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Some Groups In L.A. Are Turning To Community Land Trusts For Affordable Housing


The housing crunch in Los Angeles is so dire that many residents can't afford even a one-bedroom apartment. Some groups are turning to community land trusts as a cheaper alternative to building more affordable housing. Jesse Hardman reports.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Early evening in East Los Angeles, 30 people sit in metal chairs at a community center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, (speaking Spanish).

HARDMAN: Who likes their community, the facilitator asks. Everybody's hand goes up.

The group running the event is East LA Community Corporation, or ELACC. Thirty-two-year-old Roberto Garcia is an organizer there. He says there's urgency in these predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhoods that surround a resurgent downtown LA.

ROBERTO GARCIA: You know, there's families living in single studios, where it's, like, five people, and their family annual income is, like, $14,000 a year.

HARDMAN: Residents are looking for a way to push back against rising rents that displace them in favor of expensive condos and hip restaurants. Garcia's goal isn't just to stabilize rents. His organization wants to own the land those buildings are on.

GARCIA: We want to have a tool, which is the community land trust, to be able to take land and housing off the market.

HARDMAN: Community land trusts gained prominence in the United States in the late '60s as a way to secure land for farming and affordable housing for rural black families in the South. ELACC's trying to acquire city-owned land and turn it over to community members like 43-year-old single mom Sophia Vazquez.

SOPHIA VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HARDMAN: Referring to her East Side neighborhood, Vazquez says, I am Boyle Heights. I'll never abandon Boyle Heights.

But a few months ago, that wasn't a sure thing for this chef, who makes 11.50 an hour. Her rent went up to $1,100 a month. She couldn't afford it, so she and her teenage son had to move.

VAZQUEZ: (Through interpreter) Some days we slept in the car, other days at friends' homes because we were practically homeless.

HARDMAN: Vazquez is fighting an uphill battle to stay in the neighborhood she loves.

RON GALPERIN: Average rent in Los Angeles now is almost $2,200 a month.

HARDMAN: Ron Galperin is the LA city controller. He's a watchdog for how local taxpayer money is spent.

GALPERIN: I've seen so-called affordable units pencil out to even as much as $700,000 apiece. That is insane.

HARDMAN: LA could simplify some of this. It is, after all, the largest local landowner, with 9,000 parcels. That's the argument Rutgers University urban planning professor James DeFilippis makes. He says land trusts fight displacement.

JAMES DEFILIPPIS: You do the subsidy once at the front end, then you're done.

HARDMAN: DeFilippis cites successful examples of land trusts in places like Boston, Cincinnati and Burlington, Vt. But he says, ultimately, it's really hard to get cities to hand over the real estate because it's worth so much money.

DEFILIPPIS: Mayoral administrations that might be supportive don't really want to do that.

HARDMAN: What's at stake is the reason so many people want to live in a place like Los Angeles - its diversity. East LA housing advocate Roberto Garcia says that has to extend to economic diversity.

GARCIA: One day, I'll see families and children outside an apartment. And then the next day, I'll see it boarded up, and you don't know where those families went.

HARDMAN: Garcia says by sharing land, the city can retain its identity by becoming a more economically sustainable place to live. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.