CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Preserving communities on Charlotte’s west side. Neighborhoods there have become increasingly vulnerable to gentrification. But - a new organization, WestSide Community Land Trust (CLT) is hoping to change that.
“To get pushed out of a place that you’ve called home all your life is horrible - there’s no other word for it," said Neicey Mendez, one of the founding members of WestSide CLT. “It’s fine that they’re coming into the neighborhood because you are bringing some positivity. We do need that. But at the cost of pushing folks out - that’s just not acceptable.”
She's lived in Enderly Park for years and after seeing rapid changes knew she wanted to help preserve her community. So she and her fellow neighbors band together to create this community land trust.
Mendez recalls the first time her community began to rapidly change.
“I’m reading a book and all of a sudden I look up and I realize I don’t know where I am,” she said. “I thought maybe I got on the wrong bus or a different route. And I’m like where am I? And that’s where it hit me. The gentrification, the “big G,” is starting to happen in our community.”
The “big G” is becoming rampant on Charlotte’s west side. Communities once painted as “blighted” after years of disinvestment are now labeled transitional neighborhoods making them hot commodities. And as property values skyrocket from the re-investment, those who’ve lived here all their lives now struggle to keep their homes.
"It starts with someone,” said Mendez. “And this is my community. So what else can I do?"
The organization’s executive director, Charis Blackmon, agreed and has strong words about gentrification.
“Pushing people of color out and we see that all throughout the west side and so the land trust model is here to combat that,” she said. “To provide another tool in the toolbox.”
A tool she says will help keep these communities intact for generations to come through home ownership and affordable housing. Once the membership-based WestSide CLT owns the land, it retains control of it forever.
Blackmon explained it this way: “I like to compare that to the same model as purchasing a townhome or a condo,” she said. “You purchase the structure, you purchase the improvement but you don’t own the land. You are still a conventional homeowner. You can stay in your home forever if you want. You can sale your home if you would like. You can also pass it down to your heirs."
There’s just one difference: when it’s time to sell, you don’t take all of the equity with you.
“So the individual can sell their home, they’ll get some income from that and then the remaining equity will stay with the home so that somebody else can come in and purchase it affordably,” she said.
But Mendez says it's taking time and education to get some in the community to even believe home ownership is possible.
“You know a lot of folks I talk to don’t even understand the aspect of owning their own home,” she said. “So that’s - this is a big thing.” While that may be unimaginable for some, Mendez points out, “if that’s not been something passed down through time, how would you know? You wouldn’t know.”
And now that Mendez knows, she’s determined to empower her neighbors to help save their community. “We just gotta get back to that point of teaching our people who they are outside of the lies they have been told,” she said. “Teaching them how to teach others. Not just hoard it all to yourself cause that’s now how we build a community.”
As for keeping homes in the land trust affordable long-term, each property has to have a subsidy put into it - in the amount of $50,000.
“That $50,000 is a one-time investment retained with that property that will keep it affordable forever,” Blackmon said. “So we don’t need continuous investment in those properties. One time investment makes it affordable in perpetuity."
That may sound daunting, but she told WBTV they can meet that subsidy in a variety of ways including through donation of the land, capital dollars, federal dollars from opportunity zone funds or even funds from a grant.
Finally, WestSide CLT also has a critical partnership with The Lee Institute, a non-profit consulting firm founded in 1997 by Bill Lee a former CEO of Duke Energy.
Its director, Crystal Joy, said its goal is to make sure everyone has a seat the table by helping organizations through leadership development and strategic planning.
"We help them with skills and needs assessment based on the direction of the organization,” she explained. “So we go through the process of saying what's the vision? What is that you want to be? Who do you want to be? We're the background but we want to make sure that we empower - and sometimes that's a heavy word - but we like to make sure we empower the community members to do the work that we know they can do.”