"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Affordable Housing: A Dream Grows in Pottstown

The issue of affordable, decent housing is in the forefront of those confronting our urban areas today.  It’s a contentious issue, because it reaches down to one’s bedrock beliefs about community and the free market.  Often they are placed in conflict; some would put all emphasis on community, allow only that which a community “needs,”and force everything to be planned and approved.  Others hold that you should be able to participate freely in the market and reap the profits of your enterprise, regardless.  This is a false dichotomy (most are); ideology must bend in recognition of reality.  In other words, it’s possible to ensure both profit and stability, within reasonable limits.

     There is no shortage of programs and ideas for how to balance the two in our towns and cities.  Many of them look to government for both the ideas and the rulebook.  Those of you in Southeast Pennsylvania need look no further than Pottstown to learn about one approach to affordable housing that does not.  And that's only one of the good things about it.  A group of people in Pottstown have begun to implement a concept that has been proven to work, because it produces a fair rate of return on investment while ensuring long-term stability in the market.  It’s called a Community Land Trust (CLT).

    A Community Land Trust is a nonprofit corporation that purchases property and holds it in perpetuity for the good of the community.  This approach has been in existence for thirty years, and the basic model is simple and flexible enough to accommodate several different approaches, not to mention locations.  There are some eighty Land Trusts in Pennsylvania; those in the region outside Philadelphia, such as The Natural Lands Trust, headquartered in Media, The Montgomery County Lands Trust in Lederach and The North American Land Trust in Chadds Ford, work to preserve open areas, farmland and neighborhood green spaces.

     CLTs were originally designed to ensure affordable housing in an urban area, however, and that is the approach on which I focus.  A CLT is not about profit, although profit is built in; the goal is to provide affordable housing and to maintain it properly, for the good of the community as a whole.  An urban CLT obtains properties, ensures that they are up to code, then either sells or offers a long-term lease on the house itself, while keeping formal title to the land.  When the buyer or leaser decides to leave, the house is returned to the Trust for an amount whose formula is calculated and agreed upon in advance.  This ensures profit to the homeowner, but removes the house’s price from the general market.  A CLT takes property values out of the hands of real estate speculators and puts it instead in the hands of the community.  It sees that its properties are properly maintained, by those who have a community interest in doing so.  It also does this without government involvement.  No politics, no new taxes, or employees on the municipal payroll.

    The point is to retain affordability; selling the house but not the land helps to ensure that in perpetuity, not just for the current owner, but also for future owners,.  That’s why most urban CLTs can be found in areas that are undergoing “gentrification,” with rising home prices and rents.  They keep some housing affordable for lower income groups when the local urban property prices are rising.

    Pottstown is not undergoing any such gentrification, but because a CLT removes housing from the vicissitudes of the market and puts ownership in the hands of those who will care for it, it can combat urban decline as well as gentrification.  Pottstown is fortunate to be home to The MOSAIC Community Land Trust, whose goal is to do precisely that.  I want to call the attention of others to this organization and to the work it does.  It deserves the active support of Pottstown residents, and community activists in other local towns would do well to examine the CLT approach and learn how MOSAIC is employing it to build a positive sense of community.

    Mosaic was founded in 2010 by retired United Airlines pilot David Jackson, Pottstown attorney Dave Garner, urban planner Susan Repko, and County Assessor Chris Huff.  They have begun to attract support from both interested professionals and the local community of Pottstown.  Mosaic’s leaders realized from the start that a CLT is ultimately not about property values, but about community and people.  They acquired a small plot of land at 423 Chestnut Street, and began to build community awareness by offering the plot for a “community garden.”  Neighbors are invited to plant and tend gardens on the site.  MOSAIC offers a program of events featuring gardening information, and regularly works with volunteer organizations to present such events for children and adolescents.  The project has been so successful—and the produce so tasty—that the MOSAIC Community Land Trust Produce and Information Stand opened in September, sharing both the fruits (and vegetables) of its gardens as well as information about how neighbors can eat healthy.  The CLT has branched out with house beautification competitions, and this holiday season sold Christmas trees.  Last year, their efforts to beautify Pottstown and to educate its residents won them an award for Excellence in Planning and Design from the Montgomery County Planning Commission, as well as a "Greening Award" from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. 

    I’m leaving some things out, but MOSAIC sets a standard for community activism that other organizations—as well as municipalities—would do well to notice, study, and learn from.  Remember, it’s a volunteer group, from its Board of Directors down to its sidewalk volunteers.  MOSAIC has long-term goals, and a determination to make sure that its infrastructure and finances can sustain long-term survival.  It has been careful to avoid the all-too-common trap of attempting too much, too soon.  In November of last year, Pottstown Borough Council had agreed in principle to turn over to the Trust a property that it had taken for non-payment of taxes.  MOSAIC made a careful review of the project’s requirements, and recognized that it was not yet prepared, structurally, financially or otherwise, to undertake such a commitment.  It therefore declined the offer.  This tells me that MOSAIC is in it for the long run, and has the professionalism necessary to grow this first community plot into a community—a true community—of affordable housing.  They are taking things deliberately, step by step, the way it should be done.  MOSAIC just obtained another vacant lot in December, and is currently studying how to utilize it for the community’s benefit.  All involved hope that 2014 will see the Trust obtain its first house; several are being studied by “running the numbers.”  When they close that historic deal, I’ll be sure and let you folks know about it.

     I can’t describe Mosaic’s potential any better than did an article in the May 13, 2013 issue of Business Advisor, so I’ll quote it:

           “It’s always a pleasure to encounter examples of sound business thinking,
especially in endeavors that are noble and community minded. 
Pottstown’s Mosaic Community Land Trust, which has dedicated itself
to improving the quality of life in a challenged area, exemplifies both of
the above qualities.  By combining good business sense with genuine 
concerns for people, the 'MOSAIC' is emerging as a local force for good."

The MOSAIC Community Land Trust is located at 10 S. Hanover Street, Pottstown, PA, 19464.
Their phone number is 484-949-4235.
Here is a link to their website: http://mosaicclt.org/

If you live in or near Pottstown, support them.  If you live elsewhere, can you benefit from their example?

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