Champlain Housing Trust

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= example of a successful Community Land Trust in Burlington, Vermont


By David Robertson:

"CLTs in the United States have become more common as various forms of “third sector housing” have emerged aside from traditional private and public housing options. The Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) is the biggest of at least 240 CLTs in the U.S. and is located in Champlain, Vermont. CHT manages 2,200 apartments and oversees 565 owner-occupied homes. To support its members, it provides home purchase education, financial counseling, affordable energy efficiency services and loans for home repairs.

The CHT was started by a US$200,000 loan with the goal to increase the number of affordable homeownership opportunities, provide access to land for low-income residents, and promote neighborhood preservation and improvement. As a non-profit organization, the CHT serves residents whose income is no more than 80% of the average median income in that area.

Like many other CLTs, the CHT has a governing board divided in thirds and elected by residents: one-third of its membership is constituted by CHT residents; another third from surrounding communities; and the final third is comprised of municipal officials and a regional representative who are presumed to speak for the public interest (in other CLTs this final third is often comprised of technical specialists like engineers, accountants, planners, architects, social workers or lawyers). CHT’s particular governing board is made up of 15 people. Residents in the CHT obtain their land parcels through long-term ground leases for 20 years. They make a contract where they have full rights to the land, but only receive 25% of the appreciation of the land value if they choose to sell their property. This formula allows residents to regain their downpayment investment, the equity earned by paying off a mortgage and the value of pre-approved capital improvements, as well as 25% of the land appreciation value. It is meant to be fair, but also to allow the housing to remain affordable for future residents." (


Jerome Birolini:

"The Champlain Housing Trust (from here on referred to as the CHT) is the largest CLT in the USA and the first one to have expanded its landholdings through a partnership with a municipality. The CHT resulted from the merger of the Lake Champlain Housing Development with the Burlington Community Land Trust (the BCLT), both of which were created in 1984 at the instigation of the Burlington's municipal government. At the time, the level of grassroot activism from citizens had been intensifying with were tenants rights organization raising concerns that the development of an expanding business district had put the city at risk of gentrification and displacement. The rising discontentment combined with the radical thinking at work among some of the activists led to the election of a third party mayor in Burlington: Bernie Sanders. After the first Reagan administration ended federal government programs to fund affordable housing, the Burlington's progressive municipal coalition started to grow increasingly concerned that a rising cost of housing combined with declining levels of federal subsidies would lead to a shortage of affordable social housing, the displacement of lower-income families and the destabilization of local residential neighbourhoods. They decided to shift the focus of the city's housing policy on two pillars: encouraging the nonprofit production of affordable housing and ensuring the perpetual affordability of any housing produced using subsidies provided by the public sector. After various unsuccessful attempts to limit the increase in the cost of housing through rent control mechanisms, the Burlington administration turned to the Institute for Community Economics (ICE) which had been promoting the CLT concept since the 1970's under the leadership of Bob Swann and Chuck Matthei. John E. Davis, who was on the staff of the ICE back then, was sent to Burlington to help create the trust. After more than four months of intense preparation and planning work designed to build an initial base of support and educate the community about the CLT, the trust was incorporated. The BCLT was set up as a classic CLT in the sense that the ownership and the use of the land were separated while restrictions on the resale price of the properties on the land were put in place. The funding as well as the support provided by the municipality proved to be crucial for its development. The BCLT was started with a USD 200,000 grant from the city of Burlington which was later complemented by a USD 1 million line of credit from the city employees' pension fund. The first house was initially acquired on the open market at full market price and it was only later that the BCLT, now known as the CHT, started to acquire properties on more favorable terms. Twenty years after the initiation of its activities, the CHT has grown into a very significant social landlord with more than 2,300 units of permanently affordable housing under its management and stewardship. The CHT has also developed a wide range of complementary services designed to improve the quality and the affordability of the housing for the residents. Two centers for homebuyer education were notably set up in order to assist first-time buyers in their acquisition and help them manage their finances. Additionally, a number of partnerships were developed to provide advantageous terms to low-income households and assist them with down payments were developed. Finally, office space has been created and leased out to a number of local non-profit organizations which provide health care, day care, senior services, legal aid, homelessness assistance and other essential services to residents of the trust. Operationally, the CHT has developed a fee-based membership which helps cover its costs and build its balance sheet. Contributions come in various forms, from a ground rent charge of USD 25 per month from leasehold members to gift capital from local businesses, social investors and individuals supportive of the trust's work. These funds have since been used to leverage the additional capital grants received from the city and the state and acquire land and loans for development finance. From time to time, the trust tried to engage in non-residential projects with the aim to diversify its revenue stream. But almost none of the projects undertaken were able to reach break even and become sustainable profit centers. According to John E. Davis and Pat Conaty (both interviewed for the present dissertation), commercial development has proved to be a more complex and risky venture, requiring a different set of skills as well as a greater tolerance for risk which the members of the CLT movement have yet to acquire.

In 2008, Burlington Associates performed a full-scale cost-benefit study to examine the impact that the CHT had had in terms of affordability, access to homeownership for persons of modest means, stewardship of public resources and stabilization of residential neighbourhoods. The following findings, extracted from the study, were outstanding: - In terms of affordability, the results have shown that the trust was continually helping persons of more modest means to access homeownership (the study demonstrated that the average earnings of its households were of 68.6% of the average median income (AMI) in 2008 vs. 69.4% of AMI in 2002). The affordability of its homes also improved, with properties now being accessible to persons earning as low as 53.4% of AMI (vs. 56.6% in 2002). - The CHT has been a creator of individual wealth. Burlington Associates estimates that on average, homeowners investing in a CHT home for five-and-a-half years, have pocketed net equity gains of USD 12,000. Those who have made capital improvements in their homes received even more. - As a direct consequence of the above mentioned the residential mobility was also enhanced. 67% of the CLT homeowners that have sold their homes with the trust were indeed able to afford to move on to open-market properties. - Finally the CHT did a great job in retaining community wealth. In total, Burlington Associates estimated that an initial public investment of about USD 2.2 million allowed the CHT to bring homeownership within the reach of 357 lower-income households. Had these subsidies not been retained in the homes, allowing their owners to pocket both the public's investment and all capital gains when reselling, Burlington Associates estimates that the size of the public’s investment needed to serve the same number of households at the same level of income as CHT had served would have been five times greater. By succeeding at providing affordable housing and regenerating its local neighbourhoods while retaining community wealth, the CHT has proven that it was possible to promote the interest of low-income, first-time homebuyers while looking after the interests of the larger community. Over the years, the CHT has won many awards for its outstanding achievement and innovation, among which the prestigious United Nations World Habitat Award for the Global North in 2008. The support of both the city of Burlington and the state of Vermont has been - and still remains - absolutely crucial in expanding the trust's operations. This is what enabled the organization to eventually scale up and to become self-sustainable. There is absolutely no doubt that the strong and generative partnership that the CHT has developed with its local governments has been its greatest enabler of success. John E. Davis was notably unequivocal on the matter: “in order to have an expanding CLT movement, you need the support of the public sector”. He also acknowledged that given the CHT's dependence on public authorities and the lack of alternative sources of capital, the expansion of the trust would be severely compromised in the absence or the withdrawal of such support.

The social, economic and societal benefits brought by the CLT are clear and significant. And yet the needs of both the precariat and the public sector go well beyond permanently affordable housing. For instance, the provision of stable living-wage employment opportunities and/or the economic revitalization of disinvested neighbourhoods, which CLTs are not equipped to deliver at the moment, will be crucial for the well-functioning of any community as well as the well-being of any of its member. Unlike other parts of the Co-operative movement which has found ways of generating their own capital, and develop on a scale that is still largely underestimated, CLTs do not provide co-operative accumulation and therefore do not solve the social reproduction issue. Therefore, and if we are to make the CLT a progressive movement for change, there is a need to complement CLTs it with other forms of generative and for-benefit enterprises such as social enterprises and co-operatives. Indeed, only such forms of generative and community-owned ownership models will be able to provide both the movement and its members with the cooperative accumulation and the capital that will strengthen their viability, and eventually make them economically autonomous.

We will now turn to another example of a community-based development initiative which was also able to see the light thanks to the support of local authorities: Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB). Even though it was not set up as a CLT, parallels can be drawn between the CHT and a community-development organization such as CSCB since both share the same common objective: the regeneration and stewardship of their local communities. As for the CHT, the appropriation of the land was supported and facilitated by the local authorities. And as in Burlington, this also proved to be the crucial step which enabled the community-led organization to start regenerating its neighbourhood. But unlike the CHT, CSCB very early chose to develop a commercial strategy with the aim to become financially self-sustainable. This has since enabled them to diversify their revenue stream and make the whole organization much less reliable on local governments' grants for its expansion and therefore much more free to design its own development agenda and provide not only affordable housing but also for a number of the socio-economic needs of its local residents." (