In 2003, before Alex Ramel was elected to represent the 40th Legislative District in the Washington State House, he was a single parent looking to buy a house.
But like many would-be home buyers in Washington State, he found the high costs kept him out of the market.
“Prices in Bellingham were on the rise,” Ramel said. “I could afford to make a monthly payment, but I didn’t have a down payment.”
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It was around that time that Kulshan Community Land Trust was establishing itself. The organization is one of roughly 30 community land trusts (CLT) operating in the Pacific Northwest, including the Portland heavyweight Proud Ground.
Their goal is to preserve permanent affordability by helping people buy their own housing, while the CLT purchases the land. This allows the CLT to help homeowners grow equity in the home through steady price increases determined by the CLT, but still keep housing costs well below market rates. When the owner sells, they turn a profit, but it’s constrained by the terms of the land deed held by the CLT.
Crucially, CLTs are governed by a board with representatives who are homeowners and members, retaining community control of the organization.
Ramel lived in his house for 12 years and eventually served as the CLT’s president. When it came time to sell, it worked exactly as expected. He was able to walk away with a down payment to buy his current house. He credits that house as being the foundation for everything he’s been able to do since.
“It did provide that stability for a young single parent,” he said.
That experience made Ramel an advocate for CLTs. While the housing model isn’t new — with roots in southern civil rights movements as a tool for land tenure for Black farmers — Ramel said it’s not as widely known in Olympia as other housing concepts. It’s one that he thinks more lawmakers should think about as they grapple with a statewide housing crunch.
“Our housing crisis is multifaceted,” Ramel said. “Different people are facing different challenges, different income levels need different kinds of support.”
CLTs can be especially helpful for people — like Ramel in 2003 — who have the money to make payments, but not enough for a down payment. It can help preserve ‘missing middle’ housing, and springboard families into starter homes while freeing up more affordable housing for other renters with less income, said Kathleen Hosfeld, executive director of the Homestead CLT operating out of Seattle.
Hosfeld said legislators and other elected officials should view CLTs as part of a spectrum of tools to address the housing crisis for both low and moderate income people.
“The spending on affordable homeownership has been artificially low, and the challenge for electeds frankly is they’re living with this story that ‘Oh, we have to get rid of homelessness first before we can spend in homeownership,’” Hosfeld said. “What I have been talking about, and other folks have been talking about is… by underinvesting in that 50-80% [area median income] category, we are creating a systemic problem.”
Ramel is hoping to address that next session by introducing laws to make it easier for communities to set up land trusts. This includes finding ways to get financial institutions to work with the nuances and intricacies of the organizations, and getting county assessors to properly value the properties.
“I intend to try and support a CLT capacity-building grant to help more community land trusts get started, and help the smaller ones grow and be able to provide more homes for more people,” Ramel said.
This legislation could include the creation of a how-to kit for people and organizations interested in starting CLTs, or staff to help them make pitches to cities across the state to support the trusts.
“I think the importance of community control of land is removing land from the speculative market, so when you put land in a community member-owned nonprofit entity, that land goes in, it doesn’t come out.”
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