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Community land trusts offer affordable housing path

Atlanta skyline
Posted at 8:53 AM, Mar 29, 2022

ATLANTA, Ga. — There’s a song lyric that goes: “I wasn’t born but I’m gonna die in Atlanta, GA."

JaTawn Robinson may be its human embodiment.

Robinson lives in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, a few minutes from downtown Atlanta. It’s historically Black and historically affordable. That’s changing because it’s also close to the Atlanta Beltline, the 22-mile loop of repurposed freight track that has become one of the hottest segments of walking and biking in the city.

Robinson recently became a first-time homeowner thanks to a powerful tool being used in hundreds of American cities.

"I thought, 'Let’s look up the Atlanta Land Trust model, and see what that’s about,' and it was just a dream come true," Robinson said.

The Atlanta Land Trust is a community land trust. It's an approach to housing where a person buys a house but not the land on which the house sits. The land trust keeps that land, but because of that, it can sell the home to those who qualify well below market value.

“People are able to own their home and build some equity in it," said Nate Ela, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, "and then at the same time, that home stays permanent affordable, so that when people move out, they’re not selling it at market rate.”

Cincinnati’s land trust is considered the first urban land trust in the country. Today they’re all over.

Amanda Rhein runs the Atlanta Land Trust, which was built purposely to counteract the effects of the Beltline.

“The forces of gentrification are pretty powerful," Rhein said. "I don’t think you’re able to fully stop it from happening. But if you’re able to come into a community at the early stages of the process, you have a shot."

Robinson has lived in Atlanta her whole adult life. She works as a school secretary. She’s raising three teenage sons.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to leave something to them when they got to be older," Robinson said. "So it was very important that I did the right thing financially.”

She had always rented. But when she had finally saved enough to buy, and the prices citywide were so high, she found this path.

"My mortgage is less than what I used to pay for rent," Robinson said. “I know that I am sowing into something that belongs to us, so it’s a wonderful feeling.”

Even those who work in land trusts say they’re far from the only solution. Most succeed mainly because they’re funded by generous donors and backed by city leaders. They don’t fill the gap. But for Robinson and so many, they offer a way to build wealth and a way to live in Atlanta as long as she likes.

“I still feel like the city embraces us, and it’s a field of dreams," Robinson said. "Whatever you want to become, you can find it in Atlanta.”