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Dudley Neighbors Inc. celebrates 25 years building community through land trust

Martin Desmarais
Dudley Neighbors Inc. celebrates 25 years building community through land trust
Former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative board president Che Madyun cuts a cake during a celebration marking 25 years for Dudley Neighbors Inc., the development corporation founded by DSNI in 1989.

Dudley Neighbors Inc., a community land trust under the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, last week celebrated a quarter-century of success as one of the ground-breaking land trusts in the country.

Created in 1989, Dudley Neighbors Inc. was an early effort to fight displacement and gentrification in Boston. Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative established the trust to spearhead the development of 1,300 plots of vacant land that the City of Boston targeted in its 1988 “Comprehensive Community Revitalization Plan.”

Working with both nonprofit and for-profit developers, Dudley Neighbors Inc. has created 225 affordable homes on vacant land in the Dudley Triangle, located between Blue Hill Avenue, Dudley Street and Howard Avenue. The homes include 95 owner-occupied units, along with 77 cooperative units and 53 rental units.

The trust owns 34 of the 62 acres in the Dudley Triangle and, in addition to its efforts, most of the other 1,100 empty lots have been turned into parks, open space, community centers, affordable housing and small businesses. This includes the Trina Persad Playground, a community greenhouse and farm operated by The Food Project and a community garden and orchard.

While other developers and community development organizations have played their part, Dudley Neighbors Inc. has had a key role in the elimination of almost all of the vacant lots in Dudley.

“We have really, in the last year, completed the disposition of the city land in the Dudley Triangle,” said Harry Smith, director of Dudley Neighbors Inc., during the celebration event at St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury. “We are celebrating because of what has been accomplished. The effort is really a result of a community setting a vision and then organizing to actually implement that vision.”

Smith credits the overall efforts of the Dudley community for the work that has been done. He looks back at the city’s community revitalization plan in the late 1980s and says that such plans were not uncommon, but too often they were left only at the planning stage.

A key factor in their ability to move forward on the plan and actually develop land was the city’s granting to Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative the power of eminent domain over the land. According to Smith, this was the first time the city granted eminent domain to an organization and it directly led to the start of the Dudley Neighbors Inc. land trust in 1989.

In the land trust model, Dudley Neighbors Inc. owns the land while private entities and individuals own “improvements” to the land, such as homes, and lease the land from the trust. Decisions about the land trust are made by a community board that includes residents, leaseholders and representatives from city and elected officials. Homes are deed-restricted so the sale price cannot inflate along with the market.

Smith said the land trust model allows for “development without displacement” because, no matter the market or rise in housing costs in the city, the land trust homes remain affordable and can help residents remain.

“It really provides the kind of stability homeowners need while allowing them to gain equity in their home,” he said.

He points to the recent foreclosure crisis as evidence that the model works. While hundreds of homeowners throughout city neighborhoods — such as Roxbury — lost their homes, none of the homeowners on the land trust lost their houses to foreclosure, according to Smith. He said that the land trust officials stepped in to work with banks and lenders to keep all of the land trust homeowners in their homes.

Tony Hernandez has owned a home on the Dudley land trust for over 10 years and has come to believe in the model as a way to preserve the neighborhood for its residents — so much that he joined the organization and is now president of the Dudley Neighbors Inc.’s board of directors.

According to Hernandez, there is often some initial skepticism about the land trust model and buying a home on land that you don’t own, but he says the benefits far outweigh the concerns, and it is a great way for people to become homeowners.

“It offered me financial stability,” Hernandez said. “It was a relief to know in the foreclosure crisis what I was up against and that the finances were set in the model … It allowed me to sleep better at night.”

He also maintains that the land trust model creates a better sense of community and neighborhood because it is not possible to just buy a home and turn it around quickly by selling for profit. Those who buy the homes are in it for the long haul.

Diane Dujon, a homeowner on the land trust since 1998, said that she has seen how the trust can stabilize the neighborhood.

“Once people move into their home, they don’t leave. Out of all these people only one person has moved, so I know my neighbors. We watch out for each other and help each other out,” she stated.

According to the National Community Land Trust Network, there are 218 land trusts in the U.S. and 13 in Massachusetts.

Melora Hiller, executive director of the National Community Land Trust Network, says that although community land trusts have been around since the 1960s they have become increasingly popular.

The Champlain Housing Trust is Burlington, Vt., is the country’s largest housing trust, but Hiller said Dudley Neighbors Inc. is a leader in the field.

“Twenty-five years is a good long time and Dudley is one of the best known around the country,” she said.

The success of the Dudley and Burlington land trusts has led the way for others.

“They are certainly gaining in popularity, and there are many more now than they were 25 years ago,” Hiller said. “Our goal at the National Community Land Trust Network is to both increase the number of community land trusts and also increase their effectiveness.

“It is a good tool to use in neighborhoods that are gentrifying and to prevent displacement, but it is also a good tool in distressed communities to help it revitalize,” she added. “When prices go up they remain affordable permanently. That is one of the biggest things — that if you are in a hot market you can protect affordability.”

Smith said that the success of Dudley Neighbors Inc. has the organization looking around the city at other areas that could benefit from a land trust, including Chinatown and Codman Square.

“We are involved to try and help others learn about and develop the land trust model,” he added.

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