Magaly Cruz’s family began renting their home on Binghampton’s west side when she was in high school. Now a college graduate, she’s looking for her own place and her family is ready to buy a home. They want to stay in Binghampton, but the rising cost of housing is a major roadblock. Cruz said two other neighboring Latino families have recently moved northeast to The Heights where houses are more affordable.
“Where I’ve been looking as far as affordable housing for me, it’s been out in the suburbs, and that’s going to completely disconnect [me] from the urban area of Memphis,” said Cruz. “Imagine Binghampton [as a whole]. All those connections will be lost or hard to keep up.”
To preserve affordable housing — especially in west Binghampton where new homes are selling for as high as $385,000 — a group of concerned citizens are banding together to reclaim real estate for future generations.
Cruz is a founding member of the new Binghampton Community Land Trust. It’s comprised of Binghampton residents and nonprofits as well as supporters from outside the neighborhood. Its roughly 20 members reflect the diversity of the west side with Latinx, African, African-American and white residents of various income levels. There are also members from the east side, which has been occupied by majority-Black, working and lower-class families for generations.
BCLT hopes to stabilize the housing market by acquiring land that is then dedicated in perpetuity to affordable housing and public spaces.
“[People] talk about how they’ve been living here for 20 years and how much the neighborhood has really changed for the better,” said Cruz. “This is really a safe space for us, we’ve really enjoyed our time here. If we could stay, it would be awesome.”
This is the third piece in High Ground News' series on housing in Binghampton. The introductory piece outlines the history and current real estate boom in the area, as well as residents’ concerns of gentrification. The second piece explores development on the wealthier west side of the neighborhood and its implications for the east side. Read them here:
Related: “Bing-Boom I: The consequences of progress in Binghampton”
Related: “Bing-Boom II: A tale of two Binghamptons”
Land Trusts 101
“Most of the Memphis community doesn’t know so much about land trusts,” said Kate Kananura, community engagement specialist for the Center for Transforming Communities, which oversaw the formation of BCLT. “This is an approach that is very common in other places, it’s probably one of the most effective tools that will help us with people being displaced by gentrification.”
Land trusts acquire land through purchase or donation. They then rehab or build affordable housing. A homeowner purchases the structure, but leases the land and agrees to an affordable rate if they decide to move. The stipulation helps check rising home prices and encourages owners to stay longer because there’s less incentive to sell. They’re also required to live in the home, which discourages absentee landlords.
“[The land trust] is a way for the community to have more of a control over its local economy. And for the person in the house to have more control over their own personal finances and financial stability,” said Amy Schaftlein, executive director of United Housing. “You’re not so dependent upon a landlord that can say, ‘My property values went up today so taxes are up, so your rent’s up.’”
In addition to homes, communal spaces like gardens or Binghampton’s The Commons at Merton community center could also be deeded to ensure they remain communal.
Community members meet at The Commons at Merton, a community gather space that could potentially be deeded to the Binghampton Community Land Trust to ensure it remains available for community use. (High Ground News)
Kananura and BCLT’s president, Joni Laney, said the land trust is also committed to helping its homeowners stay in their homes.
“For example, we would say, ‘If you can’t afford somebody to mow your yard, we will help you find neighbors to do that. We will commit to helping you stay in the house and keep it up. We will help you get dollars to renovate or whatever it is, we will work together,’” said Laney.
The fledgling BCLT does not yet own property and plans to do so primarily through donation or affordable sales from current owners. It also plans to leverage the Tennessee Housing Development Agency’s Blight Elimination Program and the state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act. Under both, properties that are habitually blighted or owned by absentee landlords can be turned over to a nonprofit for affordable housing.
BCLT has partnered with nonprofit lender United Housing, which could fix up properties, help renters qualify for homeownership and deed the land to BCLT. Kananura said there’s little undeveloped land available on the west side but plenty of blighted properties and neglectful landlords.
“We would love for this to be a model for other land trust efforts in Memphis so that there is a new way of looking at home ownership,” said Laney. “Not the American Dream of you get it then you sell it and you have all this money for your kids, but you get it, you hold on to it, you pass it to your children who then responsibly pass it on for the community.”
Renewed interest in the area is a double-edged sword. Decades of disinvestment and white flight starting in the 1970s resulted in high rates of vacancies and blighted properties in Binghampton. Since the mid-2000s, grassroots efforts have improved conditions and now large-scale development is ramping up.
The new Binghampton Gateway Center retail plaza opened this year and new high-end homes on Autumn Avenue off East Parkway are selling for an average of $371,544. Builders have announced plans for major housing developments on Broad Avenue, Sam Cooper Boulevard and Tillman Street.
The investments will restore some of the area’s lost density, but fear of displacement among existing residents is rising, and there’s concern gentrification on the west will move to the east.
“It’s getting more urgent, the housing,” said Laney, a Binghampton resident since 2002. “January of 2018, there were I don’t think any homes above $100,000. Maybe two. And then all of a sudden, they’re going for not only $100,000 [but] $120,000, $160,000, $175,000.”
“Our rent has already gone up, we’re at the point where we could be paying off a mortgage now so it’s not really viable for us to be renting. We’re probably not the only ones thinking that,” said Cruz.
Older houses sit side by side with new construction, a sign of reinvestment in Binghampton. (Ziggy Mack)
Laney said as much as she’s working to be part of the solution, she’s also part of the problem. She, like many of the area’s white residents, was motivated by her Christian faith to move to Binghampton and help with grassroots improvement efforts, like faith-based home repair group Service Over Self. But newer white residents are generally wealthier and most purchased homes, which increased demand and prices and encouraged other wealthy white homebuyers to follow.
“The diversity is disappearing,” said Laney. “We moved in because of our faith and to be neighbors to people who were different than we are. But we’ve become a beast. We’ve become the problem by doing that.”
Owning Land, Owning the Future
In January 2017, residents attended a monthly community meeting hosted by the Center for Transforming Communities where they expressed concern about the upcoming development.
“About 75 percent of these people at the meeting expressed that they’d been renting — some of them for five, 10, 15 years — and they were really eager to own their own home,” said Kananura. “[The new development] was causing a lot of anxiety and fear about these people being displaced soon.”
“There are people in this neighborhood who would give to the land trust out of their faith. In my experience, the developers are pretty greedy, but people in this neighborhood are truly not.”
In January 2018, they began meeting to develop a charter and bylaws. In July, BCLT became an incorporated organization operating under CTC. The next step is forming a board of directors and securing funding for purchases. The bylaws state the board must consist of equal parts low-income residents including renters, homeowners living on land owned by the trust and other vested entities, including wealthier Binghampton residents and partners like churches or mortgage lenders.
Laney hopes in the future BCLT could work to change laws that allow property owners to keep vacant houses as long as they’re secure and the yard is maintained. She points to a house at the corner of Merton Street and Hale Avenue that’s been vacant since she moved in nearly 17 years ago.
“It’s owned by a development company who’s done nothing except keep the yard mowed and make sure that it’s boarded up. It’s so wrong,” she said. “And it looks like it has great bones; it would be a great house.”
In the meantime, United Housing is planning its first Binghampton homebuyer education course for February 2019 in partnership with the Binghampton Development Corporation, CTC and BCLT to help area renters prepare for homeownership.
“Having that class and that certification, will allow the renters or anyone going through that class to have access to down payment assistance and access to mortgage products that would be more affordable to them,” she continued.
Banking on Altruism
Some land trusts have access to large amounts of funding and can outbid developers to acquire land. BCLT does not. Instead, they’ll have to convince owners to sell to the trust at an affordable rate. They’re also hoping to convince landlords to sell at an affordable rate directly to their renters or the trust. It’s a change in mindset for most landlords and homeowners.
But Laney said the white homeowners who have helped create the current situation can also play a role in the solution. She and her husband have pledged their property to BCLT, and she said several others families previously sold properties at an affordable rate despite the potential for a large profit because they felt it was right thing to do.
“There are people in this neighborhood who would give to the land trust out of their faith,” she said. “In my experience, the developers are pretty greedy, but people in this neighborhood are truly not.”
Laney said she hopes within 10 years, at least 25 percent of the housing in Binghampton will be affordable and filled with multinational neighbors who’ve transitioned from renting to homeownership.
“The land trust can develop without displacement. It can be done. It can happen in a way that doesn’t move everybody out of here to the suburbs,” she said.
“It always comes down to the idea that those who have built their lives and identities from this neighborhood … [can] continue that legacy and not be pushed out for wealthier people,” said Cruz. “Housing is a right.”