CommentOpinion

Waterloo, forever

A community land trust would serve people, not profit, in perpetuity.

Waterloo Public Housing Estate Photo: Dara Gill
Waterloo Public Housing Estate Photo: Dara Gill

The words “community,” “land” and “trust” have a mixed history to the residents of Redfern-Waterloo. The community’s relationship to land has withstood various periods of intervention by governments of various colours and dispositions, and “trust” – the absence of it – is at the heart of such changes.

Redfern-Waterloo is again on the path towards irreversible change and trust is again a sticking point with the community. One of the only constants in the equation – land – is more valuable than ever, and the dormant wealth lying trapped in the Waterloo Estate will soon be taken up by the forces that are intensifying development across the Greater Sydney region – in this case, a metro station.

Bringing these things together, community land trusts (CLTs) are about removing the cost of land from the equation and restoring the feeling of permanence and legitimacy that comes with strong grassroots leadership, supported by collective and personal rights. A CLT could be an alternative to the Communities Plus model to outsource the management presently done by Housing NSW to a community housing provider (CHP) enlisted from the not-for-profit sector. Much stands in the way.

But difficulty is not new to CLTs, which originate from a tangle of political movements. Dr Louise Crabtree of the University of Western Sydney says they are “phenomenally opportunistic” entities that can spawn and evolve unexpectedly. Dr Crabtree, one of Australia’s leading advocates for CLTs, recognises the “big fight” ahead if the Redfern-Waterloo community were to pursue a CLT. With community support, it may be a fight worth having.

“We’re going to see this go out to the private sector,” she warns, alluding to the State Government’s plans to revamp the existing estate with a mixture of private, affordable and social housing. “The question then is, how do we best capture outcomes for community in that context and how do we make sure that community objectives are taken seriously?”

In contrast to the not-for-profit partnerships that are central to NSW social housing policy, the community is the constituency and the decision-making brains of a CLT, not just a customer.

 

What are community land trusts?

A CLT is not technically a “trust” but a not-for-profit corporation limited by guarantee that provides housing products to its members. These products remove the prospective value of the land from the personal interest of the resident, which is held in an ownership-like way. Land stays with the community and is held “in perpetuity” by the organisation, a categorically grassroots body that ensures community benefit is primary.

Many models exist and infinite flexibility means that a greater diversity of tenure types and housing models can be used to fit an allocated purpose. A 99-year lease or an equity-share mimics ownership but places restrictions on resale so residents cannot make short-term gains at the community’s expense. It’s “buy low, sell low” and Airbnb is prohibited.

Reflecting the diverse communities they serve, the origins of the CLT are many and intermingled. The “first” CLT was New Communities Inc. set up in Leesburg, Georgia in 1969 to protect African-American farmers who were being forced off their land. The first urban CLT was set up by a group of Cincinnati priests and nuns in 1981 to forestall displacement. Since then, CLTs have exploded in popularity across the US and been exported to the UK, where they offer protection to communities too often cowed by the state or a developer or (more commonly nowadays) both acting in concert.

Oceans away, in egalitarian Australia, CLTs are relatively unknown.

 

Financing alternative housing models

Australia does not have the participation rate the US or UK does in community land trusts. The initial hurdle of acquiring the land, often bequeathed by a local authority, are compounded by the next step: financing development of low-return and therefore low-cost housing products. Developers in Australia are oriented to build for the open market. Genuinely innovative solutions are needed.

The capacity for the not-for-profit sector to finance more community housing is partly a result of their size and the fact that CHPs do not have title to the land they service. Their balance sheet says “rent-collector”, not “landlord.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison has set up the Affordable Housing Implementation Taskforce and is moving towards a “bond aggregator” model where the Federal Government would use its power to borrow at a low rate to drive investment in the CHP sector. Greater inclusionary zoning and developer contributions would also improve the capacity of not-for-profits to get development off the ground or acquire new stock on the open market.

Dr Crabtree says sector-specific or sector-friendly developers have been pivotal to success in the US and UK. Alternative developers like Nightingale Housing emphasise energy efficient and high quality design strictly oriented toward social benefit, but a community housing development sector is near non-existent in Australia. This is critical to getting the functional outcomes of low cost housing right.

 

Could it work in Waterloo?

If the State Government’s plans materialise as they have indicated, Waterloo will be carved up into private, affordable rental and “social” or community housing with no net loss to social housing. Social housing will make up roughly 30 percent of the new “socially mixed” development.

The Redfern-Waterloo community is highly organised and monitoring bodies like REDWatch and activist organisations like the Waterloo Public Housing Action Group (WPHAG) will make it difficult for the government to step out of the spotlight if the community is not taken seriously.

Dr Crabtree points to the possibility of resistance as something to be leveraged in proposing alternative models. In contrast to a CLT, “a more off-the-shelf development that may stack up better on paper … may actually hit real political resistance in a situation where the community is feeling really disempowered.”

Echoing sentiments in the community, she sees strong potential for protest and resistance, and a “PR nightmare” for the government and the consortium tasked with redeveloping the land. “Partnering with an existing CHP is more familiar but it won’t necessarily have traction with the community.”

Risks lie every which way for the community and for those involved in 15-20 year redevelopment, which will require the stressful and problematic relocation of at least some tenants from mid-2018.

CLTs may be novel and untested in the local landscape, but their merits are plain enough and it is not impossible to see the seed of something like a CLT being planted in the upturned earth of Waterloo as any urban renewal process unfolds. Certainly, capable grassroots entities are not in short supply.

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