When New Yorkers discuss the community land trust, they often describe it as a complicated land ownership structure, one that’s already proven its success in Bernie Sanders’ Burlington and in Boston. But the community land trust’s origin story reveals that it’s not simply a wonky policy tool dreamed up in the Ivy tower; rather, its roots lie in the life-and-death struggle by Blacks for civil rights in the deep South.
In the model, a community-controlled nonprofit owns land and ensures the buildings or other assets on that land continue to serve the community, such as by requiring homeowners to abide by sales restrictions on their homes. The “Arc of Justice,” a documentary released last summer and screened at the New School on Wednesday, explores the founding of the United States’ first community land trust by civil rights leaders in southern Georgia during the 1960s.
New Communities Inc. arose not only as a way to give black sharecroppers a path to economic self-sufficiency and decent housing, but also because black Southerners were getting kicked out of their homes for associating with civil rights leaders or trying to vote. The land trust eventually grew to the size of Rhode Island, survived through racist acts of sabotage, but finally collapsed because it could not access credit because of discrimination from state and federal government entities.
The story, however, is one of resilience: In 2009, 24 years after New Communities Inc.’s foreclosure, it shared in the wins of a class-action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture, the largest civil rights settlement in the nation’s history. With a $12 million payout, New Communities Inc. has bought new property in Georgia—a former slave plantation—that it is using for farming and educational purposes.
As New Yorkers contemplate community land trusts, they are of course facing a different political climate than New Communities Inc. Yet, as emphasized by a panel of community land trust founders and policymakers on Wednesday night, the community land trust is still prized as a strategy to pursue racial equity.
Mychal Johnson of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards spoke of the importance of obtaining public land for a land trust as a way to address issues of environmental justice and displacement faced by longtime South Bronx residents by creating open spaces, community gardens and deeply affordable housing. Queens Councilmember Donovan Richards described community land trusts as a key step for helping poor families, particular families of color, obtain assets that can be passed on to future generations, as well as a path to prevent speculation when a community is upzoned to allow more housing.
And although New York City is no 1960s Georgia, due to the threat of federal budget cuts to housing assistance programs, there is a new sense of urgency to the struggle for the community land trust. On the one hand, the community land trusts are seen by advocates as vital to ensuring that whatever resources the city does possess are effectively stewarded to create permanent and deep affordable housing. On the other hand, to serve very low-income families, community land trusts need subsidies just like any other project, so the vital tool is itself under threat—and that threat is felt by Georgian farmers and urban dwellers alike.
“We really have to work the rural, urban connection because with you and HUD, with us the Department of [Agriculture], we have a cut coming up,” said Shirley Sherrod, the co-founder of New Communities Inc., on the panel. “We really have to act like we’re all having a heart attack now.”
Val Orselli, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and Community Land Trust, said that in light of potential federal cuts, New York policymakers must commit to ensuring all its resources are used for permanently and deeply affordable housing, as well as to creating an “internal subsidy” that could take the place of Section 8 vouchers.
Two audience members, however, brought up concerns that have long dogged discussions about structures like community land trust that place limitations on the amount of equity a homeowner can build. If you’re a community land trust homeowner, one person argued, you’re “going to exist under communism…and capitalism is going to exist beside you”—in other words, it’s unfair to force participants in the community land trust model to abide by price caps and give up their chance to realize full equity.
Orselli offered a subtle answer, saying he believed price caps made perfect sense for the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association because the city had paid for the buildings’ renovations, but that price caps should not be imposed on buildings that did not have them before unless they are seeking a renewal of government aid. He also told City Limits he sees the need to discuss buildings on a case-by-case basis.