Albany Community Land Trust (1987)

Albany, New York


The Albany Community Land Trust was launched in the 1980s through the efforts of United Tenants of Albany (UTA), whose staff had become interested in the community development and community finance models being promoted by the Institute for Community Economics (ICE). Between 1984 and 1985, with technical assistance from Kirby White, ICE staff member and Capital District resident, and with the hard work of a diverse organizing committee, the Capital District Community Loan Fund (now the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region) was established.  Once the loan fund was up and running, UTA turned its attention to the other model that ICE was actively promoting – the community land trust.

UTA brought together a CLT Organizing Committee, drawing on its many contacts with residents in Albany’s low-income neighborhoods.   The majority of the committee’s members lived in the primarily African American, low-income neighborhoods of Arbor Hill and West Hill.  So it was agreed that, although the CLT might eventually work anywhere in Albany, its first efforts would be concentrated in those neighborhoods.  It was also agreed that the CLT’s mission would be to create opportunities for permanently affordable homeownership, since most of the residents of those neighborhoods had been life-long tenants.  It was assumed that this mission would include improving housing quality and neighborhood conditions.  The Albany Community Land Trust (ACLT) was formally incorporated in 1987.

A number of other nonprofit housing organizations already existed in Albany at the time, including neighborhood-based organizations that served Arbor Hill and West Hill respectively, and that received financial support from the state’s “Neighborhood Preservation” program and the city’s housing programs funded through CDBG.  Early in the organizing process, ACLT’s founders reached out to these organizations to say that they didn’t want to compete with them for public funding or for neighborhood support, but did want to cooperate with them to preserve the affordability of the subsidized homeownership projects these existing organizations were developing.

The UTA-backed newcomer was received with friendly interest by these established organizations.  It was agreed that, at least in theory, some kind of cooperation might make sense, and younger staff members of the two existing nonprofits were encouraged to volunteer with the Albany CLT.  Some of them did, bringing to the fledgling CLT useful experience with city and state housing development programs, as well as an enthusiastic interest in trying a new model.  One of these young staff people, Bob Radliff, would eventually become the Albany CLT’s executive director (and later still would become executive director of the Capital District Community Loan Fund).  Founders of the Albany CLT also met with city officials to introduce the community land trust model and to make it clear that they hoped to be able to work with the city.  Again, there was friendly interest and an invitation to “show us what you can do,” but there was no immediate promise of financial support.

Housing in the two disinvested neighborhoods targeted by ACLT was generally in poor condition, but prices were low and it was possible to find single-family homes, as well as two- and three-family homes, that were structurally sound and did not require expensive rehabilitation.  An Acquisition Committee, including neighborhood residents and people with housing rehabilitation experience, was formed by the new board of directors to work with ACLT’s part-time staff person (who was initially paid by UTA).  A friendly realtor agreed to share MLS listings for the neighborhoods and to show the committee properties in which they were interested.  Selected homes were then purchased with 3-year loans from ICE and the new Community Loan Fund, covering 100% of the purchase price.

A Resident Selection Committee was also formed.  Included on this committee were United Tenants personnel and other community representatives – so that it had the contacts needed to identify families who were eager to gain control of their own homes and who were prepared to move into ACLT homes as soon as the new CLT had acquired title and made essential repairs.  The new residents had not been prequalified for mortgages before moving in, and most of them would not be able to qualify unless given more time and assistance. The result was a kind of ad hoc lease-purchase program that had not been entirely thought through but that seemed the only possible way to move ahead

The CLT’s first residents were Bill and Phosia Rowe, who might actually have qualified for a mortgage, since Bill had just retired from a long career with the State Office of General Services and the couple had a modest but stable retirement income. But Bill died suddenly of a heart attack soon after they moved in, leaving Phosia with an extremely limited income.  ACLT succeeded in refinancing the home with a loan from concerned individuals on charitable terms that allowed Phosia’s monthly payment to the CLT to be set at an affordable level.  Phosia chose not to take on the unfamiliar responsibilities of homeownership and remained a secure tenant in her ACLT home for the rest of her life.  After her death, her home was rented by ACLT to another family.

Phosia was not the only supposed lease-purchase tenant who became a permanent tenant in an ACLT home.  Some did purchase their homes eventually, entering into a 99-year lease for the land beneath their homes, but some were not able to buy, or simply chose not to.   ACLT opted not to force these tenants to leave – and the Community Loan Fund agreed to extend its financing for those homes as rental properties.  The reality was that for many of these residents the goal was not to build equity through ownership, but to have the kind of long-term security that conventional tenancy did not offer.

ACLT’s second resident, Judy Coleman, who did eventually become an ACLT homeowner, said that before moving into her ACLT home she had lived in 30 rental apartments in the course of her life.  What she desperately wanted now was a place where her family could “stay put.”

The result of this serendipitous “lease-purchase” program for ACLT was that much of its time was taken up with rental management responsibilities (although long-term tenants did tend to take good care of their homes).  Progress toward the original goal of creating permanently affordable homeownership was slow.  In time, the organization gained access to HOME funds both through the city, where it was recognized as a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO), and through the state, and was able to use these funds to subsidize the acquisition and rehabilitation of homes for sale to low-income households.  Nonetheless, the organization struggled in its early years.  It struggled to manage its accumulated rental properties; to find bankable people who wanted to buy homes in these troubled neighborhoods; to find ways to help address those troubles; and to find enough funding to pay staff to do all of these things and more.

It is likely that the Albany CLT would not have been able to continue operating had it not been for its relationships with three sister organizations: the Capital District Community Loan Fund; United Tenants of Albany; and the Affordable Housing Partnership (AHP was formed in 1989, following a Community Reinvestment Act challenge by UTA, to channel bank funds into home mortgages for low-income people).  The Community Loan Fund has continued to provide debt financing for CLT projects.  UTA’s co-director, Roger Markovics, has become a de facto ACLT staff person (while his wife, Maria, the other UTA co-director, has continued to focus on UTA programs).  AHP has provided ACLT with homebuyer training, nonprofit realty services, and office space, and shares the services of Susan Cotner, who has been AHP’s masterful executive director since its founding.  She now serves as ACLT’s Executive Director as well.   The relationships among these four organizations – UTA, the Community Loan Fund, ACLT, and AHP – have now been formalized through their membership in the Community Development Alliance of the Capital District.

In recent years, ACLT’s homeownership and rental housing programs have been reformulated.  A city-wide “buyers choice” homeownership program, utilizing subsidies from the state and allowing homebuyers to prequalify for the purchase of homes they select from among those available on the market throughout the city, has now replaced the original neighborhood-based “acquisition-rehab” program.  ACLT acquires the buyer-selected homes with a line of credit from the Community Loan Fund and oversees necessary repairs before reselling the house (and leasing the land) to the homebuyer.

This approach has meant relinquishing the earlier effort to promote homeownership as a strategy for revitalizing specific neighborhoods.  However, the current rental program does serve these neighborhoods with a clear focus on providing and maintaining secure long-term rental housing, most of which is in these neighborhoods.  The program is now served by a full-time property manager who also manages properties held by other members of the Community Development Alliance, including the business incubator building in which the Community Loan Fund, ACLT and AHP are based.

Now in its second quarter century, ACLT continues to operate with a “traditional CLT structure.” It is a membership organization with a tri-partite board of directors.  One third of the board continues to be made up of ACLT homeowners.  A substantial part of the board is made up of members who have a specific concern with improving conditions in the neighborhoods that the Albany CLT has targeted and served since the very beginning.  It has remained true to its founding mission and its original community.

Profile contributed by Kirby White (2015)

To learn more about the Albany Community Land Trust (and its allies):