Adi Talwar

A CLT in the East Village: 25 East 3rd street flanked by 23 East and 27 East 3rd Street to the left and right respectively. The three building are a part of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust.

The community land trust movement is on the rise in cities across the country from Miami to Oakland, but as of late, the Big Apple arguably ranks among the cities where the movement is most energized. Across the five boroughs, where for the past 20 years there’s been one community land trust (CLT), there’s now over a dozen groups trying to create new CLTs.

“I don’t know anywhere that has this level of growing interest, both with grassroots and more established organizations,” says Melora Hiller of Grounded Solutions Network, which supports the CLT movement nationwide.

A CLT is a nonprofit entity that stewards the housing or other buildings on its property by retaining ownership of the land—a unique ownership structure that advocates say help ensure the buildings remain permanently affordable. The model is also believed to promote democratic and community-driven decision making, with CLTs usually governed by a “tripartite board,” in which one third of members are residents of the property itself, one third live in the surrounding neighborhood, and one third are other stakeholders like nonprofits, elected officials, or funders. The concept was originally conceived by Black farmers seeking to protect Black assets in the Jim Crow South but has in recent years become a strategy used in urban settings to help communities maintain affordable housing.

From a policy standpoint, 2017 was a victorious year for New York City’s CLT movement. It began with the de Blasio administration, after months of prodding by advocates, opening the door to the CLT vision by releasing a Request for Expressions of Interest, calling on groups to submit proposals detailing how they would develop and manage CLTs. In July, the de Blasio administration announced it had applied for grant funding from Enterprise Community Partners and had received $1.65 million for a variety of CLT projects.

This December, the City Council passed legislation officially codifying CLTs and allowing the city to enter into regulatory agreements with them. (The Council also passed two bills requiring the city to take stock of, and report on, vacant land as well as property owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)—measures that advocates believe will shed light on what properties could be potentially steered onto CLTs.)

As the momentum behind CLTs has grown, some policymakers—and some advocates, too—have cautioned that CLTs are not the answer to all the city’s housing problems, but rather just one additional “tool in the toolbox” to help address those problems. “It doesn’t create a magical subsidy or some kind of substitution for a tax exemption or below-market financing,” says Erica Buckley, a lawyer at Nixon Peabody LLP.

The de Blasio administration has expressed a particular interest in the use of CLTs to fill a gap in its existing offerings when it comes to the creation of permanently affordable single-home ownership opportunities. When it comes to rental housing, some see CLTs as not as much a necessity: There are players in the city’s established nonprofit affordable housing sector that are already dedicated to building housing for very low incomes and simply seek more resources to do so, and the city already has recently come up with other solutions to ensure permanent affordability in rental projects on public land.

On the other hand, many advocates see CLTs as providing a greater social value that exceeds these more technical aspects, and they therefore dream of the CLT movement going big and acquiring significant amounts of land—while also working hand-in-hand with existing nonprofit affordable housing developers.

Yet an effective expansion of CLTs citywide will require more resources and more city buy-in than the movement has yet seen. There will also be some tough decisions down the line as the movement tries to balance the goal of speedy expansion with that of fostering real community involvement.

The reasons to expand

For many advocates, especially organizers rooted in communities, CLTs offer the promise of community control over land-use decisions during a time when many feel they have been left subject to the whims of real-estate interests that treat land and housing solely as a commodity. The governance style of CLTs means that there’s supposed to be more say from actual low-income people who live in such communities. CLTs thus might represent another opportunity for a neighborhood’s residents to advocate, and fight to secure, housing and amenities that are truly “affordable” by their own definition.

For some, CLTs represent another step toward a “broader vision of cooperative economics for New York City,” in the words of Deyanira Del Rio from the New Economy Project—a vision that includes worker cooperatives, community development credit unions, and other entities. It’s also sometimes referred to the “solidarity economy,” and New Economy Project describes it as “a vision for an economic system that is based on values of social and racial justice, ecological, sustainability, cooperation, mutualism, and democracy” and that gives “marginalized New Yorkers” control over their lives.

And then, from an economics perspective, there’s the notion that “if you remove enough land from a neighborhood—some geographic portion of a city, or of a city as a whole…there’s going to be fewer speculative opportunities and in making fewer speculative opportunities it also means that there are whole areas that are not being speculated on,” says City College professor John Krinksy. In other words, some advocates believe that a large CLT can deter land speculation and thereby slow gentrification.

Beyond the value of bringing the benefits of deep and permanent affordability to more people, achieving local control, expanding the cooperative movement, and taking more land off the speculative market, there are also practical benefits to scaling up the city’s CLTs: large organizations are more cost-effective and can access funding more easily.

Where are the CLTs?
Community land trusts at various stages of development in New York City. Click on a marker to view information about each CLT initiative.

Sizing up the potential

The largest community land trust in the country is the Champlain Housing Trust, formerly the Burlington Community Land Trust and Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation, which were both founded in 1984 while Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington. In December 2016, it encompassed 2,703 units of housing, and was spread throughout both urban and rural areas. The Windham and Windsor Housing Trust in Southern Vermont ranked second with 1,061 units of housing, and, in Rhode Island, Newport’s Church Community Housing Corporation ranked third at 940 units, according to figures reported to the national support organization Grounded Solutions Network, which only has data on its member organizations.

In New York City, the only fully established community land trust is the Cooper Square CLT in the Lower East Side, which formed in 1994. The land is owned by the CLT while 21 buildings, compromising 328 apartments, are owned by an entity called a Mutual Housing Association, which is a multi-building self-governing cooperative that makes bulk purchases for all the buildings. Over time, most of the apartments were converted from rentals to low-income co-op units.

The organization was one of the recipients of the Enterprise Community Partners grant, which has allowed it to make some new hires and pay for some additional tenant organizing. Cooper Square now has its own visions of expansion: It’s discussing the acquisition of two Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) buildings in the neighborhood, and it also has its eyes on a desanctified church that it believes could encompass 80 to 100 more units of housing.

“We want to expand because we want to be able to help out our neighbors in low-income housing that is threatened, but the second part of it has to do with the economies-of-scale piece, and that is, as you get more buildings and more apartments, you can purchase fuel at a deeper discount,” says Dave Powell, executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association.

There are dozens of other organizations seeking to follow Cooper Square’s lead. The New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), a CLT advocacy organization co-founded by Picture the Homeless, New Economy Project and other organizations, helped to launch the East Harlem-El Barrio Community Land Trust a few years ago. As City Limits earlier reported, the land trust sought to acquire not only vacant property but also to invite tenants in city-owned Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program buildings onto the land trust.

After several years of organizing, the De Blasio administration has agreed to turn over four buildings in the neighborhood to the CLT. The CLT received $500,000 from Enterprise, which it will use for both renovations and to hire an organizer, and $500,000 from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for renovations to the buildings, which will be executed by the non-profit affordable housing organizations Banana Kelly CIA Inc and CATCH. The city is exploring making additional budget commitments for rehabilitation, as well. Residents in those buildings will be renters and participants in a Mutual Housing Association.

Then there’s Interboro CLT—a newly formed collaboration between four well-established housing organizations: Habitat for Humanity New York City, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the Mutual Housing Association of New York and Center for New York City Neighborhoods. The entity is focusing on the creation of permanently affordable homeownership opportunities throughout the city, likely with a starting focus on Southeast Queens and Central Brooklyn. Interboro received funding from Enterprise as well as $1 million from Citi Community Development last year to begin its first 250 units.

The Enterprise Grant also funded NYCCLI to run a “Learning Exchange” to help nine nonprofits and community groups learn more about what it would take to build a CLT. Some of those groups, like Northfield Community Local Development Corporation in Staten Island and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities in Chinatown, are still in the earliest stages and have not yet named specific properties they hope to acquire.

Others are already at the point of naming addresses. The Mary Mitchell Family & Youth Center hopes to launch a Crotona CLT in the Bronx and has its eyes on three properties owned, respectively, by the city, itself and an ally. The Center’s vision includes a garden, community and nonprofit space and low-income housing, probably mostly rental units. The Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards in the South Bronx are trying to acquire two government-owned buildings for low-income rentals and nonprofit space, has already begun stewarding some state-owned green spaces along the Deegan Expressway, and envisions turning areas along the waterfront into community land trust greenspaces.

“We’re not developers, and we’re not trying to be developers. What we’re trying to do is create a situation where the community can really be a steward of space and then hire professionals to manage what’s on top of the ground,” says Mychal Johnson, a founder of Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards. On a citywide level, Johnson would like to see more NYCHA complexes turn land over to CLTs, so that decisions about the future of any NYCHA spaces can be made in tandem with residents and the community, rather than decided by the authority. In particular, stakeholders could explore opportunities to convert apartments in some NYCHA developments into affordable cooperative homeownership units on a CLT, he says.*

Another participant in the Learning Exchange, Community Solutions, envisions the creation of a Brownsville CLT including 91 HPD-owned vacant lots in the neighborhood that they believe could hold more than 1,000 units of both rental and homeownership housing. To start, they hope the CLT can acquire several vacant lots where the city is already seeking a developer as part of its efforts to fulfill the goals of its Brownsville Plan.

Given the scarcity of public land and the skyrocketing values of private property in most parts of the city, one might wonder if New York City may be getting on the CLT bandwagon too late. Some advocates, however, still hope that in the future, CLTs—especially those that are community-driven and provide deeply affordable housing—will encompass a significant mass of the city. Johnson says ideally he’d like to see at least 25 or 50 percent of the 300,000 units in the mayor’s affordable housing plan rest on a CLT. Lynn Lewis of the East Harlem-El Barrio CLT board and Del Rio similarly say their ideal vision would be hundreds of thousands of units throughout the city on a CLT.

There’s a long way to go to such a vision, but there’s already some ideas on the table about how to get to something the size of Burlington’s CLT. City Limits spoke to the city’s CLT groups about the number of units they envision could be built on specific properties they are currently seeking to acquire. Those projects add up to between 2,000 and 3,000 potential CLT units. The count does not include the potential units of groups in early stages, future units these groups may try to acquire, or units from any additional groups that did not speak with City Limits.

The ingredients for success

Asked what the Mott Haven-Port Morris CLT requires to succeed, Johnson says the biggest need is for funding to hire staff people to carry out day-to-day operations. “No one’s getting paid in our organization,” he says. Many other organizations trying to start CLT also spoke about the need for money to hire staff, legal counsel, and pay for community organizing and education, given that so many people still have never heard of a CLT. The funding from Enterprise has enabled some groups to hire organizers, but will only last a couple years.

New Economy Project’s Del Rio would like to see the City Council establish a funding program for CLTs as they did in 2014 for worker cooperatives and make annual appropriations. NYCCLI has in the past called for a housing trust fund underwritten by higher taxes on vacant and luxury properties. Matt Dunbar of Habitat NYC says they’re advocating for the state to put more money into the Affordable Home Ownership Development program, which funds the building and rehabilitation of affordable homeownership opportunities, and to mandate that all the program’s projects include resale restrictions to maintain permanent affordability.

Habitat NYC is also advocating for a state property tax exemption for community land trusts. This will serve as a back-up measure to the provision in the new City Council law that allows the city’s CLTs to obtain Article XI tax exemptions, and it will also help CLTs in other parts of the state.

It’s not just because Bernie Sanders was hanging out in Vermont that our northern neighbor has the nation’s two largest community land trusts. In 1987, the state passed the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act, which allocated funds from a property transfer tax to a trust fund to be used for conservation projects as well as affordable housing. The Act also mandated that any housing subsidized by Vermont be used for the creation of permanently affordable low-income housing built by nonprofit charities or CLTs. “If every city did that, it would make a huge difference,” says Hiller of Grounded Solutions Network.

Indeed, beyond just funding, advocates are pushing for policies that facilitate the transfer of city-owned, or distressed, privately owned land to CLTs, such as by prioritizing CLTs when seeking partners to develop public land.

“We would like all the city-owned properties in East Harlem to be taken off the table—and I’m talking vacant lots, I’m talking city-owned buildings, and, you know, buildings are continuously going into tax liens sales and TPT,” says Lewis, referring to the Third Party Transfer program, which transfers severely distressed buildings in tax foreclosure to new owners. She also mentions distressed low-income co-ops that could benefit from the cost-savings of joining a larger entity, and East Harlem’s many abandoned, boarded-up privately owned buildings. Lewis would like the city to come up with policies that help move all such properties to a CLT. (Boston’s famous CLT, Dudley Neighbors Incorporated, formed when the city gave a community organization the power to take property through eminent domain.)

But Lewis also recognizes that getting the city’s trust requires time and effort, and there’s some justification for that. “We don’t want a situation where anybody who walks up to HPD says I want this vacant plot, and they say ‘ok, here,'” she says, adding that she’s encouraged by signs of HPD’s growing interest in CLTs.

CLTs are currently welcomed to respond to RFPs but are not given special preference or priority. The city says it does, however, give preference for projects that offer extended affordability beyond the minimum regulatory period.

“We recognize that community-driven solutions are key to the progress of housing development and preservation. We believe [in] harnessing and nurturing these groups that are uniquely positioned to fill gaps in our robust programming,” wrote Juliet Morris, a spokesperson for HPD, in an e-mail.

The challenges of growth

Some tenant advocates emphasize that expanding CLTs shouldn’t be the only goal of the housing movement at the expense of all others. There are nonprofit affordable housing developers who hope that the excitement over CLTs doesn’t distract from their battle to ensure the nonprofit sector as a whole receives a larger share of the development pie—rather than create a situation where, as one developer puts, “non-profits and CLTs end up fighting for scraps while HPD continues to steer land, buildings, and funding to their for-profit partners.”

Others caution that CLTs by themselves may not be enough to bring displacement to a halt. Cooper Square may have protected low-income residents on a couple blocks in the Lower East Side, but that has not, of course, prevented the rest of that neighborhood from gentrifying.

“It’s a great moment. We’re very excited for the potential for this movement to grow and expand, but the other side of this is that the CLT piece is not a panacea, it’s one part of a larger movement that we’re part of,” says Powell. “If we don’t simultaneously insist that NYCHA housing is defended, and NYCHA residents are defended—if we don’t simultaneously insist that vacancy decontrol in rent-stabilized housing is abolished, then we win the battle but lose the war.”

There have been cases where the administration has touted investment in CLTs as part of a larger land use project that CLT advocates may or may not agree with. When the East Harlem rezoning was approved by the Council in November, the de Blasio administration and Mark-Viverito listed “fund and support the East Harlem-El Barrio Community Land Trust” as one of the investments the city would make in the neighborhood. Lewis says the CLT board actually took a stance against the rezoning, which, in her view, makes East Harlem “opened up like a piñata for developers to come in and snatch properties.” She’s now waiting to see to what degree the city actually supports the CLT going forward. “How can the CLT really be a ‘community benefit’? What does that really mean?” she says.

These concerns aside, there’s also the question of how to balance the CLT movement’s desire for scale with the goal of thorough community engagement. Given the rapid creep of gentrification into outer borough neighborhoods—and the urgency of the affordability crisis—it’s logical that some CLT advocates would want CLTs to establish themselves efficiently and acquire land as fast as possible.

“From the perspective of addressing a housing challenge…I would rather see 100 units be permanently affordable from a Habitat [for Humanity], versus five over 15 years from a community-based organization,” says Hiller.

But if CLTs are going to be truly community-based and community governed—not just another tool pushed forward by large, if benevolent nonprofits—they’ll require a level of careful community engagement that could take much longer.

Hiller adds that she deeply values community engagement and that ideally New York City’s CLT movement will create a structure that allows for both efficient expansion and grassroots connections. This might look like a “hub and spoke” system where there’s a central organization with development capacity that is connected to many neighborhood groups that are facilitating on-the-ground conversations, she says. Indeed, NYCCLI is actually in the early stages of exploring a citywide community land trust that would be able to provide administrative support, and acquire properties, on behalf of smaller groups that are rooted in neighborhoods.

If CLTs want to go big, they will ultimately grapple not only with the issue of securing resources and land, but also with how to establish their legitimacy while at the same time staying loyal to, as Del Rio says, the “C” in CLT.

“One thing that people really want to make sure is that scale doesn’t lead to a dilution of mission or connection to the community,” says Del Rio. “What are the mechanisms to ensure that CLTs really respond to and are led by community members?”

One CLT in Focus
The current and planned sites of Banana Kelly’s Community Land Trust.

*Amended to clarify Johnson’s vision.