Land Trusts and Co-op Housing: Building Better Neighborhoods

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

 

Andrea Reese. Photo Sarah Whiting

When she was two, Andrea Reese moved with her mother and her older brother from Minneapolis to Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. As a single mother, Reese’s mother wanted to move her children to a place that felt like home. There, Reese learned especially from her elders that self-service “is taking care of your people.”

Eventually, as an adult and mom to a growing family, Reese moved eight times in ten years. Her young family needed more space, a better location, or the ability to get away from increasing rents in a neighborhood that had become unaffordable.

In 2012, she began working for Mni Sota Fund, a nonprofit designed to increase access to homeownership for Native homebuyers. For the next four years she learned a lot in that job, including what a credit report does. She was able to become a homeowner. Today she provides a stable, multigenerational home for her kids and her mother.

Reese attributes her ability to buy a home to budget coaching, homebuyer and financial education resources, and people who helped her improve her credit score and savings.

“If we can afford to rent something, we should be able to afford to buy something of our own, right? But that’s not always true,” Reese says. “There are barriers. We also need to understand credit and debt. That pre-work to being mortgage ready is very important to learn.”

Today, Reese is executive director of the City of Lakes Community Land Trust (CLCLT), expanding on the multi- generational and community values she appreciated growing up. CLCLT holds land with a 99-year lease, enabling people housed on that land to live more affordably. The cost of the land is not absorbed by the owner. The homeowner’s children and grandchildren can renew the property lease.

CLCLT has programs that allow low- to moderate- income people to purchase higher-quality homes, secure from evictions. Mortgages through CLCLT are made with consistent and affordable principal and interest payments. One homeowner went from paying $1,100 per month — most of her Social Security check — to $704 a month. CLCLT has helped more than 400 families achieve homeownership.

As Reese notes, prices for homes in the open market are increasing steadily partly because housing stock is bought up by investors, many of them not based in Minnesota, and then rented at unaffordable rates.

Land trusts and shared equity housing — which have resale restrictions on subsidized housing, such as the One Roof model in Duluth — are a growing option, in part to counter the steady increase of home market prices. The Grounded Solutions Network indicated in a 2022 report that there has been a 30 percent increase in alternative housing models since 2011.

A land trust strengthens communities because of local ownership, Reese says. “The more community owners we have in those homes, the more we’re going to build that into a better block and a better neighborhood.”

The multigenerational aspect of holding the land in trust, Reese adds, is also about “paying it forward.”

Reese is currently paying $100 less for her mortgage than she did as a renter. “When you are a renter, you are paying someone else’s mortgage,” she says. With a more affordable monthly housing payment, Reese has been able to buy a reliable vehicle and pay down debt.

The biggest benefit of homeownership for Reese, however, is something she considers invaluable: “I think moving my mom in with us has had the biggest impact. My kids can have this close relationship with their grandma. I can have cousins over for extended periods of time. I can be this anchor. That’s what homeownership has really provided for my family.”

One of the obstacles to growing the model is that housing stock for land trusts is limited — there are “not enough single-family homes, condos, units.” The CLCLT can purchase land for housing developments, but often it is more affordable to purchase land where houses and condos already exist.

CLCLT collaborates with organizations such as Hope Community; together they have created seven condo units in Minneapolis. It is working with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity to develop 17 townhomes. MacKenzie Scott, the private philanthropist formerly married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, recently added CLCLT to her list of organizations receiving donations.

Manufactured Homes and Cooperatives

Another growing solution to address limited access to affordable and secure housing is the cooperative model.

People who live in manufactured homes — aka mobile homes — don’t own the land they live on. This exposes the community to potential lot rent increases. Manufactured homeowners also lose their right to live on the land when the owner sells it for redevelopment.

Northcountry Cooperative Foundation (NCF) is a non- profit organization in Saint Paul, founded in the late 1990s to develop cooperative models for housing. The foundation works with the seller of a manufactured home lot or — starting more recently — a multifamily apartment to buy the property. NCF provides a coach to help members organize a co-op structure. Members select an interim board of directors to lead the co-op process. By the time the transaction is complete, the co-op team has secured a loan, has created community rules, and has policies and procedures in place for its ownership. Eventually, the community is 100 percent member owned.

The co-op works to stabilize rents by controlling operating expenses. “There are no third-party profit motives,” says Victoria Clark-West, NCF’s executive director. “There are no outside shareholders they need to pay. The co-op’s primary purpose is to provide affordable housing.”

NCF has helped 14 manufactured home communities become cooperatively owned, including in Wisconsin, Iowa, and many places in Minnesota such as Cannon Falls, Gaylord, and Fairmont. In 2021, NCF assisted in the development of Woodlawn Terrace Cooperative in Richfield, which is licensed for 53 households.

Bev Adrian, the Woodlawn Terrace board president, lived through a manufactured lot closure in Bloomington in the early 2000s, weeks after she moved in. She quickly became an advocate for owners of manufactured homes. Adrian explains that without the co-op ownership model, investors who own lots could “raise the rent two times a year [by] 10 percent.”

A large manufactured home park in the Twin Cities was recently purchased by an investor group. Lot rents were raised to nearly $1,000 a month. In comparison, Adrian’s lot rent at Woodlawn is a more affordable $625 per month. Since she has no mortgage on her manufactured home, that is her total monthly housing cost.

“The co-op model is all about rent control,” she says.