Residents Look to Form Community Land Trust

A coalition of Oberlin residents and business leaders is in the process of forming a local community land trust with the goal of increasing housing affordability and community investment in Oberlin.

A CLT is a way for a group of stakeholders to acquire different properties in their community and assume stewardship responsibilities for them. While the CLT manages the land, residents still purchase or rent their homes. At its core, the model is meant to promote community land ownership.

According to Marge Misak, a Cleveland-based independent land trust consultant, CLTs generally promote housing affordability.

“Community land trusts fundamentally are a way for a community to control land for community uses and community needs for the present and into the future,” she said. “I would say the primary use of them is to help control housing affordability.”

Liz Burgess, OC ’73, owner of Ginko Gallery, and Krista Long, owner of Ben Franklin and MindFair Books, were inspired to bring a CLT to Oberlin as they approach retirement age.

Burgess says that, for middle-income seniors, the options for affordable, supportive housing options in Oberlin are limited.

“The more we looked into co-housing and senior options, they’re not affordable for those of us in the middle, those of us who neither can afford Kendal [at Oberlin] nor have few enough assets to qualify for subsidized senior housing,” she said. “So we’re in the middle, and there’s a lot of us in the middle.”

Lack of affordable housing for middle-income seniors was an issue specifically identified in a 2017 study of Oberlin’s housing market. Other challenges indicated in the study included aging housing stock and lack of housing options for low-income families and families with children. The study also found that Oberlin has a lower-than-average proportion of children in the community and that many Black families have moved away from Oberlin due to a lack of employment and housing options.

Organizers hope that a CLT will help address many of those deficiencies.

“The more we learned about it, the more we thought, ‘Wow, this would be incredibly useful for Oberlin in a variety of ways,’” Burgess said. “But especially to address the housing issues that had been identified in the city’s housing study.”

And so the idea for an Oberlin CLT was born. According to Burgess and Long, a group of people came together to guide the project, including representatives from the city of Oberlin, Kendal at Oberlin, Providing Oberlin With Energy Responsibly, El Centro Volunteer Initiative, and others.

To get started, the group reached out to Misak, hoping to benefit from her experience with the area and determine whether a CLT would work in Oberlin.

In partnership with the CLT leadership coalition, Misak launched a year-long study funded by the Community Foundation of Lorain County. Misak noted in particular that a wide range of community members were invested in bringing a CLT to Oberlin.

“The city being on board, in the sense of their planning director being a part of this and knowing really just about every parcel in the city, is really helpful,” Misak said. “So they really are coming to this with a strong stakeholder group.”

With regard to the city of Oberlin, both Councilmember Heather Adelman and Director of Planning and Development Carrie R. Handy have been involved in the CLT planning process. Handy noted that the city has committed staff time to the project, but not financial resources.

After working with Misak, members remained sure that the CLT model would be a good fit for the Oberlin community.

“The beauty of the CLT structure is that … it’s very co-op-like, in [that] you want the members to participate in the decision making,” Long said. “You want them to be able to be involved and responsible for the way the organization operates.”

However, actually launching the CLT is far from a done deal, and some significant challenges remain in getting it off the ground.

The first are logistical — the organization is still in the process of filing paperwork to become officially recognized by both the state of Ohio and the Internal Revenue Service.

Once all the paperwork is submitted, the group will need to fundraise and educate the community about what a CLT is. According to Misak, educating Oberlin residents is vital, but she’s optimistic that the current leadership group will be able to get it done.

“There’s a lot that goes into it in terms of the knowledge base,” she said. “[CLTs] are challenging to figure out. You have to understand the land leasing and the decisions that have to be made about that for your community. So the challenge of that is you need people who are really invested in learning that for the long term. And, frankly, [Oberlin has] overcome that and been able to meet regularly and figure that out.”

For Handy, who has focused on the financial aspects of the proposed CLT, fundraising is key.

“Probably the biggest barrier is going to be money and finding sufficient funding to do the projects that they want to do,” she said. “There are various funding sources out there, but it takes time to write … applications to get those funds.”

For now, both Burgess and Long recognize the need to educate and fundraise, and they aren’t making too many concrete plans beyond those steps. On Monday, March 4, the coalition leading the CLT effort is holding a membership kick-off event from 5–8 p.m. in the lower level of the Huntington Bank building at 5 South Main Street.

Burgess, Long, and the rest of the CLT coalition hope that other members of the Oberlin community will be inspired to learn more about their work and ultimately get involved, financially and otherwise.

“We foresee, you know, small neighborhood gatherings where people can actually … talk about it, ask questions, dig into it,” Long said. “I think that’s how it’s going to build.”

Community members and students alike are welcome at the March 4 event. Interested parties can contact El Centro Housing and Physical Development Manager Maria Carrion at [email protected]