Adi Talwar

The city has an inventory of land, like this plot at 22 Suydam Place in Brooklyn, that could be handed over to private developers along with housing subsidies or instead be made part of a CLT.

The community land trust movement is gaining momentum across the city, in part buoyed by the de Blasio administration’s announcement last month that it will consider proposals from community land trusts groups to develop public parcels in several boroughs.

A community land trust is a non-profit, community-governed entity that obtains land, taking it out of the speculative market, and ensures the entities on that land (whether subsidized housing, community gardens or commercial enterprises) remain affordable in perpetuity.

With the February 28 deadline to respond to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)’s Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) quickly approaching, community land trust organizers met last Thursday to discuss their responses. Some of those planning to respond, such as the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust and the East Harlem Community Land Trust, are grassroots groups already incorporated as 501c3s that have been advocating for control of city-owned properties over the past couple years and now see the RFEI as their opportunity to take another step toward realizing their missions.

Meanwhile in Inwood, where the city recently announced a plan to redevelop the Inwood library with a new library facility and rent-restricted housing, community residents have begun insisting that instead of selling the land to a private developer, the city give it to a community land trust, allowing neighborhood residents to govern its development.

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Maya Bhardwaj, an Inwood organizer with Faith in New York, said that residents don’t want business as usual—where the city gives public land to a developer, along with impermanent subsidies that require only a small portion of units be reserved for extremely low income families. If the land instead belonged to a community land trust, Bhardwaj argues, neighborhood representatives could make their own decisions about how to develop the land—such as to work with a non-profit housing developer that is committed to providing deeper affordability.

Community land trusts were also at the center of a panel discussion in the Bronx on Friday entitled “Gentrification Is Not Inevitable: Land Trusts + Cooperatives.” The event drew a crowd of Bronxites, including many learning about community land trusts for the first time. Organizers from Picture the Homeless brought community land trust-themed board games and comic books to elucidate the concept for learners of all types—part of a push to make community land trusts part of common cultural lingo.

“We want five-year-olds to get this. We want five-year-olds to start developing this idea because they’re our future,” said Ryan Hickey of Picture the Homeless.

Advocates of community land trusts want more than just a few parcels of land here and there from HPD: they want the city to help community land trusts gain control of other city properties and vacant privately owned properties, with the ultimate goal of acquiring a “critical mass of land,” said Lauren Wilfong of New Economy Project. And while the city’s RFEI notes that the city is especially interested in working with groups with substantial affordable housing development experience, Mychal Johnson of South Bronx Unite hopes that in the future the city will be open to working with newly emerging, grassroots groups that might not be organized in time for the RFEI deadline.

“We have to embody what democracy means, which means enabling as many people to be involved as possible,” Johnson says.

In general, while there is excitement for the RFEI, activists are wary of the fact that HPD has not made any promises to actually respond to the proposals received. At the panel event, UHAB’s Melanie Berkowitz said HPD ought to disclose the results of the RFEI in a report so the public can be witness to the level of support for community land trusts.