, and really that’s parking for housing. If we had zoning permitting more housing just off main streets there wouldn’t be so much pressure to add housing right on them, and more traditional parking arrangements could prevail, but we don’t, so we try to do mixed-use in every building.

        – Lack of human-scaled details. A lot of classic old buildings are boxes! But they were built using a lot more human labor and designed up close. In details they show the care that was put into them. The aesthetic of modernism has a lot to do with showing off the scale and uniformity allowed by modern materials and building methods, which at its worst is a form of bragging about how little any person cares. Postmodern design, which informs many of today’s buildings, tends to try harder to appeal to viewers, lay off harsh or stark aspects, and bring in elements that invoke nostalgia… but it does these things using modern, mechanized construction methods and materials, not to mention design methods.

        – Lack of design language. The biggest design language bit, to me, is about front doors. A lot of classic buildings are designed up close to draw attention to their doors; they read as having a “shape” even when they’re boxy. Mixed-use buildings have many doors so maybe it’s harder to do. Perhaps it’s even harder when parking entrances are so prominent, when the front door is pushed away from the center, and perhaps architects don’t try so hard to emphasize the front door when so many people are going to enter through the garage.

        Because a lot of the things that drive the design of today’s large buildings are driven by regulations and community demands (avoiding impacts on street parking for existing residents, preserving SFH zoning everywhere but main streets) regulators and community boards just aren’t going to solve these problems. They’re as much a part of the problem as developers are.

      3. I agree that contemporary architecture is lacking. Modernism replaced human-scaled detailing and curves with large-scaled straight clean geometric lines. But nature is not straight or geometric: look at a leaf, then look at its veins, and the spaces between the veins. Or a pebble or your dog’s fur. That’s the kind of feeling pre-1930 designs invokes in people, and they’re still popular a century later after later buildings seem worn out and bad. Contemporary architecture has rediscovered decoration somewhat, thankfully, but it’s still simplistic, geometric, minimalist compared to the old buildings. People object, “We can’t build that now; it’s too expensive.” I don’t believe it. It doesn’t have to be as intricate as older stuff, it just has to get away from those sanitized geometric shapes — think more smaller things rather than few large things. I would really like to see a developer make a 1905-style or art deco building, or show how those kinds of ideas can be extended for a new generation of design.

        I do wonder sometimes if this building frenzy is going to lead to a predominence of inhumanly-scaled, alienating buildings, whether it would be better to wait until archtectural and layout fashions change as I’ve described. But we have no choice because we must replace this too-low-dense, too-far-apart stuff that’s hindering walkability (i.e., it requires an excessive number of steps from the front door to surrounding destinations). The freestanding Jack-in-the-Box must go, and at least a 2014 building is more practical for current needs, even if it’s not as beautiful or walkable as a 1924 building.

        Large footprints are caused by more factors than just internal parking. There’s economy of scale, increased profit, and zoning laws that make small buildings difficult to get approved.

        Calling ventilation technology an “improvement” is odd. Courtyard are one of those human things that keep people connected to nature and unstressed. They’re an end in themselves, not a problem that needed to be eliminated. With people demanding open space, put the space in a courtyard, not an unused side lawn that nobody wants to spend time in. And ventilation technology just leads to dependence on electricity. My office building has no openable windows. When the HVAC turns off at 6pm and on weekends, it becomes a very unpleasant place to be. My apartment building has the elevator front and center, and you have go go around to inconvenient doors to reach the stairs, and inside the stairwells there are no windows. What will happen in some future environmental or economic catastrophe if the electricity is cut off for an extended period of time? Will these buildings become uninhabitable? That’s perhaps my biggest long-term concern in buying a condo. Will the building remain habitable in 20 or 40 years, or will my investment vaporize into nothing?

        PS. A land trust still functions as a homeowners’ association.

      4. I think courtyards and more granular buildings are great… a lot of improvements in technology remove limitations, and when limitations are removed, it seems people and organizations always find ways to consolidate. Consolidate a larger footprint into a single building, more operations into a single office, more power into a smaller number of cities. In every case there are upsides and down — that’s technological improvement.

        There’s nothing wrong with geometry. Most classic architecture is geometric, even the humane stuff. Every old city is full of great box-shaped buildings, geometrically perfect forms supporting iconic and beautiful bridges, that sort of thing. And if you want to see structures full of organic forms that completely fail at street level, Seattle has tons of examples. EMP might be the most egregious, and the Space Needle is arguably another (it’s certainly a building that looks cool from a distance but does nothing up close). The Pac Med building is an art deco masterpiece from I-5 that, in an astonishing trick, disappears completely when you get up close. UW is rebuilding Rainier Vista to have even more green curves with nature views, and it’s going to be just as sterile and pointless as the last one.

      5. (And when materials are good and scale is appropriate, modernist designs can even be charming. Take the Top Pot in Belltown, for example, which manages to be airy, light, and spacious, but has an appropriate level of detail and care put in.)

      6. I have also heard of making wide buildings look like they’re several narrow buildings. That would help improve the landscape without limiting large structures.

      7. The whole “varied facades” thing is, IIRC, encouraged by the city. I don’t know whether it’s because the designs have declined in quality or because the novelty has worn off, but it often ends up looking more busy than varied.

        The other thing, of course, is that when facades are varied on upper floors but retail spaces are still wide because of their lack of depth, it ends up not mattering much at street level. Facades can’t answer the fundamental question, which is about tradeoffs between real pressures and demands, and relationships between form and function. If modernism at its worst flaunts its lack of care, postmodernism at its worst avoids hard questions with a fib and a smirk.

      8. “Geometric” is of course a general term that may bring in too much, but my artistic/architectural vocabulary is limited. I don’t speak six languages like Sam or have PHDs in several subjects. So here’s another attempt to articulate it:

        We should have buildings that look like they were designed by humans for humans, rather than designed by robots for robots.

      9. There may be quasi-narrow buildings in Seattle I haven’t noticed, but I specifically mean is: take a typical 1905 3-story building that’s three times taller than it is wide and has a narrow storefront or two. Then take a new development three such buildings wide, and make it look like three vertical buildings. Maybe different decorations or colors or setbacks, or maybe just vertical lines where the “buildings” would be. Combine that with differentiating the first floor(s) with the upper floors, and you’ve got most of it.

        Most varied facades I see are a horizontal concept: first floors one design, upper floors another design. That’s better than one undifferentiated mass, but it still makes the building look wide rather than tall.

  5. Oh, and word to the Democrats. This isn’t just one more unfair and futile “demand.” Made even less palatable by social media.

    A party with the GI Bill and the whole host of other measures to give everyone willing to work the good life they deserved has a record to at least get off the ropes with. If it’s not really in financial debt to contrary institutions.

    Step One: Quit using the word “stimulus”. Just the repair of our country is enough work to earn everybody in the land a high enough wage to have a choice of housing arrangements- all good and non extravagant.

    And quit letting your enemies keep falsifying accounting itself, on every public matter. Every solid private business from house building to precision machining will borrow money for repairs and new equipment to make it more productive.

    And no bank will refuse to lend them money at affordable rates. Around year 1600, that’s what people figured out and eventually called it “capitalism.”

    World’s banking world still considers the US a good credit risk mainly because of all the world’s countries, we’re the biggest actual country among all those who claim the title. But worst potential damage to our credit score is abysmal neglect of the “infrastructure”- worse word than “stimulus”- on which our productivity depends.

    Of which homes affording people the comfort and solidity necessary to quality productivity are a prime condition. Think of last 40 years as another World War. Survived and still prosperous. And the present as time for same public measures as the last one. When never did public works- including house-buying help- provide so much private good.

    Mark Dublin

    1. “Quit using the word “stimulus”. Just the repair of our country…”

      Interesting that the word stimulus is used for maintenance and incremental improvements. Shouldn’t we be doing those anyway? All the other industrialized countries are.

    2. Mark Dublin, could you try proofreading your comments before posting? I’m sure the conversational tone sounds good in your head, but it’s really hard to read in black and white. I’d just like to be able to understand your points. Thanks.

  6. I’ve read about a similar concept where the government owns the land and people own the things on top of it. Not just for a few parcels but citywide or nationwide. The idea is that “land” had an intrinsic value when it was used for agriculture and directly produced income, but now its value is only speculative so you’re paying a lot of money for essentially nothing. By splitting land ownership from building ownership, it lets the price focus on the actual cost of the building and improvements rather than the mythical “land” value, and thus make housing costs much lower and less volatile. I don’t remember exactly how land leases work, or sales, or how the value of “location” fits in (since it presumably remains). But if there is a possibility in this direction it’s worth looking at further, even if we don’t know yet how it could occur. (Assuming that that the two simplest options are distasteful: either seizing the land or paying trillions of dollars in eminent domain.) But private land trusts are an essentially similar concept, allowing private groups to buy land in sizes they can afford, and demonstrating to society how well this concept work over time.

    To CharlotteRoyale’s point, if a lot of parcels went into affordable land trusts, and new housing created either on non-residential blocks like in the article or by replacing at least some of the single-family houses with duplexes or more, then eventually all the $50K-income demand would be housed, and it could keep going for the $80K-income. Then at some point when everyone has an opportunity for fair housing it could stop, and the wealthy could keep the remaining houses on the fringes of the city in their accustomed way, and sell them to each other.

  7. One more thing to note about Homestead: if you currently own a home you can put it in the land trust and keep living there.

    “Gift with retained life estate: Want to donate your home to Homestead but keep on living there, too? When you make a gift with retained life estate, your property will be transferred to Homestead without going through probate upon your death. This type of gift is eligible for tax deductions calculated at the time the gift is given, based on current interest rates and the donor’s age. A gift with retained life estate may also give you property tax advantages because homes in Homestead’s portfolio are assessed based on the resale formula value rather than the full market value of the property.”

  8. Seattle would do better to transform itself into Kent East Hill and build more low rise apartment complexes interspersed with green space. Denser than homes, less dense than skyscrapers. Able to provide playgrounds for kids, spacious apartments, and reasonable rent.

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