Keysa Saxon, 37, will celebrate her first Christmas as a homeowner this year, having recently brought a house through the Frederick County Affordable Housing Land Trust. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)
Jay Bowins, 13, quickly found where the Christmas presents were hidden — the basement — and is lobbying for a basketball hoop outside. His brother Kyris, 6, has a superhero theme going in his bedroom, the first he hasn’t had to share.
And Chaz, 11, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, can be rolled everywhere on the first floor of the house — from the living room through the kitchen past an accessible bathroom to his bedroom. Inside is an extra bed that his parents, Keysha Saxon and Jay Bowins Sr., take turns sleeping in, to be close by if he has a seizure overnight.
It took nearly three years, an innovative home-buying program and no small measure of labor and faith, but a concerted community effort got the family into their first truly accessible house in time for the holidays.
“Our goal was before the end of the year,” said Saxon, 37, “so we could spend Christmas here.”
She bought the two-story house, part of a duplex, in Frederick through a community land trust, a form of shared-equity purchasing that is becoming increasingly popular across the country as a solution to the affordable housing shortage. In general, trusts are community-based nonprofits that buy properties to renovate and sell to people whose income is below the area’s median — but they keep ownership of the land itself as well as a share of the equity in the house.
The cost to buyers is below market, because they don’t pay for the land, and if they sell the house, the trust gets a share of the profit. That allows the trust to keep the property affordable for subsequent buyers.
In Baltimore, several community trusts are working on a proposal for the city to fund a pilot program to help them buy and renovate properties to sell. One trust has created a green space, but to date, none has put a house on the market as Frederick County’s has.
The Frederick County Affordable Housing Trust was started in 2013 as a partnership between the local Habitat for Humanity nonprofit and Frederick County. By the end of the year it expects to sell its seventh house. It has transitioned to become a part of Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County, said Jennifer Minnick, the group’s housing director.
The land trust mode can be challenging, she said. It’s unfamiliar to many, and “of course you need funding.”
In Maryland, the need for affordable housing outstrips the supply, according to a report by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development several years ago. Census data show that more than half of renters and more than a third of homeowners spend in excess of 30 percent of their income on housing, which is the federal threshold for affordability, the report said.
Saxon learned of the trust shortly after she decided to try to buy a house in January 2015. It had been getting harder to carry Chaz up the stairs of their rental townhouse as he got older and heavier.
The Frederick native said she’s been renting since she was 19. She began receiving Section 8 vouchers in 2009, but the amount fluctuated with what she was making — she is a claims adjuster for a health insurance company — and the number of hours she works varies.
Minnick began taking her to look at houses. They eventually hit upon the house on Hamilton Avenue, near the Frederick Fairgrounds. It was gutted, and could be rebuilt to accommodate the family’s needs.
Minnick negotiated the price down — the seller could write off the discount as a donation to Habitat for Humanity — and scrambled to find funds to help with closing costs. Meanwhile Saxon took the required homebuyers class and secured a mortgage. Although the house is appraised at about $208,000, Minnick said, without the land the cost for Saxon was $150,000.
“I know I’ve spent at least $150,000 on rent,” Saxon said. “All these years, I could have owned something.”
Saxon’s phone is filled with pictures as contractors and volunteers transformed the shell — without even a staircase between the two floors — into a cozy home that fills with afternoon sunlight, offers a view of mountains and now is decorated with a Christmas tree and gingerbread men. A sign over the front door welcomes visitors to a home “built with love.”
Elizabeth List, who had been Chaz’s teacher at Rock Creek School, a public school for severely disabled children, recognized Saxon in a local media account about the renovation. She emailed co-workers and members of her church, Brook Hill United Methodist, and soon assembled volunteers who helped build an addition, put up walls and tidy the yard.
At the dedication in September, List, other volunteers and kids from the school attended. The family moved in the following month
“It was very powerful,” List said. “Knowing this family, and knowing how the house was going to change their situation for life, that was the most important thing.”
Frederick’s experience has been watched by Baltimore activists trying to get their own land trusts up and running.
The oldest, the Charm City Community Land Trust, formed in 2000 and has converted 19 vacant lots in East Baltimore into the Amazing Port Street Commons, with community gardens, a prayer labyrinth, playground and artwork. Another group, Curtis Bay Community Land Trust, has crowd-funded more than $35,000 toward its efforts.
They are among six neighborhood groups that have joined forces to propose that the city fund a pilot program, said Ryan Flanigan, who is starting a land trust in Remington. He received an Open Society Institute community fellowship to work on the trust.
“There’s so much momentum around this issue,” Flanigan said. “What we all need as neighborhoods is community development and control of the land in our neighborhoods.”
He is among the advocates who, as the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, have been pressing Mayor Catherine Pugh to fund their 20/20 campaign, which she has said in the past that she supports: $20 million in bonds to an affordable housing trust fund to develop community land trusts, and an equal amount to deconstruct vacant homes and other projects.
Estimates of how many communities have land trusts range from about 240 to more than 300. The largest is one started in Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s with funds authorized by then-Mayor and now U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Champlain Housing Trust manages 2,200 apartments and “stewards” 565 homes.
Jarrid Green is a research associate with the Democracy Collaborative, a think tank that originated at the University of Maryland with a focus on building community wealth and shared-ownership models. He said that while community land trusts comprise “a very, very small, bite-size piece of the homeownership spectrum,” interest is on the rise.
Green is researching land trusts for a paper he hopes to publish next year. He said he thinks the fact that the Baltimore trusts have joined forces should give them more leverage as they seek city funding.
“It’s going to take the community coming together around the affordable housing issue,” he said. “It’s going to take actual commitment from the politicians.”
Green said at least one study has found that homes purchased by lower-income buyers through such programs were less likely to go through delinquency or foreclosure than those in the conventional market.
“It’s a step on the ladder of opportunity,” he said.
Saxon, a fan of HGTV, said she sometimes can’t believe how well the house accommodates the family’s needs. On a recent afternoon, she met Chaz’s school bus and wheeled him up a ramp and into the house. As he and his brothers snacked, the newest member of the family, a six-month-old bulldog named Bruno, nibbled at their feet.
“That was one of the things the kids wanted when we moved to a house,” Saxon said of the pet.
Soon, Kyris settled onto one of the carpeted steps to read aloud. Saxon wheeled Chaz into his bedroom to lie down for a while before dinner.
“It’s definitely easier now,” she said of caring for Chaz. “It’s made a big difference already.”
She was looking forward to hosting her extended family’s Christmas Eve dinner, with plans to bring a folding table up from the basement for a spread of chicken, ham, mac and cheese and greens. With a family that includes five sisters and 14 nieces and nephews, it’ll be a tight squeeze even if not all of them are expected.