A charity role in cheaper housing

In September, community land trusts, which offer housing to local people at affordable prices, became recognised by law. Tristan Donovan examines how they work and how they might develop.

Social housing in Manchester
Social housing in Manchester

Best known as the location for the film Jaws, the island of Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is also a holiday destination for America's rich and powerful. Its popularity has, however, left many islanders struggling to afford sky-high house and rental prices.

The islanders' answer was to form a community land trust. "There was a fear in the 1990s of the community being lost to high real estate prices; something had to be done," says Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust. "Working people here can't afford to buy or even rent, so they have no access to homes."

The Island Housing Trust, formed in 2001, helps local people at risk of being priced off the island to afford homes by removing the cost of land from house prices and selling only to those on low incomes.

Similar arrangements have become increasingly common across the US, and the movement is growing fast in the UK. In September, Parliament approved the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which created a legal definition for community land trusts. In the same month, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Tudor Trust and Venturesome formed the Community Land Trust Development Fund, a £2m fund to support the development of trusts (Third Sector Online, 1 October).

Although community land trusts are better established in the US than in the UK, their origins are much closer to home. "They're very English and date back to developments such as Letchworth Garden City and the pre-First World War land reform movement," says Martin Large, vice-chair of Gloucestershire Land for People. "The new community land trusts are seeking to reinvent the model for the current affordable housing crisis."

Alan Fox, manager of the Cornwall Rural Housing Association's community land trust project, which supports the development of trusts in the county, says the arrival of a legal definition and the Community Land Trust Development Fund will accelerate the growth of the movement in the UK. "The legal definition will help with drawing up legal agreements and dealing with mortgage lenders," he says. "The fund is also great news; every community land trust we've helped to set up relied on local authorities. But I would like to see the fund topped up with public money, because it is has only £2m to spend."

Large says community land trusts need to be careful not to become an extension of government housing policy. "Government money usually comes with strings attached," he says. "It's what happened to housing associations. They used to be community-led, but have been taken over by government regulation. That could happen to land trusts too. We need to define the boundaries between government and civic society carefully."

Roger Lewis, interim chief executive of the National Community Land Trust Network in the US, says clarity about the community's values is vital to the success of a trust. "It's important to zone in on the core values and norms in your community," he says. "Linking the cost of the trust's housing to the market or something else is a value judgement. What works for one community might not be right for another.

"It's also important to put those values in writing so they are not lost over time, and make sure that documents can be understood by all, not just lawyers."

Fox says trusts now need the Government to change planning and housing regulations to support their growth by introducing new measures such as an exemption from having to produce home information packs.

In the longer term, Large believes recent house price falls could be a big opportunity for trusts: "The house price slump is temporary, so there's an opportunity with low land prices to develop now and be in a good position to have a real social impact when prices start rising again."

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