South Tower hits new milestone, purchases home in Tower District

In the heart of Fresno’s Tower District, a beacon of hope and resilience has emerged in the form of the South Tower Community Land Trust. Founded by Kiel Lopez-Schmidt, this organization is redefining community development and affordable housing, setting an inspiring example of grassroots activism and strategic vision. 

The story of the South Tower begins with Lopez-Schmidt’s deep personal connection to the Tower District. Growing up in a stable home environment, Lopez-Schmidt developed a profound appreciation for the stability and sense of community that long-term residence in a single neighborhood can provide. This personal history, coupled with his academic background in architecture from UC Berkeley, fueled his desire to create a space where community voices and needs take precedence.

“I valued the stability I had growing up,” Lopez-Schmidt shared. “I’ve always wanted that for other people, especially in communities facing displacement and eviction.”

The catalyst for the formation of South Tower was a city plan to decommission a local police station and rezone the land for a market-rate apartment complex. Recognizing the lack of public parks and green spaces in South Tower, Lopez-Schmidt and other community members rallied against the city’s plan, advocating instead for the land to be used as a public park. The community’s overwhelming support, with 95% in favor of the park, underscored the need for an organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing community spaces.

“Our park access was 0.3 acres per thousand residents, far below the city’s goal of five acres,” Lopez-Schmidt explained. “We needed to fight for this rare opportunity to keep public land public.”

On May 14, South Tower achieved another significant milestone by successfully closing escrow on their first home. But acquiring the first property was no small feat. The organization faced significant challenges, from navigating the competitive real estate market to securing insurance for the property. However, thanks to successful fundraising efforts and the strategic use of unrestricted grant money, South Tower was able to allocate $350,000 for its first acquisition.

“We saw some real dumps that needed extensive work but were priced very high,” Lopez-Schmid noted. “Finding the right property was crucial. We didn’t want to disrupt the normal home-buying process for local families.”

Their persistence paid off when they found a suitable property. Despite the initial hurdles, including obtaining insurance and understanding the intricacies of the Community Land Trust model, the organization successfully purchased the home and began necessary improvements.

The Community Land Trust model separates ownership of the land from the home built on it. This approach ensures long-term affordability by stabilizing housing costs and preventing market fluctuations from impacting the residents.

“We bought the home for $250,000 and are investing another $50,000 to $60,000 in improvements,” Lopez-Schmidt explained. “By removing the land value from the equation, we can sell the home for under $200,000, making it genuinely affordable for a local family.”

This model not only makes homeownership attainable but also ensures that housing remains affordable for future generations. The organization’s commitment to education and community involvement is evident as they work to inform potential homeowners about this unique process.

Innovative housing solutions are at the forefront of South Tower’s plans. They aim to add two tiny homes to the backyard of their first property, offering affordable rental options and increasing neighborhood density in a sustainable way. Partnering with the Lowell Community Development Corporation and Fresno City College, South Tower is leveraging local resources to build these homes efficiently.

“We’re addressing the housing crisis with creative solutions,” Kiel said. “By incorporating tiny homes, we can provide affordable rentals while maintaining quality and sustainability.”

Beyond affordable housing, South Tower is dedicated to improving overall neighborhood quality. The organization plans to install air quality monitors to address pollution concerns, particularly from nearby industrial activities and heavy traffic corridors. This data will guide efforts to enhance the environment, such as planting more trees and advocating for better truck routing policies.

“We want to see tangible improvements in air quality and overall livability,” Lopez-Schmidt emphasized. “It’s about creating a healthier, safer environment for everyone.”

The organization also places a strong emphasis on community education and empowerment, ensuring that board members and community stakeholders are informed and involved in decision-making processes. This inclusive approach reflects the diversity and vibrancy of the Tower District, with significant representation from the LGBTQ+ community.

“We’re breaking down traditional hierarchies,” Lopez-Schmidt explained. “It’s about making real estate and community development accessible to everyone, not just those with the most knowledge.”

Looking ahead, South Tower has ambitious goals. They aim to complete the tiny homes and see their first homeowner move in by the end of the year. Additionally, the organization is gearing up for its second annual Queer Housing Summit, an event that promises to draw national attention and foster greater involvement in housing advocacy.

“We want to continue growing sustainably, ensuring our team is supported and our impact is lasting,” Lopez-Schmidt concluded. “Our ultimate goal is to create a community where everyone has access to affordable, quality housing and a healthy environment.”

The South Tower Community Land Trust is more than an organization; it is a movement towards a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future. Through innovative solutions, community engagement, and a steadfast commitment to social justice, South Tower is transforming the Tower District and setting a powerful example for other communities to follow. As Kiel Lopez-Schmidt and his team continue to push boundaries and envision new possibilities, the future of South Tower looks brighter than ever.

Rami Zwebti (they/them)

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