This story is co-published with Nexus Media News and was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
In late September, Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful and costly storms to make landfall in the U.S., tore through southwest Florida and caused an estimated $67 billion in property damage. But on Big Pine Key, a community 100 miles southwest of Miami that saw flooding and storm surges up to five feet, 27 nearly-finished cottages were still standing, largely unharmed.
“It was a good test,” says Maggie Whitcomb, who helped develop the cottages. “You never want to have a storm, but it’s good to know after a serious weather event just how strong your construction is.”
Built atop 12-foot tall white podiums with water-resistant finishes and low-energy utilities, the cottages were constructed with structural insulated panels (SIPs), a strong, airtight substance made from renewable materials that can withstand 200-mile winds.
At $1,000 a month, they’re also some of the last affordable housing options for working-class residents. That’s because they are owned by the Florida Keys Community Land Trust (FKCLT), a nonprofit Whitcomb and her husband founded in 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
Hurricanes can cause billions of dollars of damage, and only a portion of that damage is covered by insurance in most cases. Property data analytics company CoreLogic estimates homeowners will be stuck with a bill from $10 to $17 billion in losses from Ian that weren’t covered by insurance. In a state that already pays three times the national average for home insurance and where many people have already lost all coverage, many homeowners will likely find it too expensive to rebuild.
“Storms are nature’s way of causing gentrification,” says Whitcomb, a part-time Keys resident. “I wanted to make sure that as few homes as possible were available to be flipped or turned into vacation homes.” In the wake of Irma, Whitcomb, who describes herself as a “radical altruist”, and her husband started buying property damaged by the storm with their own money, including a former RV park, and placed it in a public trust.
This stopped the land from entering the real estate market and spiking in price. Steven Kirk, president of Rural Neighborhoods, a nonprofit housing developer that partnered with FKCLT on the Big Pine Key cottage project, says this is one of the most powerful ways land trusts can help disaster recovery.
Big Pine Key, where median home prices are around $800,000, frequently ends up in the crosshairs of destructive storms. When Irma swept across the island, it destroyed nearly 500 homes and damaged 1,500 more. Nearly half of the destruction in the Keys was sustained by RVs and mobile homes, which were already in short supply, forcing rents up for the scant affordable units that remained.
It’s a phenomenon that researchers have tracked across the country: Disasters reduce communities’ housing stocks and drive up rent. When developers rebuild, they are typically incentivized to build more expensive housing than what had previously been there.
As climate change makes disasters like hurricanes, floods and wildfires become more frequent, severe and expensive, residents and policymakers are increasingly turning toward community land trusts (CLTs) — nonprofits that buy land to ensure community control, stave off displacement and ensure long-term affordability.
Like many land trusts, FKCLT rents its land trust units to families who earn 80% or less of the local adjusted median income (AMI), which in Florida’s Monroe County is around $73,000 for a two-person household. But in most cases, CLTs sell homes and rent the land to residents in a 99-year lease. Families only buy the home, not the land, and agree to resell the homes at restricted prices to keep them affordable.
Low income households and rental units (which disproportionately house Black and brown people) are more likely to suffer significant damage from natural disasters. Their residents also take around two to three times longer to rebuild their homes, according to research. Some housing never recovers at all, especially rental units, making it difficult for renters to find permanent housing after a hurricane or flood.
(Photo courtesy Florida Keys Community Land Trust)
Jennifer Li, attorney and climate adaptation expert at the Georgetown Climate Center, says local and state officials often focus on recovery without better preparing communities for disasters in the first place. This results in “dysfunctional Whac-A-Mole plans,” where leaders are scrambling as each disaster hits.
“Resilience is really hyperlocal, and it is very much something that should be community-led,” Li says. “So, the emphasis needs to be on this comprehensive approach to increasing the overall individual and community resilience of people who are hit first and the hardest.”
The number of CLTs doubled between 2003 and 2017, totaling more than 225 in the U.S., according to a count by Grounded Solutions Network (GSN). The nonprofit estimated in 2017, there were 12,000 CLTs housing units in the U.S., though that number did not include rentals held in trusts. A research fellow at GSN said they are currently conducting a new survey to update those figures.
Construction on the Big Pine Key cottages is expected to wrap up by the end of 2022. As of early November, applications were already pouring in.
“This is how the land trust can be at the forefront of both healthy housing [stock] and resilient housing,” said Kirk, the nonprofit housing developer.
Not If, But When
The Houston Community Land Trust (HCLT) doesn’t just want to house people, says executive director Ashley Allen. It wants to make sure they live somewhere safe from the elements. Too often, she says, developers build cheap housing in dangerous areas, which risks displacing vulnerable people who can’t afford to rebuild if their house is destroyed.
“We understand it’s not if another hurricane comes; it’s when,” Allen says. That’s why HCLT doesn’t buy homes or acquire land in environmentally hazardous areas, like flood zones. This is both for safety, and so new homeowners are not drowned in bills after a disaster.
“Part of affordability is creating quality and resilient homes so you’re not having to replace them,” Allen says. “And if we don’t address climate change, if we don’t address resiliency, we’re just going to keep creating affordability issues.”
HCLT was formed after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than two feet of rain over the Texas Gulf in 2017, damaging or destroying around one-third of Houston’s housing and causing $180 billion in damages, according to estimates by the Texas Law Review. This magnified an existing affordable housing shortage and created years of housing insecurity for many residents.
“[The city] needed something that was different, something that was innovative,” Allen says. The city of Houston has allocated $52 million to HCLT to subsidize homes purchased through their Homebuyer Choice Program, making it the largest city-funded CLT in the nation.
Ashley Allen (Photo courtesy HCLT)
Since 2018, the Houston land trust has provided nearly 100 families with subsidies toward market-rate homes. On average, residents pay less than $700 every month on a $75,000 mortgage — less than one-third of the median home price in Houston.
Allen, a former community organizer, says that community-led initiatives like CLTs help build trust within a neighborhood so the nonprofit can incorporate their needs into local initiatives and teach them about resiliency. As part of its post-purchase stewardship programming, HCLT tries to foster confidence by educating its new homeowners on things like solar panels or generators.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Allen says. “A CLT can play a major role in getting that information out and connecting people with affordable resources to make sure their home is protected, and they understand the impact of climate change.”
People Over Profit
The six-acre grass lot sandwiched between warehouses in Medford, Oregon, may not seem like much. But once completed, it will showcase the first 3D-printed neighborhood in the nation.
Named the New Spirit Village, the neighborhood will boast 84 affordable (developers said they are aiming for a price point of around $185,000), energy efficient and fire-resistant homes. They will be equipped with heat pumps, solar panels and a 3D-printed concrete structure, which is less flammable.
The neighborhood was designed for the hundreds of families who lost their homes in the 2020 Alameda Wildfire. It’s the latest project supported by Proud Ground, one of the largest community land trusts in the nation, which has housed more than 400 families in two decades.
Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, says CLTs are able to build innovative and sustainable housing because they are driven by their public mission, not profit.
“The land trust could play a piece of the puzzle for recovery and resilience and push the envelope on energy efficient homes,” Linn says. “For developers and builders, if they can’t make money on it, it’s not going to happen. But we’re not about profit. We’re about affordability and stewardship.”
New Spirit Village will also include a community garden and a resiliency hub, which will act as a community center and evacuation site. The hub will be stocked with a backup battery system, drinking water storage tanks, internet hotspots, fire sprinklers and an air purification system, ready for future wildfires.
“It’s there to give residents a chance instead of running haphazardly for their lives and having to track down the local services they need,” Linn says.
Just outside Seattle, the Homestead Community Land Trust finished construction on a dozen zero-energy, three and four-bedroom townhomes last year; the homes are outfitted with solar panels, low-flow water fixtures and energy efficient utilities. Last summer, 16 homes opened at a separate development in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood. Those units were outfitted with all-electric appliances and certified by the Built Green environmental standard, which affirms the highest energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable building materials. In a city where the median price for a home is more than $1.1 million, these homes are priced around $300,00 and are designated for families who make less than 80 percent of the area’s median income.
“We’re taking more of the preventative approach in all of these things,” says Kathleen Hosfeld, executive director. “And as a result, our folks aren’t experiencing the negative effects of those disasters.”
Homestead also requires that heat pumps and stormwater management technology be a standard in their homes and works with its homeowners to facilitate installing solar panels on dozens of homes.
“We can come together and choose to take land off the speculative market and put affordable, quality-built, environmentally sustainable homes on them,” Hosfeld says. “We can take advantage of this massive investment that needs to be made in housing. And do it right the first time.”
While CLTs can offer one route to create resilient, affordable housing after disasters, Linn says it’s expensive to subsidize and the difficulties in funding make it hard to scale.
“Community land trusts can only grow, and they can only help families if there is money from the federal, state or local governments to fund the gap between what it costs to either buy or build a unit,” Linn says.
Last year, one in 10 homes in the U.S. were impacted by natural disasters, according to CoreLogic. But Linn says that while she wants to believe CLTs can play a role in preparing for or tackling climate change, the investments have to match the scope of the problem.
“The CLT movement certainly has served a lot of families over the course of time nationwide,” Linn says. “But not nearly enough. And not nearly what could really make a difference.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Alexandra Applegate is a multimedia journalist and audio producer in Los Angeles focused on climate, the environment, housing and equity.