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Presbyterian-funded program works to keep people in their homes during COVID-19

Rochester’s City Roots Community Land Trust has received support from Self-Development of People

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service


LEXINGTON, Kentucky — City Roots Community Land Trust in Rochester, New York, works to get people of modest incomes into quality homes, with the support of organizations such as the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the group’s focus to keeping people in those homes.

“The nice part is we’ve been able to get in touch with some of the tenants of the houses that we’re with and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re not expecting you to pay rent,’” Joe Di Fiore, executive director of City Roots, said in an April interview. “We’re looking at the potential to offer forgiveness … for as long as you need to. As long as people aren’t able to pay, we want to offer that option. So, we’re looking into potential funders that can help support that, because obviously, we can’t continually run a deficit that we haven’t budgeted for.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll have some funders who will be interested in doing that, so that’ll be kind of a mission-aligned opportunity for them.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of Self-Development of People (SDOP), called City Roots efforts to help residents through this time, “attestation of the commitment to take care of those in the community who face a double pandemic, so to speak, of poverty and COVID-19.”

Most of the residents of City Roots properties are hourly workers who have not been able to continue to work or draw pay during the COVID-19 crisis, Di Fiore said. In addition, many do not have bank accounts. As a result they must wait longer for their government stimulus checks to come in the mail as opposed to having them direct deposited.

But helping clients is why City Roots exists.

The agency is a community land trust, which is a system that works to keep housing affordable for people who have low incomes by maintaining the land the home sits on — be they apartments or single-family homes — as a community trust.

“We look for ways to acquire property, whether that be vacant land, vacant single-family homes, multi-family properties, commercial properties, etc., and then put it to the best use as determined by the community,” Di Fiore said. “At its core, the fundamental thought behind it is in this country we view land as kind of the original wealth creator, and a lot of people have been left out of that opportunity for wealth creation, not just in the sense of having their own home that they own, but the sense of owning a diversified portfolio of properties — like an investor or investing class.

“So, we say our organization is a way to level the playing field, and take some of these real estate practices that have been used to exploit people and turns them on their head to utilize them and capitalize them for the good of the community that we hope to serve.”

SDOP National Committee Member Samantha Paige Davis (left) visits with City Roots in Rochester, New York. City Roots Executive Director Joe Di Fiore is fourth from the left. (Photo provided by SDOP)

The City Roots properties are renovated largely through donated and volunteer efforts.

“We try to go above and beyond with the quality of what we do,” Di Fiore said.

Through the combination of the community land trust and donated goods and services to rehabilitate properties, City Roots is able to offer clients significantly better homes than they would otherwise be able to afford, allowing them to build equity for the future, if that is their goal.

“These are people that otherwise might not be able to buy a house at all,” Di Fiore said. “If they could, it wouldn’t be to that level of quality. So maybe they could afford, for lack of a better term, a dump — a $35,000 dump. And that might not be sustainable for them because, you know, five years down the line, they need a new roof, and that’s $20,000, and they end up losing the house.

“We try to get people on a path where you can buy a house.”

So, in these cases, City Roots can get people into homes that, through the land trust and donations, are worth significantly more than a — by market standards — modest loan. The deal is, if the owner moves on, the house returns to the land trust so it can be sold again to someone getting on their feet. Di Fiore says they are viewed as “starter homes,” though some people may choose to stay. For people who move on, the process is designed to give them back their investment plus appreciation on the property.

SDOP’s $15,000 grant helped support exterior work on a property City Roots is rehabilitating.

“We heard about their great work through a Presbyterian minister friend,” Johnson said. “Rev. Lynette Sparks introduced us to them when a few of us from SDOP were doing anti-poverty work with Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester about two years ago.

“What drew us to City Roots Community Land Trust is the fact that they have an efficacious way of addressing the crisis of affordable housing,” Johnson said. “They are a collaborative of diverse homeowners, renters, youth, community allies and partners that work to address lack of affordability by preserving, renovating and promoting permanently affordable, quality housing for the benefit of low- and middle-income families. What was also attractive to us was the fact that they do this important work through community-owned and managed land.”

Di Fiore says, “It really is an investment in community. And this idea of the term ‘self-development of people’ we were saying, ‘hey, this is a tool now that we can utilize. It’s a portfolio of permanently affordable houses that we know regardless of how the market ebbs and flows, even if it skyrockets around these houses, these houses are going to stay stable, and we’ll know that there’ll be places where low income families can live and have opportunities for homeownership.”

The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Support Self-Development of People and help transform the lives of people through gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Read more about SDOP:

SDOP support prepared Detroit group to respond to COVID-19

An unsung ministry quietly changes lives

Self-Development of People reports on two years of partnership in Panama

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