Editorial by: Laura Friederich
I had been renting a house from a friend in Durham for six and a half years when I walked into the Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT) office for the first time this Spring. I really wanted central heating and air conditioning, I was craving a long-term permanent home I could call my own, and I was dreaming about porches.
There is an Affordable Housing Crisis in Durham
Do we already have the solution?
I am a state employee, and the reality is that state and city employees like me – not to mention the service industry folks and artists that keep the city physically running and create the culture that makes it attractive – are finding it increasingly hard to afford rent here, with whatever possibility of owning a home that previously existed slowly evaporating. Any problems those of us with stable jobs are having finding housing are obviously multiplied for the elderly, the disabled, and the under-employed. I have a friend on a fixed $700/ month disability income whose rent is being raised by her landlord every year. If we don’t want Durham to be sold to the highest bidder, and its identity and culture replaced, we need more permanent affordable housing and we need it fast.
As a fairly privileged, able-bodied white woman with a chemistry degree and a stable state job as a forensic chemist (and parents and grandparents that all owned houses), I assumed I would buy a house eventually, but I didn’t know anything about the process and was terrified of it. However, I had also been watching housing prices creep up, and began to think that if I didn’t figure out how to do it now, I might never be able to afford it.
The state of the real-estate market was eye opening. I spent about eight months looking at houses and learning about the complex, confusing process of house-buying. I figured out very quickly that right now in Durham when a decent house within my price range (between $100,000 and $130,000) comes on the market, it goes under contract within 24-48 hours. Many of the houses within that price range need large amounts of work to be safe and habitable, which requires access to capital that I do not have. Even within the eight months I was looking, I watched prices rise and the market tighten. One house sold before it even opened up for showings, several others went under contract before I could physically get to them to look at them, and one ended up in a bidding war and sold at $26,000 over the list price. I had pretty much decided to stop looking in order to give my adrenal glands a break when a friend told me to call Marcia Rogers to see if Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT) had any houses for sale. I had never heard of DCLT, and decided to look into them. In a stroke of amazing luck, I walked through their door right at the moment that one of their houses was about to go on the market.
Land trusts are a really fascinating economic model for housing. I ended up buying my house for $141,000. I own the house, but the land trust, which is a nonprofit, owns the land, and I have a 99 year ground lease on it – I pay $30 per month. I had to make under 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for Durham county, which is currently $49,585, in order to purchase it. And when I sell it I’m required to sell it to someone that also makes under 100% AMI as well. The price at which it is resold depends on a formula that keeps it below market rate and limits the amount of money I can make off of it when I resell it. To to put it another way, I will share the equity, i.e. the increase in value and return on investment of my house at the time of sale, with a future DCLT homeowner. It’s a way of taking land out of the speculative market and keeping it affordable long-term through a model of shared community wealth and accountability. From a strictly capitalist financial perspective, it’s a “bad investment” because you are not able to sell your house to the highest possible bidder, and many people, including my real estate agent, were initially confused by the model and discouraged me from doing it. But I think of it as an investment in community over money, an act of class solidarity, and a way to make a real, personal financial commitment to maintaining affordable housing stock in this city.
DCLT owns the land on which fifty-two homes are leased throughout seven neighborhoods right now in Durham, and also manages just under 200 properties that they rent at affordable, below market-rates. The average rent for DCLT in 2016 was $460, compared to a $1200 market rate. There is currently a 12-month wait list to get into their rental properties, at the same time that people are actively being forced out of Durham by increasing rents.
Safe and affordable housing is a basic human right. DCLT has been working on it for thirty years. They have a successful long-term, sustainable model and demonstrated levels of interest that are greater than their current capacity. They are able and ready to grow, but it will take all of us to help them scale up. If you want a concrete way to help preserve Durham and end cycles of displacement, learn how to get involved and donate to their End-of-Year Growth Campaign at www.dclt.org.
The Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT) are leading a FREE Exum Street Walk, Talk, and Tour Saturday, November 18, 2017 from 10am to 12pm. Sign up and details here.
Laura Friederich spends most of her time at the medical examiner’s office sorting through the increasing death toll of the opioid crisis. In her free time, she enjoys attempting to calm her brain through cooking good food, practicing yoga, coloring mandalas, and reading about revolutionary movements. She is a DJ and helped found Party Illegal, but has an extremely hard time staying up past 10pm. Laura is a graduate of UNC-Asheville and has lived in North Carolina for sixteen years.