Bernie Sanders made Burlington’s land trust possible. It’s still an innovative and effective model of affordable housing today.

Burlington, Vermont, Has a Strange, Successful Model of Affordable Housing. Thank Bernie Sanders.

Burlington, Vermont, Has a Strange, Successful Model of Affordable Housing. Thank Bernie Sanders.

The cities of today and tomorrow.
Jan. 19 2016 5:30 AM

How Bernie Sanders Made Burlington Affordable

As the city’s mayor in the 1980s, he championed an unusual model of publicly supported housing. It’s still working.

AA014330
Some of Sanders’ housing policy ideas are still considered radical, but others have gained mainstream currency.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Ryan McVay/Thinkstock.

Bob Robbins bought his home in 1995 amid a bout of long-term unemployment. Living with his wife and two kids in a rundown rental in Burlington, Vermont, he wanted to stabilize the family’s housing before his children started kindergarten.

Prospects seemed bleak. The family’s savings had dwindled after his unemployment insurance gave out. But in 1993 Robbins saw a newspaper advertisement for something called the Burlington Community Land Trust. He visited its offices and learned about its generous grants for low-income home ownership. The innovative offer would significantly lower the price by allowing the couple to purchase only the house, while the trust paid for the land it sat on. Within two years, his family owned a home in a small town just to the east of the city. The Robbins family bought its home through a conventional realtor and a commercial bank while also entering a covenant with the land trust to lease the land their home sits upon. This reduced the costs of their mortgage and down payment substantially.    

Advertisement

They’re far from alone. Across the land trust’s portfolio today, there are about 565 other homes that enjoy similar terms, not to mention 2,100 rental and cooperative units. Half of these holdings are located within the city of Burlington itself, which had a total of 16,897 housing units as of 2010, meaning that about 7.6 percent of the stock sits on the nonprofit’s land.

“We don’t understand why housing isn’t done this way everywhere,” says Robbins, who says the cheaper mortgage allowed his family to save money for college and retirement that otherwise would have gone toward housing. “It’s just such a logical thing to have land owned by a community and the house be your private property to do with as you wish. We’ve just had a terrific life here so far because of it.”

The man largely responsible for this good fortune? Bernie Sanders.

While mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, the democratic-socialist senator and current contender for the Democratic presidential nomination was an early champion of community land trusts. Today, the organization whose creation he made possible—now called the Champlain Housing Trust—is the largest and most influential of its type in the nation.

Advertisement

Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations, with a board composed of representatives of the public, the local government, and the tenants, that obtain land and either develop it themselves or lease it to developers. The trust then removes its holdings from the private market, usually through 99-year ground leases and pre-emptive purchase requirements that limit how much the house can be sold for. Community land trust boosters argue that this not only ensures permanent affordability, but allows the organization to intercede in the case of, say, a foreclosure. An oft-cited study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy showed that, as of 2010, homeowners within a land trust were 10 times less likely to default on their homes than their private-market counterparts.

The Champlain Housing Trust (which changed its name after a 2006 merger with an affordable rental development nonprofit) is inarguably the most successful land trust in America. Although many others worked to create the organization and expand it in subsequent decades, Sanders provided the seed money from Burlington’s municipal budget, political support, and sustained funding for a nonprofit model largely untested in the 1980s—and one that remains a niche model today. By the latest tally, the National Community Land Trust Network’s membership only covers 25,000 rental units, smaller than the number of traditional public housing apartments the Chicago Housing Authority controlled at its peak. There are also 13,000 home-ownership units protected by the trusts. The model is growing, helping tens of thousands of families across the country live in affordable units, but it’s still dwarfed by traditional public housing.

Among  community land trusts, no other organization has grown to the size of the Champlain Housing Trust. The second largest is Dudley Neighbors Inc., which only focuses on a segment of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, and controls 225 units of housing. Without the distinctly revolutionary attitude Sanders brought to local housing policy in Burlington, Robbins’ life would probably be very different today.  

When the idea was first presented to his administration and its allies in 1983, Sanders voiced serious reservations. Founding land trust board member Tim McKenzie says that the mayor feared the restrictions on reselling properties would create a form of second-class home ownership. If middle- and upper-class people could build wealth off their houses, why should the working class be limited to shared equity? Sanders’ preferred methods of ensuring housing affordability were rent control—which Burlington voters shot down in a referendum in 1982—and providing direct subsidies to low-income residents who wanted to buy homes. 

Advertisement

“Bernie eventually saw the sense in our rebuttal that even though equity growth by community land trust homeowners is limited due to resale restrictions, it’s a better deal than renting,” says McKenzie. “Households would only be able to stop paying rent and begin building equity and wealth through homeownership if they could afford to buy a home in the first place.”

Not only did Sanders come around, but later in his term he passed a law requiring that all housing funds that the city controlled, both from local, state, and federal sources, be spent on permanently affordable housing. This idea proved popular not only with the mayor’s progressive allies in the city government but among fiscal conservatives who felt that giving subsidies to low-income homeowners solely aided the initial recipients, leaving the city to expend more resources in the future to buy more houses that would each only help one family. A consultant to the city during the establishment of the Burlington Land Trust, John Davis, recalls Republican Councilman Al Gear explaining his support of the concept: “I don’t like the idea of paying for the same thing twice.”

In 1984 the Sanders administration got the land trust started with a $200,000 seed grant and provided staff support from the municipal bureaucracy to shepherd the organization into existence. The city later made a significant loan from its pension fund, which was matched by the Burlington Savings Bank and bolstered with funds from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs to make initial home purchases affordable. To provide a more sustainable source of revenue, the Burlington Housing Trust Fund was created in 1988, bankrolled by a small increase in property taxes.

But some incumbent homeowners and realtors in the North End, a working-class neighborhood at the center of the trust’s activity, pushed back. A group backed by real estate interests called Homeowners Against the Land Trust began picketing City Hall. They red-baited Sanders and other democratic-socialist officials, claiming they were seizing land and betraying sacrosanct property rights. When a developer offered to build 40 new homes on a vacant parcel in the North End and donate them to the trust, HALT showed up in force at Planning Commission hearings. The group retooled the lyrics to “Home on the Range” (“Give us a home/ on land that we own…”) and marched into public hearings singing loudly. The group’s heated protests eventually forced the developer to only give seven of the homes to the trust, even though all 40 were built.

Advertisement

Nonetheless Sanders continued to champion innovative affordable housing concepts at the city level while also backing a state-level affordable housing trust fund that required its funds be spent on units with permanent affordability provisions. In Burlington this ensured that both state and municipal housing dollars would usually bolster the land trust’s stock. Today, Brenda Torpy, the land trust’s chief executive officer, estimates that about 15 percent of the city’s rental housing (including traditional public housing stock and other nonprofit holdings) has been removed from the market. The trust itself has expanded to include land in three counties.

Some of Sanders’ housing policy ideas are still considered radical, at least in small cities (like the series of tenant protections he enacted), but others have gained mainstream currency. A favorite proposal, inclusionary zoning—which requires developments of a certain size to include a set percentage of affordable housing—was adopted by his democratic-socialist successor and is now a widely utilized tool in cities across the nation. The same can’t be said of community land trusts.

 “Creating the first municipally funded community land trust in the nation is one of my proudest accomplishments as Mayor of Burlington,” Sanders said in 2012, after being honored by the National Community Land Trust Network for his work prompting the concept. (He championed language in 1992’s Housing and Community Development Act to ensure land trusts would be eligible for federal funds.) “The land trust model works, and must be part of the solution to the national housing crisis.”

But if the number of land trusts is growing—from 242 in 2011 to 280 today—it is hard to argue that they are yet a substantial part of the solution. No other organization has come anywhere close to the success enjoyed by the Champlain Housing Trust. In hot markets like Boston and Seattle, it is very difficult for fledgling nonprofits that lack municipal support or established funding mechanisms to obtain expensive land. The dozens of newly created community land trusts are more likely to emulate Boston’s Dudley Neighbors Inc., which focuses its activity in one neighborhood, or Seattle’s Homestead, which after 22 years has 191 units of housing scattered across the city. And those may be the best-case scenarios.

Advertisement

“Folks are always trying to get rid of affordable housing,” says Torpy, who says that the Champlain Housing Trust’s operating budget is $10 million but that every year it generates almost $100 million in development capital that goes into managing properties, making loans, and developing new housing and commercial uses. “We have to go out there and defend it every year. The federal funds get cut every year. Because of the size of our portfolio we are much more self-sufficient. We have developed some of our own capital to take risk in the market to get properties. A lot of organizations can’t compete like that.”

There are also critics of community land trusts on the left who fear that in some contexts they may actually cut against housing affordability. When a land trust is focused on one geographically contained area, the community members on the board may well advocate for single-family homes with yards and open spaces, as they did in Dudley, and not for the quantity of new housing needed to satisfy demand.

“One of the issues with the Dudley development is that it is an impediment to densification of that area,” says Matt Bruenig, a researcher of poverty, inequality, and welfare systems and a former Boston resident. “Lots of people would like to live in Boston and you have these big swaths of land in a prime part that just have single-family homes. That doesn’t solve the housing affordability problems in aggregate, it just moves it elsewhere in the city. There is a myopia in community land trust advocacy where they talk about how successful it is for the people it helps, but don’t consider if that is at the expense of others.”

Burlington doesn’t have the superheated housing market of Boston, of course. But according to John Davis, who now helms a consulting firm focused on community land trust development, the Champlain Housing Trust actually catches flak from NIMBYs for building too densely. All of the projects currently underway are multiunit apartment or condo dwellings, which include a 40-unit co-op in the North End, a 20-unit apartment building in a growing suburban municipality, and 80 apartments on the Champlain lakefront. The land trust also recently purchased a couple motels the state was using to temporarily house homeless people, converting them into single-room occupancy apartments with wraparound services for the chronically homeless.

Without Sanders’ support and advocacy, it’s unlikely there would be permanently affordable apartments being built on Lake Champlain. It is absolutely certain that the subsidies for affordable home ownership doled out in the 1980s, when HUD was far more generous than it is today, would have only helped the families that initially purchased the houses. Because of Sanders the house where Robbins lives will still be affordable to the next family in need.

 “I’ve talked with people across the country and they would die to have the kind of political support we’ve had over the years,” says Robbins, who went on to serve on the land trust’s board from 1997 to 2006. “We are where we are because we have that political commitment, we aren’t just a lonely nonprofit but a real partnership with government. We’re delighted to have Bernie still out there. I hope he goes all the way.”