If you are a teacher or a police officer and have been looking to buy a home closer to where you work in Portland, you know that few opportunities exist to buy a place you can afford. The monthly costs to own a house in Portland often exceed 30 percent of a household’s income, the government benchmark for affordability.

Despite this yawning gap between what families with moderate incomes can afford and what housing costs, there are few, if any, government programs to help bridge this gap to make owning a home in Portland possible. Significant government funding is available to help reduce the cost of housing for renters with low incomes ($74,440 for a family of four earning 80 percent of the area median income), but not for households with slightly higher incomes seeking to own their home. City funds are available to create housing in new developments, via inclusionary zoning, for ownership for households of four with an income of $111,600 (120 percent of the area median income), but not for incomes slightly lower.

It is this lack of housing for people with incomes in the “missing middle” that is contributing to the housing crisis in Portland. There is a way to create housing that can make homeownership in Portland more attainable for people in the “missing middle.” It is called a community land trust.

As a nonprofit organization, a community land trust works to acquire land to develop housing to be sold to households with incomes between 80 percent to 120 percent of the area median income, the “missing middle” income range. The trust makes housing available at a lower price by removing the cost of land from the purchase price. Given the opportunity to buy a house at below market rate, the homeowner in a community land trust agrees, in turn, to sell at below market price in the future, keeping the home affordable for another moderate-income family. In this way the community land trust, with only the initial subsidy to buy land, keeps the home affordable as the home is bought and sold in the future.

This resale agreement between the community land trust and homeowner also lets them capture some of the equity from the increased value of the home, allowing them to build wealth as they climb the economic ladder. First-time homeowners are coached by the community land trust on the basics of homeownership. The community land trust empowers homeowners to participate in the management of their property by having them on its board.

In the many places where they exist, community land trusts’ engagement with homeowners has ensured much lower rates of foreclosure in times of economic downturn than mortgage holders experience in typical developments. By creating housing that people can afford, close to where they work, the community land trust also builds sustainable neighborhoods and communities where families can set down roots and contribute to the long-term well-being of the city.

The city of Portland is on the threshold of approving its first community land trust housing development. The land, a parcel owned by the city at 21 Randall St. in the East Deering neighborhood, could become home for 13 families if a proposal by the Greater Portland Community Land Trust is accepted by the city this summer. The development will have a mix of one- and three-bedroom units to accommodate people from a variety of economic situations and family size. The selling price of the units will make them affordable to households in the “missing middle” while not requiring subsidies like affordable-housing tax credits or grants from the city’s housing trust fund.

By minimizing the cost to the city of Portland in these times of economic turmoil, the Greater Portland Community Land Trust proposal will not compete with other projects for limited funds. This project will allow the city to use a new approach that strengthens and complements the city’s housing strategy. The next step in the city’s review and, hopefully, approval of the Greater Portland Community Land Trust’s proposal for 21 Randall St. is at the next meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development Committee, on Aug. 18, starting at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. Stay tuned.


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