Denver Invests in Community Land Trust That Grew Out of Anti-Displacement Movement

The city is funding three separate land trusts, looking for "innovative approaches" to affordable homeownership.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's administration recently invested $5.5 million in community land trusts, including $2 million to the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea coalition. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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In 2015, when housing costs and homelessness were on the rise across Denver, the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition was just gettings its bearings in a fight against neighborhood displacement.

Globeville, Elyria-Swansea (GES) is an area on the north side of Denver referring to two neighborhoods that are segmented by interstate highways and saddled with environmental contamination. Yet the two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites in the 80216 zip code, which includes Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, hadn’t slowed enthusiasm for development.

As gentrification loomed, says Nola Miguel, director of the GES Coalition, the most pressing issue in the minds of many in the area became affordable housing and the right of residents to stay in their neighborhood. Fairly quickly after it formed, the group began looking into forming a community land trust, which would allow residents to access long-term affordable homes on land that’s held in common to prevent runaway cost increases.

“It’s a little bit of a buzzword in the anti-displacement community, so when we started looking at what we were going to do, that was one of the first things that came up,” Miguel says.

Soon, the GES Coalition joined forces with Brothers Redevelopment, a nonprofit housing developer, and the Colorado Community Land Trust in order to incubate a community land trust of its own. Brothers Redevelopment made the first investment, buying three properties to rehabilitate for $600,000, according to Jeff Martinez, president of the group. The Department of Transportation granted the group $2 million in 2018 as part of the community benefits it promised in its I-70 expansion project. And last week, the City of Denver added another $2 million to the pot, as part of a larger series of investments in land trusts, totaling $5.5 million, around the city.

In addition to the GES investment, the city is awarding $3 million to the Elevation Community Land Trust to acquire and rehab 60 homes for long-term affordability, as part of the group’s larger goal of acquiring 700 scattered sites around the city. The city also awarded $485,000 to Habitat for Humanity to rehab and sell 10 homes at affordable rates on a 90-year restricted deed. The three models are all slightly different, and that was part of the point, says Britta Fisher, the chief housing officer with the Denver Economic Development & Opportunity department. The three investments are an outgrowth of a Request for Interest that the city released a year ago looking for “innovative approaches to the land trust model.”

“This was really our pilot to put some initial capital into these models and look at what kind of outcomes we’re able to get from each of these models,” Fisher says. “We’re really trying to pull every lever that we can to advance affordability throughout Denver, and community land trusts and long-term affordability are very important to that conversation.”

The city plans to generate and spend $150 million from an affordable housing trust fund over ten years, and Fisher says that 20-25 percent of that money will go toward affordable homeownership. And one of the goals of the city’s Housing an Inclusive Denver report, released last year, was to explore a greater investment in community land trusts. Last year’s land trust RFI was a chance to look at the city’s overall homeownership strategy, Fisher says, and the goal of investing in land trusts is to prevent gentrification from pushing Denverites out of the city.

“We hope that people are able to stay in the neighborhoods that they love, and that children that have the desire to return to their neighborhoods have units where they feel that that’s possible,” Fisher says.

For the GES Coalition, the financial support is crucial to its mission, but so is the process.

“The idea of us as a community being able to define what affordability means, for us to do community-led development — that was a big deal for us,” Miguel says.

Miguel estimates that in order to provide for every family at risk of displacement from GES, the land trust would need to include at least 500 homes. And Jeff Martinez, of Brothers Redevelopment, estimates that the GES community land trust would need about $15 million to get rolling on its own, independent of the Colorado Community Land Trust, and provide the level of affordable for-sale housing that the neighborhoods need.

For now, the group is planning to acquire 150 homes over the next five years. The coalition is also dedicating a portion of the $2 million city grant to acquiring land for a potential new development of multifamily rental housing that would need to leverage additional private and public funding such as Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. Meanwhile, private investors are increasingly interested in the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods.

“We’re kind of working against the market and against time right now,” Martinez says. “So we’re just going to do the best we can.”

And housing is only the most urgent aspect of the larger goal of community preservation in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, says Miguel.

“I know people don’t want to talk about the cultural aspects of this stuff, but it’s extremely important,” Miguel says. “This community has been built up and sustained by Latino leaders in the last 50 years. How do we maintain that?”

Given the history of environmental problems and highway-induced destruction in the area, distrust of the government runs deep in Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Miguel says. But the GES Coalition has been working with the city to establish the community land trust for years, while striving to keep community leaders at the center of the process.

“Within the community, it’s tough to take money from the city,” Miguel says. “We also took money from CDOT during the worst construction project ever. But our reasoning is that we not only need it, but we deserve it.”

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.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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