Could a community land trust help Chinatown stay affordable? Organizers are trying

A vertical "Welcome" sign next to a tall building.
Rising rents and gentrification in L.A.’s Chinatown are pushing out longtime residents.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Friday, Oct. 13. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

  • As Chinatown rent rises, organizers are looking toward community land trusts.
  • The attack on Israel is roiling L.A.’s election campaigns.
  • 33 of our favorite burgers in SoCal.
  • And here’s today’s e-newspaper.

Could a community land trust help Chinatown stay affordable?

On a cool Saturday evening, dozens of booths lined up on North Broadway for the Chinatown Neighborhood Night Market. A group of elderly women sat on stools surrounding the Dynasty Shopping Center, listening to a rally of speeches. The market featured a fundraiser for Chinatown community members, including the tenants who were facing eviction at the nearby Hillside Villa.

For the record:

4:52 p.m. Oct. 13, 2023A previous version of this newsletter stated that the Chinatown Neighborhood Night Market was organized as a fundraiser for those facing eviction at the Hillside Villa apartment complex. The market did include a fundraiser, but it was not its sole or primary purpose.

Karen Law staffed the booth for the LA Chinatown Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that hopes to preserve and manage affordable housing in Chinatown. For years, she watched as businesses were priced out, moving to the San Gabriel Valley, including Monterey Park. The night market was her opportunity to spread the word about a model that she thinks could save Chinatown: community land trusts.

As rents and housing prices rise in Los Angeles and across Southern California, Law is part of a wider movement that aims to allow neighbors to stay in their homes, with plenty of obstacles and promise ahead.


How community land trusts keep housing affordable

Born out of the civil rights movement, a community land trust is a nonprofit that takes land off the speculative market to keep housing permanently affordable. The trust owns the land while tenants can rent or own the buildings on top. Residents don’t pay rent to a landlord, and they share in the maintenance, upkeep and governance of the property together.

It’s a move to bring back the decision-making power to the residents.

“How each CLT functions is different,” said Kasey Ventura, an advocacy director at Beverly-Vermont, a 60-unit community land trust in Koreatown. A common model is the limited equity housing cooperative. Residents purchase a share in the cooperative and commit to resell their share at a price based on a predetermined formula. Los Angeles is already home to a few community land trusts, including ones in El Sereno, Boyle Heights, and South L.A.

There are more than 225 community land trusts across the United States, with more than 30 in California. The model is expanding to other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium and France.

The community land trust model often “goes against the nature” of what many of us have been taught when it comes to why we own property, which is to grow it as an investment and source of individual wealth, Law said.

Advocates of the model say it gives residents more security.

“You have a lot more say about your living conditions than you may have had in the past,” Ventura told me.

A seated audience looks at people in a central area outdoors.
People gather to support neighbors facing eviction in Chinatown in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 2023.
(Helen Li)

Chinatown’s struggle with development


In the last decade, property developers have built luxury apartments in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, expanding housing but leaving many business owners and tenants struggling to keep up with rent.

Alfredo Espinosa has lived in Hillside Villa, a 124-unit apartment complex, for 27 years. In 2019, his job as a vendor at Dodgers Stadium was able to cover his $1,060 monthly rent. Now, the new property owner is asking for $2,650.

Espinosa’s mother has dementia. He hopes that they can remain in Chinatown because it feels like home to her. Each evening, she takes a walk in Plaza Olvera. “Now she can’t retain any new information. But the things that she’s been doing for a long time, she can still do. If I had to move somewhere else, she’s going to lose that routine,” Espinosa told me.

It’s situations like Espinosa’s that help motivate LA Chinatown Community Land Trust.

What are the challenges ahead?

For the last two years, Law says, she and interim board members and community organizers have done the “nitty-gritty, dry work” of establishing a nonprofit, growing their presence in Chinatown and figuring out the legal pathways toward land ownership. They’re all volunteers.

A lack of awareness of the land trust model means that she and others have to do extra groundwork to be in key conversations when someone wants to sell land.

“If the CLT isn’t known in the community, then the property owners won’t know, oh, maybe we can sell it to the CLT and work out some sort of new financing agreement,” she said.

Gathering enough funding is another hurdle. Community land trusts often depend on grants from local or state governments and private philanthropies. For a loan, banks often want to see a track record of property investment, which is hard for a newer nonprofit.

In 2020, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors invested $14 million in a pilot project to prevent tenant displacement in the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports have already documented positive signs. By 2022, the community land trust program preserved 43 residential units, enabling 110 people to live in stabilized affordable housing. Average development costs were more than $300,000 less than if the county had constructed new housing.

Next month, LA Chinatown Community Land Trust will hold its second annual meeting. Law hopes that more community members will come out to support the group.

“By helping people stay in their community, that is by itself preventing displacement,” she said.

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Show us your favorite place in California! Send us photos you have taken of spots in California that are special — natural or human-made — and tell us why they’re important to you.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Helen Li, reporting fellow
Elvia Limón, multiplatform editor
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
Laura Blasey, assistant editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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