Conservation Groups Retool Their Missions to Address the Affordable Housing Crisis

Protecting green space can drive up local property costs, so land trusts are forming new partnerships to create homes for people and wildlife.
Illustration of a house and building next to trees and birds.
Illustration: Gracia Lam

Last year, the nonprofit Kestrel Land Trust put a picturesque piece of property in western Massachusetts under contract. The 53-acre parcel in Easthampton contains a mix of open meadows, hayfields, and forests along the Manhan River, a habitat corridor for bobcats, bears, and birds. “It’s one of the largest remaining undeveloped properties in the city,” says Mark Wamsley, the trust’s conservation director.

In keeping with its mission of protecting ecologically valuable land, Wamsley’s group is finalizing a conservation easement with Mass Audubon so that most of the property will never be developed. But the trust has a different vision for the remainder: A national nonprofit called The Community Builders will buy around 11 acres to construct 90 affordable housing units. Their residents and the public will have access to the land for birding, hiking, and other outdoor recreation.

The new project aims to address the region’s housing shortage without sacrificing natural habitat and open space. The Pioneer Valley, where Easthampton lies, needs around 20,000 more housing units, according to a 2022 report. Without them, restaurants and other businesses are having trouble attracting workers.

It’s the first project of its kind for Wamsley’s organization, but it mirrors a broader trend: Some of the country’s nearly 1,300 land trusts are rethinking their missions, asking not only what they are preserving but for whose benefit. The shift aims to simultaneously address the concurrent biodiversity and affordable-housing crises. “Communities don’t have the luxury of picking which crisis to deal with,” he says. “If you can address all of them, you’re much more likely to be successful.”

Land trusts are rethinking their missions, asking not only what they are preserving but for whose benefit.

Studies show that, while their environmental benefits are significant, conservation easements can drive up the value of surrounding property and increase housing costs. That unintended consequence is getting harder to ignore as housing reaches unprecedented heights of unaffordability nationwide, with widespread shortages, rising barriers to homeownership, and record levels of homelessness. Home prices have spiked by 38 percent since the start of the pandemic, and rents have also risen substantially. The shortage is felt most acutely by low-income families and people of color, who typically have much less access to green space and the health and community benefits that come from living near nature. A record 70,000 Americans became unhoused in 2023.

With those trends in mind, the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that represents Wamsley’s trust and more than 900 of its peers, published a guide in 2023 aimed at helping its members integrate affordable housing into their work. The group also released a map with the Center for Community Progress to highlight areas where conservation land trusts and community-focused organizations overlap and could form partnerships. “We are using different angles to get at the same core issue, which is: How do we deal with market pressure that is creating undesirable and unsustainable impacts for communities?” says Brian Larkin, director of the National Land Bank Network, which helped to create the map.

As more land trusts make equity part of their missions, a variety of models are emerging across the country for pairing land conservation with affordable housing. In Bozeman, Montana, where the population of unhoused people soared by 35 percent between 2019 and 2021, the Trust for Public Land helped to create 31 new, permanently affordable housing units that hit the market in 2023 as part of a nature preserve project. On Mount Desert Island in Maine, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust has partnered since 2016 with Island Workforce Housing to conserve dozens of acres of ecologically important coastal wetlands while also developing much-needed affordable housing units.

That doesn’t mean the work is easy. For one thing, land is expensive; the Easthampton project was made possible by a large anonymous donation earmarked for this kind of collaboration. Zoning laws can also be hard to get around: In Bozeman, the Trust for Public Land had to secure 19 separate variances to city ordinances.

But Wamsley says Kestrel Land Trust isn’t deterred by the challenges. The project name, Growing Green: Easthampton, is meant to be a template for more Growing Green projects that help other communities preserve open space and provide homes for people and wildlife. “We can make something better,” Wamsley says. “Something that is more than just the sum of its parts.”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2024 issue as “Habitat—for Humanity.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.