Born and bred New Londoner wants to change city from within
New London – Clayton Potter was 23 years old when he purchased his first home on Prest Street as part of a grassroots initiative to promote affordable home ownership by separating land from the house that sits on it.
“My dad had always kind of raised us with the mindset of being prepared to buy properties,” Potter said. “He says ‘buy land, they're not making any more.’”
He didn’t quite follow his father’s advice. The Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust owns the land; Potter owns the house.
The stately 1870 stone house with a mansard roof cost him $135,300 when he purchased it from the community land trust in early 2020. He was the first homeowner to buy into the nonprofit group’s mission to keep houses affordable in perpetuity.
“Stone home, fell in love,” Potter recounted. The picture window in the third-floor kitchen, with views of the New London skyline and even a sliver of river on clear days, clinched the deal. He closed on Valentine’s Day.
He asked the group’s volunteer painters for green walls in the kitchen to reflect the gardens outside and lavender in the living room to soak up the sunset.
Potter, now 26, grew up in a house a few blocks away on Pleasant Street. His parents are still there. He said he never thought about living anywhere other than New London.
He works at Connecticut College as its director of race and ethnicity programs. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s in public administration from the University of New Haven. His foundation came from the New London school system: Harbor Elementary, Bennie Dover Jackson Middle, and New London High School.
Acknowledging his new neighborhood was known as a hotbed of criminal activity while he was growing up – and remains that way to an extent today – he said he wants to be a part of the solution instead of leaving it up to out-of-town investors who would rather gentrify the neighborhood than clean it up for those who live there now.
“We can choose to either let these histories and stereotypes exist, or we can try and do something about it and change it,” he said.
The community land trust model, which was pioneered more than 50 years ago by Voluntown Peace Trust’s Robert Swann as part of his broad commitment to social justice, has spread across the globe. It was first used in the late 1960s in Albany, Georgia, for Black sharecroppers who had lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote.
The land is held in trust by the community – in this case, the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust’s members. The shared equity framework rests on a 99-year, renewable ground lease that allows the owner of the house to live there, make improvements, build equity and turn a limited profit when it comes time to sell the house.
Under the terms of the lease, the homeowner gets 25% of the appreciation while the community land trust uses its share to keep the price down for the next buyer.
Potter said rental income of $775 per month from the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor keeps his own mortgage payment low and will help him toward his goal of saving for another multifamily house, he said.
“I’d eventually like to own more property here in New London, since I’m from here,” he said. “I don’t want outside developers continuing to come in and do things in a half-assed manner.”
Potter pointed to success the local, nonprofit affordable housing group HOPE Inc. has had renovating or building 18 houses on Belden Street in a decades-long push that has transformed the neighborhood. But he worries there are a lot of two- and three-family homes in the area being purchased by absentee landlords or house flippers who will drive up prices and drive out residents.
He said his daily walks downtown, which take him along Bank Street and up State, have left him disenchanted with what’s happening in the city in terms of development. A flurry of construction lately has targeted young professionals from Electric Boat, Pfizer and the region’s health care industry through upscale one- and two-bedroom units.
“It’s not for the people who have been here,” he said. “It’s not for New Londoners.”