I have been wondering how to provide affordable sustainable housing for some time now. The cost of housing can be broken down into the land or site cost, the build cost, and the developers’ profit. It is also influenced by the supply and demand for housing in a particular area as well as the cost and availability of mortgages.
I thought about ways to control the land or site cost which typically required finding distressed sale situations or buying awkward sites at auction, which comes caveated with its own risks and uncertainties. I contemplated managing the development costs, subscribing to the adage of good design doesn’t have to be expensive. Interest rates are low at the moment, but a significant investment of equity is required and that doesn’t get a developer over the hurdle of managing risks and convincing lenders to part with their cash in a depressed property market. Besides, interest rates will not stay low forever and cannot be relied upon as a sustainable solution to affordable development.
This led me to think about the factors affecting buyers that require housing to be affordable. A friend who was a teacher was able to purchase a one-bedroom flat four years ago with a significant government key-workers’ grant, based on certain criteria. 20% of the purchase cost of the flat was funded by this grant. My friend provided her own savings to pay for the stamp duty and legal costs and she was able to get a mortgage for the remaining 80% of the cost. From what I recall, if she ever sold her flat, she would have to repay the grant plus a proportion of the net profit from sale back to the government.
It was on this basis that I was trying to develop a similar home-building concept, based on some form of profit-sharing if the properties were subsequently sold. The sale of a new, affordable property can be limited to a first-time or low-income buyer, but if the property was subsequently sold on the open market there is the inevitability that the property will no longer be affordable. Without the imposition of socially-minded restrictions, the provision of affordable housing is subject to abuse and manipulation, with profits lost in the open market rather than ploughed back into building more affordable properties.
And then there is the Community Land Trust (“CLT”), a construct that has been applied in the US, whereby ownership of publicly-owned land, which is an opportunity for re-development, is transferred to a trust, which then owns it on behalf of the community. The objective would be to keep the community’s interests in mind and build affordable housing on the land, available for sale via a leasehold structure to qualifying persons that would otherwise find it financially prohibitive to purchase homes. Properties can be sold back to the CLT for a value, based on a formula that is intended to give the home-owners a reasonable return on their equity investment, but also ensures affordability for future buyers. The critical feature is the governance and leadership of the CLT. In its original conception, the CLT would be governed in equal proportions by three representative groups – the leaseholders/ occupiers, residents from the neighbouring community, the public-at-large (not-for-profit housing providers, funders, public officials, others concerned person representing the public interest). Three features of the CLT are critical and curious:
- The transfer of land to the CLT is made at a fair and affordable price – this could mean existing use value, sub-market value, or the ultimate in affordability – £1.
- The long-term management, leadership, and governance of the CLT maintains the intentions and values of creating an affordable, sustainable community.
- Restrictions placed on the future selling prices of homes change the dynamics and economy of real estate on the site.
Without these three features, sustainable affordability fails. At the sight of this, the capitalists might be throwing their hands up in the air. The attitudes that fuelled the property frenzy up to 2006/07 are challenged and confronted full-on. The easy money found in a rising property market is no longer. It was lazy and unproductive and, if anything, it was destructive. Many blame the banks for loose mortgage lending principles. But underlying it was an attitude that wealth could be created and accumulated through buying property and flipping it. Property was exchanging hands at lightning speeds, without any evidence of improvements – not in the businesses that it housed, not in the communities in which it was situated, not in the buildings themselves. Increases in capital value were speculative and not founded on true value creation or accretion.
The whole ethos of a CLT challenges the attitude of relying on a rising property market for wealth accumulation. If a CLT and its development is managed properly and if a true sustainable community is built on and around it, it will be highly sought after – its value would sky-rocket. It’s a bit ironic because no one would actually be able to capitalise on that value other than qualifying to live there. Beautiful. Poetic even. Now that is the true value of property.
For more information about Community Land Trusts, check out the entry on Wikipedia or the UK-based Community Land Trust Directory. London-based charity, London Citizens is bidding to develop the first CLT in London on the former hospital site of St. Clement’s. Read more about it here.