Community Land Trusts

Community land trusts are in vogue, a bright spot in a mostly grim housing landscape. The nonprofit, community-run organizations steward land to provide housing or community resources that are affordable in perpetuity, as Oksana Mironova detailed for UO in 2014. For the final Housing Brass Tacks event of 2017, Mychal Johnson and Monxo López of South Bronx Unite and the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards outlined the benefits of land trusts and why and how they’re implementing the model in their Bronx neighborhood.  

#1 Owned by us

Community land trusts are “designed to create the type of decision-making that’s not top down but from the bottom up,” said Mychal Johnson, and to “truly embody the community’s needs for self-determination.” Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit, community-controlled corporations that take land out of the private real estate market permanently and steward it for community interests. “We can understand community land trusts as both a mechanism to remove land from the speculative marketplace so as to have communities decide what to do with the land,” said Monxo López, and “as a mechanism that fosters transparency, accountability, and democratic participation in the way that the community decides what to do with their assets and the land.”

That stewardship can result in affordable housing, commercial spaces, farms, or any number of community assets intended to benefit both current and future generations. “The root idea of the community land trust is that the value of the land is created socially by us all,” said López.

"How a Community Land Trust Works." Flyer by the <a href="">New York City Community Land Initiative</a>
"How a Community Land Trust Works." Flyer by the New York City Community Land Initiative
How it works A CLT typically acquires land through purchase, foreclosure, or donation from a private individual or local government. The trust separates ownership of the land from ownership of the property on top of it. The community-controlled corporation owns the land, and leases out parcels to private persons or businesses, typically for a term of 99 years. The lessees own whatever is on top of the land, but the property has certain restrictions to keep it affordable and responsive to community needs, such as income eligibility and resale stipulations.

The trust is governed by a board of directors, usually composed of: one-third leaseholders or prospective leaseholders of the CLT, one-third residents of the CLT catchment area who are not leaseholders, and one-third public representatives such as community development experts, funders, nonprofit service providers, politicians, and other stakeholders. This tripartite structure is important, ensuring that a broader community supports the CLT and has a stake in its success. The corporation’s bylaws establish membership requirements, voting rights, and other decision-making controls.

Depending on their context and mission, CLTs can vary widely in terms of purpose, size, persons served, legal structure, bylaws, taxation, and other aspects. The nearly 500-page manual produced by the National Community Land Trust Network (now Grounded Solutions Network) is a practical guide to starting and operating a CLT—from forming an organizing committee and choosing the geographical area to serve, to incorporating under state law, to the lease structure for the property on top of it.

#2 Origin story

Property ownership is a deeply held national ideal, and homeownership is the backbone of the American Dream. Community land trusts challenge the system of parceling out land to the highest bidder in favor of land as common heritage. The view of land as for the common good rather than for individual possession is rooted most strongly in the ideas of philosopher and political economist Henry George. While little-known today, he was a leading public figure of his time. His bestselling 1879 book Progress and Poverty laid out a land value tax policy proposal that centered on distributing the economic value derived from land among all members of society equally, preventing landlords from profiting from mere ownership of land. In contrast to Karl Marx, George “tried to understand the problem of inequality and the problem of poverty not so much from the labor perspective, but rather from the land perspective,” said López. “He understood speculation as a national pastime.”

From England’s Garden Cities to Palestine’s agricultural cooperatives, “common ownership of land, individual ownership of the buildings, and a long-term ground lease tying the interests of the parties together” isn’t a new idea, writes John E. Davis in The Community Land Trust Reader. The advent of a community land trust, with open membership and accountability to people not directly living on the land in question, came about in the 1960s. The first modern CLT was established in Lee County, Georgia, in 1969 by a group of Black sharecroppers seeking to create a collective farm. The coalition that established New Communities, Inc. included civil rights leaders Slater King and Charles Sherrod, and land trust advocate Robert Swann. Influenced by Georgism and a trip to Israel to see the kibbutzim and moshim established on Jewish National Fund land, the group purchased nearly 6,000 acres in southwest Georgia to establish a cooperative agricultural community. Then the largest piece of Black-owned property in the US, the farm was sold in the 1980s due to drought and debt. (New Communities was later part of a successful lawsuit charging the USDA with racial discrimination against African American farmers, it was reestablished in a new form in 2011.) In 1972, Swann and colleagues penned The Community Land Trust: part field guide, part instruction manual. The CLT idea took seed and slowly spread across the country.

There are 330 known CLTs and sponsoring organizations in the US. Map via the <a href="">National Community Land Trust Network</a>
There are 330 known CLTs and sponsoring organizations in the US. Map via the National Community Land Trust Network
Here, there, and maybe someday everywhere There are more than 200 active CLTs nationwide today. Most provide affordable homeownership opportunities in suburban and rural places, but CLTs are increasingly being seen as an answer to the urban problems of gentrification and displacement. One of the best-known urban CLTs is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, which organized in the late 1980s to “establish community control over a critical mass of the 1,300 parcels of abandoned land that had come to characterize the neighborhood,” according to Dudley Neighbors, Inc. The CLT covers 62 acres and through its mission of “development without displacement” has built 225 new homes and established an urban farm and other neighborhood assets. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña has allowed for upgraded infrastructure and improved housing conditions while maintaining affordability and preventing displacement in an informal settlement along a polluted river. By implementing the CLT through a partnership with the government before any canal improvements began, the more than 15,000 neighborhood residents avoided displacement and gained participation in the decision-making process.

The only fully operational CLT in New York City is Cooper Square, established in 1991 after more than three decades of political organizing by residents originally protesting a 1959 urban renewal plan. The CLT encompasses nearly 400 units in 24 buildings scattered on the Lower East Side. The buildings themselves are managed by a mutual housing association, a form of nonprofit resident-controlled cooperative housing. A 2007 study of the Cooper Square CLT by Tom Angotti and Cecilia Jagu found that “the success and survival of the Cooper Square CLT were made possible by decades-long political organizing and support from local government that drastically reduced land and financing costs”: the combination of grassroots mobilization and local political support was key.

#3 A CLT for the South Bronx

Mott Haven and Port Morris, at the southernmost end of the Bronx, practically hug Randalls Island and Manhattan. The two neighborhoods have a large population, nearly all Black or Hispanic, but practically the entire waterfront is ringed with industrial and manufacturing use. That industry is the reason that the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, formed in 2016, have focused their burgeoning CLT efforts on green space and community facilities. “We’re a peninsula community of 90,000 people that have no access to the water that surrounds us,” said Johnson, pointing to the high asthma rates and poor health caused by the prevalence of heavy industry. The group is looking to establish community-owned public spaces to improve quality of life using community land trusts. “We’re trying to create opportunities and create solutions from the ground up,” said Johnson.

The CLT provides a mechanism for deciding what to do with the land, said López; right now that focus is on addressing environmental, economic, and social injustice by taking community ownership of of public land that isn’t providing public benefit.

"Taking Back the Bronx" (2017) follows organizers with South Bronx Unite as they fight for the proposed H.E.Arts Community Center. Documentary by Ben Ginsburg
Power In Place The group first set its sights on turning a former health clinic on West 140th Street into a permanently affordable, community-controlled space for local nonprofits and cultural organizations. Seeking to turn the vacant, city-owned property into the H.E.Arts Community Center (health, education, and the arts), the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards worked with City College architecture students on the potential rehabilitation and programming of the building. The group envisions that the CLT would get title to the land while South Bronx Unite would have the lease to the building.

The H.E.Arts Center is just one piece of their effort to take ownership of underutilized spaces and create new community-owned assets. Earlier this year, the group won an award from the Design Trust for Public Space to support Power In Place: Building Community Wealth and Well-Being in Mott Haven-Port Morris, which will use asset mapping and community-driven neighborhood planning to explore the potential of the CLT as a model for public space.

The project has three main components: First, to build an interactive GIS platform to map the assets, networks, and obstacles in the neighborhood. This digital map will be used as a community organizing tool to bring together activists, residents, and experts. Second, to compile the many disparate plans and design schemes that have been made for the neighborhood. Mott Haven-Port Morris has been a “credit farm for colleges and universities,” said López, and they want to bring together and evaluate the work to see if they can develop a community-driven master urban development plan. “There is a lot of information, a lot of renderings, a lot of good research that is all fragmented,” he continued. “There is no global vision.” Finally, with the help of a graphic designer, to package the information into a neighborhood plan the CLT can use to lobby elected officials.

The neighborhood, which has a median household income of about $19,000, is seeing a wave of development and speculation, with new luxury apartments and hotels under construction. Establishing the CLT not only creates community-owned spaces that are shielded from the real estate market, but creates an organized community to resist displacement and proactively put forward its own development agenda. “We can make sure that participation from the community is essential to planning going forward,” said Johnson. Mott Haven-Port Morris’s “of and for and by the community” approach could become a model for other neighborhoods.

#4 The communal future

“There’s been a lot of momentum and traction on CLTs, and I think we’re at a really important pinnacle right now,” said Johnson. In July 2017, the city announced a $1.65 million grant to support the development of community land trusts. The grantees are Cooper Square CLT, to expand its portfolio; the East Harlem/El Barrio CLT, to rehabilitate low-income, city-owned rental housing to be owned and operated as a CLT; the Interboro CLT, a new group created by four local nonprofits to promote affordable homeownership in Queens and Brooklyn; and the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), a four-year-old advocacy group for CLTs, to support capacity-building for nine organizations, including the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards. (NYCCLI is also a partner in the Power In Place project.) At its final meeting of 2017, the City Council approved legislation that will allow CLTs to enter into regulatory agreements with the city, making them eligible for local tax exemptions. With these organizations  addressing diverse housing options — with regard to tenure, geography, and income levels — the next few years will be an exciting time to test the potential of a variety of CLT types in New York City.

New York City isn’t alone. From Baltimore to San Francisco, Chicago to Albuquerque, there is a groundswell of interest in combating the omnipresent pressures of high housing costs, the financialization of housing, and displacement. One possible solution? Make private property into community property.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Housing Brass Tacks

Reports from a series of informal conversations with scholars and experts engaging complicated topics in housing policy, hosted by The Architectural League.


Bruce Seifer January 12, 2018

My Great Aunt Dora Maxwell lived in a land trust hi rise apartment building on Henry Street in Brooklyn, NY starting in the late 1950s or early 1960s. A Socially Responsible Award is named after her in Credit Union Industry.