Salem seeks to make housing affordable one farm at a time

Salem ― A prominent local environmentalist’s crisis of conscience has led to a merger of environmental and real estate interests on nearly 200 acres of farmland and forest along Highway 85.

David Bingham, a retired OB-GYN from one of the city’s most lauded families, bought 131 acres on Hartford Road and 66 accessible acres at the top of Cockle Hill Road for $800,000 in a registered transaction at the City Hall earlier this month.

Bingham said he purchased the property with his wife, Annie, to ensure the largely wooded strip was not turned into a subdivision of McMansions. Instead, he hopes the existing farm on the property can be used to provide farm workers with an affordable place to live.

His plan is to sell a 16-acre portion of the property — including the farmhouse and outbuildings — to the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust to be kept in perpetuity as affordable housing. He will need to secure funding from other local, state and federal partners to preserve the rest of the land and repay the loan.

Bingham, who founded the Salem Land Trust in 1996, said in an interview this spring that he had helped preserve thousands of acres of open space in his lifetime. He said he’s come to realize that one of his biggest sources of pride is actually a problem.

“As we create each of our reserves, every home adjacent to or near it has gone up in value,” he said. “And that makes it less affordable. So I feel a guilt that I never even imagined.

Conversations about conservation need to be expanded, according to the conservationist-turned-housing advocate.

“We talk a lot about biodiversity, but I’m talking about human diversity,” he said.

The call for affordable housing has intensified in the state as advocates rally for laws to promote more types of housing in more places. Currently, many of the lowest earners are isolated in cities. The state’s Affordable Housing Act includes provisions to motivate cities to ensure that at least 10% of their homes are affordable, but only 31 municipalities in the state meet that threshold. In New London County, this list includes Groton, New London and Norwich.

“The thing is, low income people are more likely to be black or brown, and those people are increasingly being excluded from our city and that’s not what I want my grandkids to inherit,” Bingham said.

He sees the partnership as a way to begin to reverse the loss of affordable housing and farmland in Salem, ultimately obviating the need for large apartment complexes to meet housing goals.

The 1,408 square foot, 4 bedroom farmhouse on the Hartford Road property was built in 1909 and has been in the Hominick family for generations. The property adjoins part of the Salem Land Trust’s Zemko Sawmill Preserve, which Bingham says could provide an opportunity for an expanded trail network.

Bingham and Joanne Sheehan of the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust are working with local farmer Hannah Tripp on possible expansion of her operations. Tripp runs Provider Farm from a Woodbridge Road property owned by the Bingham family.

Tripp, in a statement, said the farm offers the option of adding seven acres to the 15 acres of cropland and 11 acres of pasture it leases. She said the additional land could potentially allow her to offer perennial crops and invest in more permanent infrastructure, such as covered tunnels that would allow more crops to be produced in the colder months.

“We hope this collaboration can serve as an inspiring model for farmland access and affordability in Connecticut in the future,” Tripp said.

It is a partnership between a traditional type of land trust focused on the preservation of open space in perpetuity and a less established type of land trust focused on the preservation of affordable housing in perpetuity.

Organized over several years before being declared tax-exempt in 2020, the community land trust’s portfolio so far includes a two-family house on Prest Street in New London.

The model for the Perst Street house is as follows: the community land trust owns the land, while a 99-year renewable ground lease allows the owner of the house to live there, make improvements, to build capital and make a limited profit when it comes time to sell the house. Under the lease, the landlord gets 25% of the appreciation while the community land trust uses its share to keep the price down for the next buyer.

It is a model that has its roots in agriculture. The concept was first used in the late 1960s in Albany, Georgia to provide housing and livelihoods to black sharecroppers who had lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote. .

Sheehan said his group is preparing the paperwork for a bridge loan through the Southeastern Connecticut Fund for Land Equity to buy the 16-acre share of the property and hopefully cover some of the renovations. The $150,000 purchase price is based on the appraised value of the buildings, according to Sheehan.

The innovative convergence of interests around the environment, housing and food production is about “preserving something that could have been lost very easily,” according to Sheehan: a sustainable place to live and work locally.

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