Community Land Trusts: A Tool to Help Communities Resist Displacement 

July 9th, 2014

Leo Goldberg

In America’s least affordable cities, housing advocates are showing interest in unorthodox tools for resisting gentrification and preserving socioeconomic diversity. In San Francisco, New York City, Boston and smaller communities across the country, the community land trust (CLT) has received particular attention. Though the model has been in circulation since the 1960’s, primarily in rural settings, interest is spiking in urban CLTs as affordability crises deepen in hot market areas.

IMAGE CREDIT: The NYC Community Land Initiative

The basic mechanics of the CLT are fairly straightforward: land ownership is retained by a community nonprofit while development rights are leased out. The separation of land ownership from the structures above it creates the conditions for permanent affordability and community control. The property is removed from the speculative land market.

CLTs have fostered a number land uses including community gardens, parks and retail space. However, urban CLT advocates are primarily latching onto the model with an eye towards developing low-income housing. Limited equity formulas restrict the amount of property value appreciation homeowners can realize by selling their unit on the CLT. Thus, unlike most homeownership programs in the US, subsidies are transferred from one homeowner to the next. CLTs can also leverage federal subsidies and tax credits to produce low-income rental housing.

CLTs are also distinguished by community governance. As a place-based strategy, CLT boards are generally elected by neighborhood-level community organizations and CLT residents. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a thirty year-old CLT in Boston, has responded to local demands that go beyond housing by constructing a school, an urban farming facility, and other community programming.

The largest obstacle to CLT formation in major cities is the cost of land acquisition. The overheated real estate markets that fuel real estate speculation, gentrification, and evictions also produce land prices beyond the means of community groups and community development corporations. While this is a formidable problem, examples from across the country suggest possible ways forward. For example, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative received eminent domain powers from the state to help them wrestle vacant lots from absentee landlords. In Irvine, California, developers are required to contribute funds to the local CLT in order to construct large buildings. In Philadelphia, a new land bank—a public sector cousin of the CLT—has created a pathway to funnel vacant and foreclosed properties to CLTs.

While Dudley Street and other urban CLTs have generally produced affordable housing on vacant lots, the San Francisco CLT is demonstrating how the model can secure long-term affordability for standing buildings threatened by speculation and displacement. In June, the SFCLT purchased a 14 unit building that was on the verge of being sold on the open market where a private investor would almost certainly evict the low-income tenants. Instead, the SFCLT, with private financing and municipal subsidies, will rehabilitate the building in the gentrifying Mission District and keep it affordable in perpetuity. Housing advocates in East Harlem/El Barrio and Boston’s Chinatown are looking to pursue similar strategies since vacant lots are scarce in those high-density neighborhoods.

For the time being, the CLT model is mostly practiced in the US, but that may be changing. After ten years of advocacy, the East London CLT was recently launched with the goal of stemming the displacement of working class families in the British capital’s intensely speculative real estate market.  In Kenya’s Tanzania-Bondeni Community, a land trust was established to secure the tenure rights of 530 informal settlement households. Finally, advocates in Rio de Janeiro is pushing for a CLT to stem land speculation and gentrification in centrally located favelas.

Peter Marcuse has written that “community land trusts have the potential to play a transformative role in our housing systems, favoring lower-income households and all those ill served by existing markets.” Consequently, as the model spreads it is likely to face increasing hostility from property interests. Legislation to facilitate the creation of land trusts has already faced considerable opposition in Detroit and Philadelphia. Endangered low-income communities and CLT advocates will have to persuasively argue their case in the face of well-funded opposition. However, with traditional tools for preserving affordability proving inadequate, this uphill battle may be crucial for maintaining socioeconomic diversity and to realizing the right to the city for the urban poor.

Leo Goldberg is a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a Research Assistant at the Displacement Research and Action Network.