Community Land Trust Brussels, Belgium

The Brussels Community Land Trust (CLTB) focuses on providing affordable housing for the most at-risk populations in the capital region of Belgium, such as low-income workers, immigrants, single mothers, seniors and people with disabilities. CLTB focuses on developing multi-family apartment buildings; it has constructed three projects with 48 units and has seven other projects under construction or study that would deliver more than 120 units. It is building highly energy efficient “net zero” housing developments that conform to sustainability requirements established by the Brussels-Capital Region. Several CLTB projects are also incorporating other green design features, such as green roofs, public gardens, and other community spaces to enhance both the environmental and social benefits of the project. It is exploring opportunities to build local energy cooperatives, to leverage incentives to build housing powered by renewable energy sources, and to shift development patterns to enhance access to transit and shift mobility patterns to emphasize biking and walking. CLTB is also working to develop “social economy hubs” in its projects to provide business incubation opportunities for the neighborhood and to support local job creation. For example, one of their development sites had old warehouses and rather than tear those buildings down immediately, CLTB worked with residents to organize temporary uses on the site including pop-up restaurants, cooking classes, and incubation of a catering business.

Background

The City of Brussels is both the capital and the most populous city in Belgium. It is also the seat of the European Union with both the European Commission and European Parliament based in Brussels. As a result, the city is incredibly diverse and approximately 62 percent of the population is not of Belgian descent.1  The city also has a large wealth gap between rich and poor, with a significant percentage of new immigrants experiencing poverty. 2 

At the same time the region has significant significant demographic growth and an increase in demand for low-cost housing, its “social housing” stock (i.e., public housing or publicly subsidized housing) has declined causing an affordable housing crisis in the city. Between 2012 and 2018, social housing in the Brussels Capital region represented only 7.3 percent of housing stock, while the waiting list for social housing during this same time period rose by 29 percent.  Additionally between 2004 and 2016, median rents increased by 22 percent and housing prices by 34 percent.3  The lack of affordable housing has most affected new immigrants to Belgium, with specific challenges for asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.4  

Belgium is also beginning to experience impacts from climate change. The country has already seen a 7 percent increase in annual rainfall with 15 percent increase in the winter and spring rainy seasons, and it is anticipated that the country will see a significant increase in heavy rainfall events as the planet continues to warm. More heavy rainfall will exacerbate flood risks in Brussels due to undersized stormwater systems and increases in riverine flooding along the banks of the Senne River.5  The country has also seen significant increases in heat waves that have caused substantial casualties, and anticipates increases in summer temperatures by up to 8.9℃ by the end of the century. 6 

The Brussels Community Land Trust (CLTB) can be an important partner for addressing both the climate and housing challenges in the Capital region. CLTB was established in 2012 to address rising social inequities in the region as a result of high housing costs and to offer a different model for delivering social housing for the lowest income households. It was incorporated through creation of two separate entities: a Public Purpose Foundation to own and manage the land and a nonprofit organization to manage the CLT and facilitate development of affordable housing. 

CLT Projects & Activities 

Affordable Housing

CLTB focuses on providing affordable housing for the most at-risk populations in the Capital region, such as low-income people, immigrants, single mothers, and other groups that have been discriminated against in the housing market. Buyers must be eligible for social housing with maximum income of €22,560 per year income. CLTB constructs multi-family apartment buildings and has constructed three projects with 48 units and has seven other projects under construction or study that would deliver more than 120 units, with several units designed for groups with special needs, including seniors, single mothers, and people with disabilities.7  In addition to new construction, CLTB has helped to adaptively reuse sites, including a former parish hall that was converted into a 7 unit apartment with community space and public gardens.8  

CLTB develops permanently affordable housing and it uses a resale formula that allows CLT homeowners to build equity through homeownership. The CLT owner receives 25 percent of the appreciated value at resale and CLTB receives 6 percent or €3000, whichever is highest, to cover operational costs.The new income-qualified buyer pays the initial price plus 31 percent, and 69 percent of the value of the property is captured in the permanently preserved land.9  CLT homeowners also pay €120 annually for a 50-year ground lease to the land, which supports the administration of the CLT. CLTB also provides financial assistance to prospective homebuyers to help them plan and develop savings for a down payment on a CLT home. 

Sustainability & Resilience

CLTB is building highly energy efficient “net-zero” housing developments that conform to sustainability requirements established by the Brussels-Capital Region.10  Net-zero housing uses a lot of technology and homeowners require training on how to use and maintain those technologies. It also increases the cost to build housing. As a result, CLTB has to raise additional funds and provide training and assistance to its residents to ensure the long-term sustainability of its housing developments. Several CLTB projects are incorporating other green design features, such as green roofs, public gardens, and other community spaces to enhance both the environmental and social benefits delivered by the development.11  CLTB is also looking to expand its sustainability initiatives in terms of both energy and transportation. In future projects, it is looking to incubate local energy cooperatives, leverage incentives to build renewable-energy powered housing, and shift development and mobility patterns to enhance access to transit, biking, and walking. It is working with municipal regulators to reduce per unit parking requirements and to establish parking cooperatives to allow residents to rent parking spaces to generate an income stream. 

Placemaking & Economic Resilience

CLTB has goals of pursuing mixed-used development projects that can provide space for commercial and community uses, though has struggled to finance these components of their projects at affordable rates.12  CLTB is working to develop “social economy hubs” in its projects to provide business incubation opportunities for the neighborhood and to support local job creation. For example, one of their development sites had old warehouses and rather than tear those buildings down immediately, CLTB worked with residents to organize temporary uses on the site including pop-up restaurants, cooking classes, and incubation of a catering business. Resident volunteers provided “sweat equity” to construct adequate kitchen space to support these temporary uses of the site, while CLTB was seeking building permissions to permanently redevelop the site.13  

Community Engagement & Social Cohesion

CLTB engages residents through various mechanisms, including through its governing board and in the development and design of projects. CLTB is supporting community governance by following the classic tripartite governing board model. CLTB’s Board includes representation from both current and future CLT residents, public authorities, and representatives from the neighborhood and broader civil society, with each group receiving a one-third vote.

CLTB takes a “co-design” approach to developing projects and activities, involving the full range of stakeholders at all stages of the project. It works with residents to design the project through architectural workshops and provides training and support to help residents manage and maintain the property throughout their tenancy. CLTB also pursues “asset-based community engagement,” meaning CLT staff work with the community to determine what activities and other amenities residents want to foster and incorporate into development projects.14  To offer services within its developments, CLTB partners with existing local organizations that already have capacity and funding to provide social services, technical and financial advice, youth activities, and other amenities that the community wants to incorporate into projects. 

Additionally, CLTB has sought to foster social cohesion among residents by making creative use of development sites while seeking building permissions. Typically it takes the CLT 4 to 5 years to construct homes on the lots  after acquisition. Rather than letting the land sit unused, CLTB has allowed members to support community uses including by setting up community gardens and opening sites for festivals, flea markets, cooking space, and other uses.15 

 

CASE STUDY: Community Land Trust Ghent

CLTB has a sister community land trust operating in the City of Ghent, the third largest city in Belgium, which is also working to develop sustainable housing options for lower-income residents in Ghent. Ghent is the capital of Flanders Province, about 60 km northwest of Brussels, and faces similar challenges with housing affordability and resilience. CLT Ghent was formed in 2013 under a model similar to CLTB with the goal of delivering affordable social housing for residents of Ghent. Although CLT Ghent has not completed any projects, it has several projects in development, including a 34 home development located in Meulestede, a former harbor area that the CLT is redeveloping in coordination with the city. The CLT is currently leasing the land but is ultimately looking to acquire the land from the city at below-market rates. The city is also supporting the development by funding clean up of contaminants at the site. The development will include highly energy efficient design and meet “passive” housing standards.16  It will also incorporate community gardens and the CLT is stewarding a larger array of gardens on the site temporarily while development permissions are sought. In addition to housing, the CLT is seeking to incorporate other commercial uses on the site to meet community needs, including a cooperative supermarket.17  Learning from the work of CLT Brussels, CLT Ghent is working to build stronger municipal and regional support for the CLT housing model, including seeking support from the city in accessing surplus lands. 

 

Supporting State & Local Policies 

Start-Up Support

The Secretary of Housing supported an initial feasibility study for establishing CLTB at cost of  €150,000 and local philanthropies provided  €10,000 in initial operational costs to start up the CLT. Additional technical support was provided to help CLTB establish its organizational structure, develop legal governance documents, and develop a business plan. 

Access to Land  

CLTB was provided with a €2,000,000 grant to acquire land and develop CLT properties. It also benefits from regional policies — called “Urban Regeneration Schemes” — that enable local authorities to sell land at one-fourth the value to nonprofit organizations that demonstrate that they will put land to public use or implement social housing projects. The challenge with the Urban Regeneration Scheme, however, is that the land tends to be in poorer neighborhoods, which is good because a lot of CLTBs members are living in those neighborhoods already, but has its drawbacks because these neighborhoods also do not have a lot of amenities and economic opportunities for residents.18 Thus, CLTB seeks to both develop new housing as well as implement place-making and other economic development activities that can bring additional community amenities to underserved neighborhoods. 

Funding & Financing

CLTB funds and finances projects using public sector grants (approximately 40 percent), grants for specific project components like decontamination or historic preservation (approximately 8 percent), and the remaining 60 percent of the project costs are financed through the individual buyers mortgage financing (that is offered at lower interest rates for buyers eligible for social housing through the government’s Regional Housing Fund — Fonds du Logement).19  In terms of public grants, CLTB has received funding from both the regional authorities in Belgium that finance social housing projects as well as EU funding from the European Regional Development Fund. Additionally, CLTB is working to be designated as a low-income social housing provider so that it can qualify for reduced value-added taxation (VAT) rates on home sales (6 percent as opposed to the 12 to 21 percent charged to traditional development).

To support administration costs, CLTB uses a membership model to identify potential homebuyers and to generate revenue to acquire and develop affordable housing projects. CLTB has over 600 members that pay an annual member fee of  €10/year.20  

Considerations & Lessons Learned 

  • Support temporary community uses of development sites. CLTB demonstrates how community land trusts can support creative temporary uses of redevelopment sites in ways that build social bonds among residents and create economic development opportunities in underserved neighborhoods. Rather than leave sites inactive, CLTB works with residents to develop and design temporary community uses while seeking development permissions. For example, on one of its sites CLTB set up a temporary use kitchen facility and supported a woman’s cooking group seeking to create a social-entrepreneur catering company. Similarly, CLT Ghent temporarily established a community garden on one of its development sites and incorporated a smaller permanent garden as part of the redevelopment plan for the site. 
  • Use placemaking to create other amenities in underserved neighborhoods. One of the key benefits provided by CLTs over traditional affordable housing developers is their broader focus on community development in addition to housing. The CLTs in both Brussels and Ghent are incorporating other economic development activities on sites to improve the prospects of the neighborhoods they serve, including a cooperate supermarket in Ghent and a community kitchen to incubate local catering businesses.  
  • Leverage the power of networks to incorporate bespoke services for residents. CLTB’s model of partnering with other nonprofits that provide social services in coordination with housing projects, helps to better meet the needs of the community. By partnering with organizations that already have capacity and funding to deliver specific services, CLTB is able to bring additional expertise to its team and its projects, without straining the capacity of the limited CLT staff. 
  • Expanding funding to support multi-use projects. Similar to CLTs in the US, CLTB has struggled to finance multi-use projects that offer commercial space at lower rental rates or that incorporate other green features. While the economic development benefits of having community-serving businesses and nonprofits is clear, the process of financing housing developments makes it difficult to leverage and combine different sources of funding to incorporate commercial and other community uses. This demonstrates a key gap in public sector financing that could be filled by expanding the flexibility of housing funding and financing programs to enable some multi-use development projects that provide economic development opportunities in underserved communities. Rules designed to keep housing construction costs down to reduce the subsidy needed to build affordable housing can have the perverse effect of limiting the ability of CLTs and developers to integrate economic development, sustainability, and resilience features that if implemented would help cities meet multiple goals. Policymakers should remove barriers that prevent developers from incorporating commercial spaces for local businesses and green design features (e.g. renewable energy, park space) particularly where features will reduce the total housing costs for residents and also provides broader community-wide benefits. For example, CLT Ghent has been limited in its ability to build more sustainable housing its projects are using funding sources that limit the amount of funds that can be applied to things like renewable energy. As a result, CLT Ghent is exploring partnerships with cooperatives that will build and find external funding for green design features that cannot be financed with traditional housing sources (like solar energy, water collection, and heat pumps), with additional costs paid back through the savings households will see on their utility bills. While CLTs are finding creative work arounds, this increases the transactional and administrative costs on CLTs and reduces their ability to deliver multi-benefit low-cost housing options in communities.  
  • Support for peer-learning helps to build CLT capacity. CLT Brussels and Ghent benefitted from participation in an European Union supported initiative, the Sustainable Housing for Inclusive and Cohesive Cities (SHICC) project that brought experts together to advance the work of CLTs in European countries and support adoption of supportive policies and financing models at the local, regional, and national levels. The SHICC project supported peer-learning among CLTs in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France and helped these newly formed CLTs build capacity to finance and develop housing and work with public sector partners. The SHICC initiative is also helping incubate other CLTs throughout the countries participating in the collaboration. For example, lessons shared by CLT Brussels helped foster creation of CLTs in Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven. 

 

 


Publication Date: December 7, 2020

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