Feb. 6, 2023
In her 73 years, Deborah Kirby has watched Hannibal Square — a historically African American neighborhood in Winter Park, Florida — change. Kirby notices how hard it is for young Black people, in particular, to buy homes.
"A lot of them probably would have bought in Winter Park before, but they couldn't get financing or they couldn't afford to buy a house, tear it down, and rebuild there. It was cheaper for them to go to another neighborhood," says Kirby, a descendant of Hannibal Square's original African American citizens.
In 2004, the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust (CLT) "was researched and introduced to citizens who had a genuine concern about the displacement of the historical African American residents of the Westside of Winter Park," according to the organization's website. Nearly 20 years later, the CLT is still going strong, expanding the area's housing stock while preserving its legacy. So far, the land trust has built 26 homes in Winter Park and now has another 82 dwellings planned elsewhere in the Orlando region.
Understanding a housing need
Since its 1887 chartering, Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, has been known as a "winter playground" for the well-to-do. The Hannibal Square neighborhood became home to many Black residents shortly after the city's incorporation, but affordable housing has long been a challenge.
"Historically, Winter Park has been an area where rents and the cost to purchase homes has been expensive," says Bob Cambric, AICP, a Winter Park native and a past chair of the land trust's board of directors.
When the CLT was founded, homes in Winter Park sold at a median price of $294,500. By 2019, the estimated median house or condo value had soared to $506,481. Those high prices put homes out of reach for many in the Black community, for whom the median household income is about $50,000, significantly lower than the city's overall median household income of $80,500 ($140,702 is the overall average).
Creating generational wealth
The land trust began strongly in 2004 with the city as a partner. The solution came in response to an appeal to the city commission by concerned residents of Hannibal Square regarding a land grant for which for-profit developers were eligible.
Creating the land trust "was the best way to ensure that affordable units would still be available for working families in Winter Park," says its executive director Camille Reynolds Lewis.
Cambric notes that a critical benefit of the land trust model is that it "provides homeownership opportunities primarily for people who are in the low- to moderate-income range." That was the case for lifelong community resident Sherrie Wright, an inaugural land trust homebuyer in 2004.
Buyers like Wright must pay at least $1,000 toward their home purchase, in addition to mortgage costs. Each three-bedroom, two-bath house sits on ground the land trust owns and leases for 99 years to the homeowner for a nominal monthly ground fee, Reynolds Lewis says. This model removes the cost of the land purchase from the home-price equation.
"The person may not be here in 99 years, but we want to give them something reasonable that they can give to their kids. That's the process of stabilizing families and creating generational wealth," she explains.
Strengthening community ties
Today, Hannibal Square is a cultural attraction largely due to the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, which showcases Winter Park's Black history via voices and perspectives of past and present residents. It is a bedrock for a cohesive, long-standing community.
However, the cost to live in Hannibal Square is rising, and gentrification is a real concern. Newcomers are building bigger, more expensive homes and commercial structures. With these additions, rents and home prices are outpacing the budgets of many buyers from the area, especially young people.
With redevelopment occurring, "neighborhood facing" enterprises are important, Cambric stresses. He describes this as new businesses being financially and geographically accessible to current residents while appealing to their needs and desires.
The architecture matters, too. Land trust homes are made to blend with the style and scale of the neighborhood, maintaining the qualities that make it a desirable place to live.
"They also fit in the sense of furthering and making use of walkability [so] that people still can walk to church, shop, see family and friends, go to the library," and enjoy recreational activities, Cambric says. "Keeping that neighborhood scale has been very important."
Ensuring affordability into the future
Sustaining affordability means securing funding to meet rising land costs, which Reynolds Lewis admits is increasingly difficult: "By the time you pay for the cost of the land, there is no way to make it affordable without subsidies."
In 2017, the land trust made the strategic move to expand its scope beyond Winter Park, broadening its target service areas to underserved parts of Orange, its home county, and the bordering Lake, Osceola, and Seminole counties.
In the city of Apopka, the land trust has purchased a 2.5-acre lot where it plans to construct 24 three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath townhomes near retail, including a major grocery store. "The price was less than what the Community Land Trust was paying for a 6,000-square-feet lot in Winter Park. That was eye-opening," says Reynolds Lewis.
Apopka also is exploring ways to use impact fee subsidies through its refund program for residential ownership. Depending on the units' cost, the land trust could receive from $6,000 to $20,000 toward the impact fees for each CLT-built house, says James Hitt, Apopka's community development director. Orange County is chipping in $500,000 in gap financing for the 24 Apopka homes.
Orlando is another new partner in the CLT's efforts, supporting a larger scale project to construct 30 townhomes in an African-American neighborhood by contributing $3 million in construction subsidies. That neighborhood has a distinctive character, and architects and planners worked with existing residents to design homes that fit in, says Reynolds Lewis.
Nearby, the land trust also is developing 28 rental apartments amid 15,000 square feet of planned retail space. The Hannibal Square CLT reports that all those units are presold with approved mortgages.
"When we announced this development — we didn't even advertise — we had over 200 applicants for those 30 units," says Reynolds Lewis. "These are people who want to buy a home but they can't find anything they can afford."