2017-09-20 / Featured / Real Estate

Could a land trust help revive eastern Chesterfield?


Nikki D'Adamo-Damery and Carolyn Loftin with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust at the group’s first property in Church Hill, at 1114 North 26th Street. 
ASH DANIEL Nikki D'Adamo-Damery and Carolyn Loftin with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust at the group’s first property in Church Hill, at 1114 North 26th Street. ASH DANIEL When Laura Lafayette, chief executive of the Richmond Association of Realtors, was growing up in Chesterfield County in the 1970s, Jefferson Davis Highway and the eastern part of Midlothian Turnpike were bustling, vibrant corridors. Since then, parts of those areas have fallen into steep decline. “I know what they looked like then and what they look like now,” she says.

But there are ways to help, says Lafayette, who helped launch a nonprofit development concept known as a community land trust last year. Lafayette, chair of the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust, says the trust’s mission is to bolster residential development while keeping it affordable.

It works like this: The land trust buys the land underneath housing, owning it in perpetuity. The housing on the land is either renovated or built new and sold to qualified buyers. Because a trust owns the land, homebuyers pay only for the housing structure itself, significantly reducing the cost. Community land trusts can also preserve affordable housing in areas being gentrified. The Maggie Walker trust is targeting Richmond’s North Church Hill neighborhood, for example, where longtime residents are being forced out because of rising property values. That neighborhood has quickly become a favorite of more affluent homebuyers, including millennials, whose robust buying has sent average residential prices from $165,000 in 2012 to $215,000 last year. With the trust buying some residential properties, fixing them up and keeping the land, families with moderate incomes can afford to buy homes in the neighborhood.

Either way is a “win-win,” Lafayette says. Maggie Walker is currently developing its first property in North Church Hill and is negotiating to buy properties in the city’s Barton Heights area.

She and several other land trust board members believe that the idea would work well in Chesterfield, which has seen a spike in poverty in areas such as the north Jefferson Davis corridor and eastern Midlothian Turnpike.

“We’ve had a very preliminary conversation with Chesterfield County to see if the concept could be used there,” she says. The talks are “promising,” adds Bob Adams, president of Housing & Development Advisors, who helps run the Maggie Walker land trust.

Steve Haasch, a planning manager in the Chesterfield Planning Department, says the county is receptive to the idea. “We have a new community enhancement department,” he says. “We’re looking at how it might partner with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust.”

Some 40 states have nonprofit community land trusts, which have been around for decades. “It is very popular in New England and the upper Midwest but somehow not the South,” says John Moeser, a senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also on the board of directors at the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust.

With smaller mortgage payments, due to extracted land costs, community land trusts help homeowners “build equity more easily,” Lafayette says.

When the land value rises, the land trust puts that equity back into the home for the next buyer, reducing the cost. The land trust fills a necessary gap in homeownership, Lafayette says, which helps ensure neighborhoods are economically diverse.

“We want to preserve that dynamic because unless there is an intervention, it won’t happen,” she says. By holding on to the land, the trust makes sure that the cheaper price is passed on from one buyer “to the next and the next,” she says.

Another way the land trust can be used would be applicable to Chesterfield. Adams says Maggie Walker can help shore up neighborhoods in decline. “Jeff Davis Highway shows a national trend, the suburbanization of poverty with the poor moving to older suburban neighborhoods,” he says.

The Maggie Walker nonprofit, created under legislation by the General Assembly, is funded by a number of foundations and companies. It gets money from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Community Foundation and the Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Fund. Bon Secours Richmond is making available about $100,000 for Richmond projects.

The Maggie Walker nonprofit also is expanding into another concept called a land bank, which would buy up land for residential or commercial projects for use at a later date. If, for example, county planners want to push a certain form of development in a particular section of Chesterfield, Maggie Walker could work with them to acquire unwanted or abandoned homes or businesses. They would hold on to them until a specific plan to target a certain type of business or make an area more mixed-use can come together.

The land bank could operate many places in the county, but Jefferson Davis Highway is an obvious spot. Lafayette and Adams say that the land bank could really work, especially if the area gets public transit.

Land trust members are hopeful that county officials will work with them. But Moeser says the biggest problem will be political.

“Chesterfield needs more low to moderate housing that is affordable. That hasn’t happened. As poverty moves westward, Chesterfield becomes more divided,” Moeser says. There is a tendency for residents of more affluent neighborhoods “to pull up the drawbridge to protect their wealth,” he adds.

“We have the tool now. If Chesterfield supports this, we could be very, very helpful,” he says.

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