“I’m still in shock,” says 28-year-old Tiffany Simpson, as she looks around at her blooming garden and picture-perfect cottage. Last week she moved into a $107,000 one-bedroom garden apartment, the first instance of home ownership in her family in three generations.

All around the country, the dream of home ownership for young, hardworking Americans is a given. Eventually, the story goes, if you keep your credit clean and make a few compromises in neighborhood or size, you buy a “starter home,” usually a modest two-bedroom single-family house or mobile home.

But Tiffany doesn’t live in small-town Kansas or suburban Ohio. She lives in Oakland, Calif., where, even as one of the less expensive parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, affordable home ownership is a virtual miracle. (Homes in hard-bitten areas run in the low to high $300,000s – the price range for lavish spreads in other parts of the country.) Like winning the Lotto or finding a mattress full of cash, home ownership can’t happen to everyone, and those who do achieve it use words like “shock” to describe their good fortune.

So what exactly enabled Tiffany to be one of the lucky ones?

Initially, she did what many other aspiring home buyers do: She took classes, paid off debts, worked hard and got pre-approved. She went shopping with an agent and submitted bids. But as many know from experience, putting down a bid and buying a home do not necessarily go hand in hand. Again and again she found she couldn’t compete in bidding wars that sent prices out of reach.

Eventually, she applied to the Northern California Land Trust (NCLT) for one of their “limited equity” home ownership opportunities. (Limited equity means that while individuals buy the home, a nonprofit retains ownership of the land, keeping down the cost for the homeowner and in essence removing those units from the speculative market.) After weeks of interviews, applications and home-ownership education classes, Tiffany won the jackpot. NCLT chose her to be one of its buyers for Linden Street Homes, a new four-unit project in West Oakland built around Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens (OBUGS), a spectacular neighborhood garden.

Tiffany’s tale is heartening. As she shows me around her home, I don’t doubt that this well-spoken young woman with glowing eyes and bright dashiki headband deserves all the help she can get.

“I bought this home to establish an economic base for my family,” she said, explaining that she is the legal guardian for her two teenage siblings and has already helped raise her brother. “So though this is my primary home, it’s my family’s home base.”

And yet, seeing her gleaming new appliances, glancing across her clipped green lawn to a riot of colorful flowers, one can’t help but wonder: Who wasn’t chosen?

“We could fill hundreds of units with wonderful people,” said NCLT’s Phaidra Speirs, who oversees the application process. “It’s really incredibly difficult to make these decisions, to turn people away. There’s always many more well-qualified applicants than homes.”

The thought of those who missed out gnawed at me during a recent visit to Linden Street Homes for a block party with nearby neighbors, OBUGS, NCLT and other participating organizations.

Even though this is West Oakland, with its high crime, poverty and general blight, on this day the street more closely resembled a scene from a Disney movie. A stage and sound system filled the street, waiting for a lineup of prominent speakers, including Mayor Jerry Brown, and hip-hop and blues bands. Smiling neighbors arrive with potluck dishes. Wide-eyed children in school uniforms tour the vegetable beds with Connie Hall, who lives across the street and runs the three-day-a-week garden program for the neighborhood children.

“Now that’s broccoli,” she said, pointing to a collection of little leafy plants. “I’m sure you all eat your broccoli – now you can see where it comes from.”

Unlike most affordable housing, which may be decent but rarely inspired, this place is undeniably idyllic. Perhaps this is because it was not ever imagined as a typical affordable housing project, but a leafy utopian fantasy about community.

Margaret Majua and Dorothy Noyon, founders of OBUGS, were looking for a place that could marry affordable housing and community garden when they spotted two boarded-up and burned-out turn-of-the-century cottages with massive backyards. They contacted the owner, Paul Jones, the son of jazz musicians Paul and Inez Jones, who had grown up in the homes with his parents and extended family. He was getting all sorts of calls from desperate home buyers and eager developers, and he’d determined not to sell.

“But they convinced me,” he tells me at the block party, where he was scheduled to perform. “It was the idea of the garden, the idea that this could be a neighborhood place and the perfect memorial for my parents.”

OBUGS bought the property for $160,000, brought in Northern California Land Trust as the developer, and spent the next two years creating the “Paul and Inez Jones Neighborhood Garden,” a gorgeous place of flowers, food, butterflies and birds, curious children and busily employed men and women (all hired from the neighborhood). Now with four new families moving into two single-family homes converted to duplex condominiums, the collaborative project is a testament to what can be done with the right combination of energy and resources to create community and affordable housing.

The land trust model has been around for more than a century (the first land trust was founded in Massachusetts in 1891), but it is an idea still waiting for its moment in the limelight. NCLT, founded in 1973 as a volunteer organization, was one of the early boosters along with the prolific Burlington Community Land Trust in Burlington, Vt., which has created more than 500 units of housing. Based on such early organizations, there are now more than 70 land trusts across the country with more than 5,000 units of housing.

The basic idea behind the land trust is that while land value appreciates over time, the buildings do not. So if a community-owned organization retains ownership of the land, but sells the buildings to individuals, those individuals can reap some of the benefits of home ownership (tax write-offs, accrued equity and stability), yet those properties will remain “permanently affordable.” When an individual decides to sell his/her property, the price is capped by what they paid for it, plus the cost of any improvements and a small percentage of appreciation.

Although it’s a complicated and expensive way to create affordable housing, proponents contend that its benefits are deep and long-term. Home ownership improves neighborhoods, where rented affordable housing can often result in low-rent ghettos. The land-trust model also creates a more permanent solution than many other affordable home ownership opportunities (be they through grants, low-interest loans or nonprofit developments). Without a land trust, the homeowner usually takes full possession of the property and can sell it at market value after a few years of residency. With these such projects, the community’s investment – from banks, city governments, nonprofits – is lost into the bank account of a private individual after the first sale.

What’s the catch? In a housing market like the San Francisco Bay Area’s, it’s already prohibitively expensive to finance many land trusts. The price of land is so high that most affordable housing developers feel they can create truly affordable housing only through rental developments that over time can fund future projects. Expense is one reason NCLT works at such a relatively small scale. To date they have developed only 84 units of housing on 16 properties. Rick Lewis, the project manager of the NCLT, and one of its five staff, notes that this year they are especially busy with the opening of two projects: Linden Street homes and a five-unit project in Berkeley.

Yet what makes the Northern California Land Trust’s model so appealing is also the thing that makes it difficult to replicate on a large scale. “It’s very expensive to do small projects,” Lewis said. “It keeps the price per unit pretty high. At the same time, we are a small organization; we can’t turn around and get $10 (million) or $20 million in credit to buy a big piece of land or building.”

It will take more than a few jewel-like projects by small nonprofits for land trusts to fulfill their potential. Political will and interest from the large affordable housing developers is also needed. Since the housing crisis, some city governments have begun to look at land trusts as a possible tool against future real estate booms. The City of Oakland has committed to developing a community land trust program, and a task force appointed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is supposed to issue a report on the feasibility of a San Francisco land trust in the next few months.

With city coffers draining rapidly, it’s hard not to feel that places like Linden Street Homes will remain more of a rarity than a rule.

Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at carol@creatingalifeworthliving.com.


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