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Land trust is a natural for Fruit Belt

After organizing, protesting and leafleting, Fruit Belt residents won partial relief from the parking problems caused by the growth of the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Actually, “won” is probably the wrong word, since the compromise setting aside half the street parking for residents leaves them with less than they had before campus workers began monopolizing the free spots.

Still, it’s a step toward making sure residents benefit from – not get driven out by – the development making their neighborhood a real estate hot spot.

The next step should be establishing the community land trust proposed to make sure residents, not profiteers and other outsiders, control the vacant city land near the campus that has speculators drooling. The Community First Alliance, a coalition of 19 organizations both within and outside the Fruit Belt, is pushing the concept, citing its success in areas such as Boston and northwest Vermont.

The idea is simple: The nonprofit trust run by residents would assume ownership of the more than 200 city-owned Fruit Belt parcels and sell the housing to low- and moderate-income homeowners at below-market prices. The trust also could ensure that any commercial development benefits the neighborhood, says a report by the Partnership for the Public Good, an alliance member.

Without a land trust to control what happens, the city could simply auction the parcels to the highest bidder, which would “only fuel speculation and gentrification and displacement,” said Sam Magavern, Partnership co-director.

But establishing a land trust is one thing. How it’s established is another.

It’s a definite positive that groups from outside the neighborhood – such as the Partnership, Open Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo – recognize the importance of the East Side and will use their expertise to make sure that it’s included in Buffalo’s resurgence. The Partnership’s research is particularly valuable.

But the key is ensuring that Fruit Belt residents themselves control what ultimately happens and that their authority isn’t hijacked by politicians and handed to someone else.

Benjamin Cashaw, president of the FruitBelt Coalition, wants residents to sign off on any development.

“For too long, we’ve been kept out and developers come in and just do what they want to do without concern for the invested stakeholders. That’s not right, and that’s not fair,” said Cashaw, whose group is an alliance member. He thinks a land trust could give residents that kind of input “if it’s done right.”

Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, coordinator with the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force – which is not in the alliance – is even more pointed. A vocal advocate for those in the Fruit Belt, she fears that the process could devolve into “the same old stuff, where the residents’ voice is taken away and it’s turned over to an outside voice.”

Of course, all of this assumes City Hall listens to residents and establishes a land trust in the first place. The city imposed a moratorium on selling Fruit Belt land until it comes up with a plan for the neighborhood.

In an email Wednesday, a Brown administration official pointed to provisions in the new Green Code that give residents a voice in what happens in their neighborhoods and said the administration is open to a Fruit Belt land trust provided that residents “demonstrate funding, an ability to acquire the land, maintain carrying costs and oversee development projects. If a private land trust is created, the city will work with the land trust, but again, it will be held to the same standard as any other community-based organization.”

But the burden of funding a trust should not be dumped on the residents themselves. As the Partnership report notes, a strong argument can be made that the city, Medical Campus institutions and “developers who have reaped large public subsidies and large profits from the Medical Campus and nearby development should help in funding a land trust, because it is development on and near the campus that is driving land speculation, gentrification and displacement in the neighborhood.”

A united voice of 19 alliance groups – from the Buffalo Urban League to the Coalition for Economic Justice – should be more than enough to persuade City Hall to use some of its community development dollars to help establish a Fruit Belt land trust and give power to the people.

Just make sure it’s the right people.