Is a Community Land Trust (CLT) a viable way to create permanent affordable workforce housing on the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile perimeter that links 45 urban neighborhoods around the central city? That was the question posed in the inaugural Real Estate Case Competition of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The idea was pitched last fall to Professor Roy T. Black, a professor in the practice of finance and director of Goizueta’s new real estate program, who decided it would be good case competition material because it has a broad-cased public policy component and is very complex.

The BeltLine, which features parks, trails, transit and redevelopment, is one of the most important real estate projects in Atlanta’s history, second only to the construction of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It also is the largest urban redevelopment project in the country. Last fall, two members of the nonprofit BeltLine Partnership (BLP) met with Black to describe their work and to ask for help. One was BLP Program Director Rob Brawner (a 2006 MBA graduate of the business school). The other was BLP Executive Director Valarie Wilson.

BLP’s goal is to reach out to the community to raise awareness and funds to support the BeltLine. It works with neighborhoods, community and faith organizations, businesses and other groups. It also is concerned about social issues raised by new development around the BeltLine, specifically economic displacement of poor residents.

“When we go into these neighborhoods and talk about the BeltLine and the opportunities for redevelopment, the first thing we hear is residents saying, ‘you’re going to run me out of my neighborhood,’ ” Wilson says. “The city of Atlanta has been working hard to create affordable housing. The work done by these Emory students will help us in that process.”

CLTs are a tool to combat economic displacement, and BLP wants to see if such land trust might work in Atlanta. But with its staff of four, BLP didn’t have the resources to analyze its effectiveness. A CLT is a private, nonprofit corporation created to acquire and hold land for the benefit of a community, and provide secure affordable access to land and housing for community residents. In most cases, the CLT owns the land and the residents own the structure. When the structure is resold, the CLT dictates the price to ensure that it is affordable to future residents. They have been used successfully in hundreds of communities across the country.

Fifteen Emory students, including five from the School of Law and one BBA, competed on three teams in the case competition. They received resource materials in late November and were told to prepare written and oral presentations regarding the following key CLT issues: corporate umbrella, service area, beneficiaries, governance structure, development priority, development strategy, organizational sustainability, and education and organizing. The students were advised by 30 experts from outside Emory, including developers, city officials, community leaders and CLT consultants, many of whom attended the Feb. 23 oral presentations.

The students did not receive course credit for the exercise, nor were they compensated. Several described the experience as “a full-time job,” complete with all the anxiety and second-guessing that occurs in the real workplace.

The judges were Todd J. Bassen, senior vice president, Vornado Acquisitions, Vornado Reality Trust; Gregory J. Giornelli, chief operating officer, office of the Atlanta mayor; Lindsay R.M. Jones, adjunct professor, Emory School of Law; and Mtamanika Youngblood, director, Neighborhood Transformation, Anne E. Casey Foundation. Many of their questions had to do with funding formulas and construction costs, which the students appeared to underestimate.

Members of the winning team are Thomas Greco09MBABill Hankins 09MBADana Howle 09MBAAaron Kuney 09MBA, and Christine Rutz 09L. Their proposal involved using a CLT in Adair Park, an historic neighborhood in southwest Atlanta that has “lots of community pride,” architectural history and many residents who have lived there at least 20 years. The plan has four phases, which include creating a governing board, acquiring land, organizing “CLT #1” to function like a model home, and then setting up successive CLTs based on the model. Community outreach is crucial, the team said, so that residents are invested in the CLT and motivated to see it succeed.

Private donations, government grants and TAD (tax allocation district) funds would pay for the CLT, although the Georgia Supreme Court recently dealt a blow to half the TAD funding when it ruled that school tax money cannot be used for BeltLine development. That ruling, which came several days before the presentations, affected every proposal.

Goizueta’s Black notes he received panicky phone calls from students asking for more time to redo the funding. “I said, ‘look, this is what happens in the real world. Deal with it.’”

Wilson, BLP’s executive director, says her group will take “bits and pieces of all the proposals” to create one that fits their needs. “This is not the end of these proposals. We will continue to work with what they gave us,” she adds. “The students did a wonderful job.”

The students gained valuable experience they can use in any future job, notes Black. “This was a real world example of the kind of thing they will be doing after they graduate. This was not hypothetical stuff. They will hone their presentation and market research skills. And they will be able to put all of it into spreadsheet form, quantify it and then tell somebody else that it’s a wonderful idea. There is real value in what they did in these presentations.”

Black says the three presentations will be available to the public so others can see how the students tackled the financial, legal, organizational and logistical issues of creating affordable housing along the BeltLine. “It’s our hope that we’ve made some contribution to the affordable housing issue,” Black adds.

As for ruling on TAD funding, Brawner notes, the BeltLine has begun to move from vision to reality: ground was recently broken for the West End trail; work is underway on parks on the Westside, at Boulevard Crossing, and at North Avenue; and a creative public-private partnership has secured significant BeltLine right-of-way through the Northeast corridor.