Are community land trusts a viable solution to housing crises and gentrification in America’s big cities?
Written by Josh Lorenzo
Housing is becoming more and more costly, and the working-class is being given the short end of the stick. Let's face it – current housing policies put profits over people. Millions of people are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend over half their income on rent. A significant amount of them spend over 80% of their income on rent. Millions more have 30%-49% of their income going towards paying rent.
An untold amount of people live in poor housing conditions, including a lack of sanitation and overcrowding. Hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children, are homeless in cities where architecture is becoming more anti-homeless. These issues disproportionately affect racial minorities, especially African and Latinx Americans. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only further exposed how deep these inequalities run.
Inflation adjusted housing prices have continued to increase, fitting the trends seen before the 2008 market crash.
For-profit housing costs cities, not just residents. New York City, for example, spends over a billion dollars a year on temporary homeless shelters. But despite the burdens of unaffordable housing and the ever-widening gap in social and economic equality, local governments fail to address and even actively inflame these issues. For-profit housing is leading the country down an unsustainable and unhealthy path. So what is to be done? In times like these, we have to take things into our own hands. If local governments cannot help us, we must work to develop our own solutions while pressuring our city officials to bring change. One such solution is an old concept that's been picking up steam in the past couple of years – community land trusts.
A community land trust is a non-profit organization that buys land in urban areas to benefit the community. The land can be used for anything – whether it's an urban garden, a playground, a community center, affordable housing, or even a commercial or office space – as long as it improves life in the community. In this article, we'll be focusing on how CLTs protect people from the exploitation of the for-profit housing industry.
In the housing system, the CLT builds/rehabilitates a home on their newly-acquired land and sells it to a low-income buyer. The buyer purchases the house while paying a renewable, long-term (usually 98-99 years) lease for the land. The CLT keeps ownership of the land so that the capital can continue working for the community, not against it. In this lease, the buyer agrees that when the time comes, the house will be resold to another low-income buyer at a reasonable price. The CLT caps how much it can be resold for, accounting for factors like renovations. The buyer also agrees that even though they'll have privacy, security, and control over their home, they aren't entirely independent. The CLT can step in if the house is becoming a public hazard, being used irresponsibly or inappropriately, or if the buyer defaults on their mortgage. Most people in the CLT system are homeowners, but many choose to rent instead.
CLTs are run by boards of directors made up of three groups: homeowners, people who live in the community but not on CLT land, and the "broader public interest" (government officials, housing agencies, financial backers, etc.). These boards act in the best interest of homeowners and find solutions for community needs while accounting for these three groups' opinions. The amount of representation each group gets is different between each CLT. Still, generally, homeowners make up for at least a third of the board. This gives the CLT's homeowners a direct hand in decision-making and a means of grassroots organization.
A CLT in the East Village administered by the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.
"While the ECLT will hold the title to the land, it is the community who owns it as a whole. The ECLT will help to empower community members to ensure that their streets are no longer plagued with burned down homes and toxic lots rather with renovated affordable living space," writes the Essex Community Land Trust on their Idealist.org page. The ECLT is New Jersey's sole community land trust. It operates in Newark, the state's largest city, and the encompassing Essex County. Newark was once an industrial powerhouse, a bastion of innovation and progress. In recent decades, though, the city has fallen into an economic slump rife with poverty, unemployment, corruption, and unsanitary living conditions. Newark is also seeing early signs of gentrification, a process that has already swept over much of nearby Jersey City, Hoboken, and New York.
"There is a crucial need for permanent affordable housing in Essex County, New Jersey. Essex County consists of a very diverse set of cities, townships, and boroughs. These communities all differ in culture, social-economic statuses, school systems, and much more. Although these communities may share the same county name, they are separated by invisible income and ethnicity lines that prevent low-to-moderate income citizens from living in high-income areas, which creates a need for permanent affordable housing throughout the county."
Community land trusts originated outside of Albany, Georgia at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. A group of African American civil rights leaders, including figures like Robert Swann and Slater King, organized and acquired a large tract of land to be used as a collective farm for black sharecroppers. The organizers took much inspiration from the Jewish National Fund in Israel and the Bhoodan Movement in India.
The New Communities Farm, founded outside of Albany, Georgia as the first-ever CLT.
Community land trusts didn’t truly gain traction until the decades following the Civil Rights Movement, however. In the 1980s, cities across the country began to look into CLTs as rising housing costs were pushing many Americans away from homeownership. For example, Boston used eminent domain to set aside land for use as CLTs. But in other parts of the country, it would take much longer before CLTs would begin popping up. Banks were hesitant to give out loans for new CLTs, already-existing ones were often over-taxed, and the concept of setting a fixed price on a home worried many.
There are now 277 CLTs nationwide. Burlington, Vermont has more CLT houses than any other city, with over 2,000 homes belonging to the Champlain Housing Trust. These organizations are obscure and few in numbers. Despite this, they've shown to be beneficial to tens of thousands of low-income families and individuals, of whom 82% make less than half of their area's median income.
CLTs protect housing from the speculative market and keep housing at a fixed, affordable cost. They're designed to be market-resistant and gentrification-resistant. In other words, housing will remain affordable, and low-income (especially minority) residents can build equity without the threat of displacement, regardless of economic conditions. Oftentimes, they are also havens of affordability. Ground lease fees are typically less than $100 per month, even Because of this affordability, foreclosure rates among CLT homes are up to 90% less compared to traditional mortgages.
Alongside being affordable, CLTs can be educational for their residents. Many CLTs offer workshops and homeownership education programs. These are especially helpful for first-time homeowners, who make up the vast majority of CLT residents. In addition, they cultivate strong communities.
The main criticism of CLTs is their lack of financial self-sufficiency. Since they can't survive off just ground lease fees, they must turn to external funding from private backers and the government. This reduces their autonomy, as well as creating fears that residents cannot truly be empowered to fight for economic justice. Still, CLTs are a proven model for effectively combating the housing crisis and can slow or even reverse gentrification in cities if implemented on a broader scale.
"CLTs provide permanently affordable housing to ensure existing community residents who have endured the challenges of intentional disinvestment have options to remain in their neighborhoods, benefiting from revitalization activities and new investment with a powerful voice in the ongoing decision making shaping their communities," says Tony Pickett, chief executive officer of Grounded Solutions Network. "Designed to be multifaceted, a CLT can ensure that both homeownership and rental opportunities are accessible while making sure that the mix of commercial and community space serve new and old residents alike."
This article was written by Josh Lorenzo, a YES member from New Jersey. Josh also occasionally posts content on Instagram related to music and current events. You can follow him @lucky_luciano_official_
Notable CLTs include:
New Communities: New Communities the earliest example of a CLT in action. It was founded by African American leaders in rural Albany, Georgia, in 1969 as a farming collective for black sharecroppers. The farm had been successful for most of its existence. Farmers ran roadside stands, a smokehouse, and a sugarcane mill. They grew crops like peanuts, soybeans, and corn and introduced the now-commonly-grown muscadine grape to southwest Georgia. But after a severe drought in the 1980s, the farm was forced to close down like many other black-owned farms. While New Communities no longer exists as a farm. However, they continue to exist as an organization that aids low-income farming families and promotes agribusiness, education, and social and economic equality as the way toward community empowerment. https://www.newcommunitiesinc.com/
Sawmill Community Land Trust: The Sawmill CLT was founded in the Sawmill neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1986 as a response to heavy industrial pollution and gentrification in the area. Since then, they have developed countless affordable housing units and expanded operations from Sawmill to all of Bernalillo County. Their goal is to create an everlasting supply of affordable housing for individuals and families who make 80% or less of their area median income.
They have led community cleanup efforts, most notably cleaning up a formal industrial site and building the Arbolera de Vida neighborhood on top of it, an attractive, 27-acre neighborhood of affordable housing with a community garden, parks, and a plaza. This neighborhood expanded to 34 acres a few years later when the SCLT cleaned up the adjacent particleboard factory. They also develop commercial and light industrial spaces, provide financial education programs and counseling to their residents, support energy and environmental conservation, and create a strong and empowered community of low-income residents. http://www.sawmillclt.org/
Champlain Housing Trust: The Champlain Housing Trust is the largest CLT in the country and located in Burlington, Vermont. The Burlington Community Land Trust and the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation were founded in 1984 to provide high-quality, affordable housing to low-income citizens in the Burlington area. The two eventually merged in 2006 because of their similar locations, funding sources, and goals. The CHT currently manages 2,920 apartments and houses and offers education courses for owning a home and financial literacy, loans for rehab, affordable energy efficiency, and services for five cooperative homes. http://www.getahome.org/about-us
Bay Area Community Land Trust: The Bay Area Community Land Trust operates in the San Francisco Bay Area, with affiliate organizations in Oakland and Berkeley. Their goal is to establish affordable, resident-run housing cooperatives and work based on the principles of eco-friendliness, diversity, and communalism. They also develop urban green spaces and an affordable housing neighborhood called Hibiscus Commons for senior citizens. https://www.bayareaclt.org/
NYC Community Land Initiative: The NYC Community Land Initiative is a collection of CLTs in New York City. Founded to combat rampant homelessness and poverty in New York, they have established fifteen CLTs across all five boroughs. They work on the principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" and that housing is a human right. Other than affordable housing, they develop urban green and recreational spaces and commercial areas, offer educational programs for fiscal responsibility and organizing, and lead city cleanup efforts. https://nyccli.org/