Whether you’ve lived in New York City for five years or five decades, we all understand that we are facing an affordability crisis unlike any ever seen in the history of our country. And while many different tactics have been used to combat this growing inequality, there is one affordable housing avenue that our city has not sufficiently explored – community land trusts.
As supporters of community land trusts (CLTs) in our districts and citywide, we know that CLTs are critically needed to stem the tide of displacement and advance a truly progressive housing agenda for New York. That’s why we are calling for robust city support of these community-led nonprofits in the soon-to-be-passed budget.
CLTs have a long history throughout the country, from civil rights struggles in Albany, Georgia, to 1980s Vermont — where then-Mayor Bernie Sanders helped launch the nation’s largest and most influential CLT.
CLTs also have deep roots right here in NYC.
Back in 1959, NYC planning czar Robert Moses proposed a “slum-clearance” project on the Lower East Side that would have leveled the entire Cooper Square neighborhood, replacing its low-rise tenements with high-rises that existing tenants could not afford. In response, a group of neighborhood residents fought back, came up with their own plan for the neighborhood, and eventually won. Their victory paved the way for more than 850 low-income apartments to be built over the next few decades.
To protect and build on those gains, Lower East Side residents later formed the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and Cooper Square Community Land Trust. Today, the CLT not only provides hundreds of longtime, low-income residents with deeply affordable rents, but it also hosts 22 small businesses with below-market rents.
Here’s how it works: The Mutual Housing Association, which functions like a co-op across more than two dozen buildings, ensures resident control over housing. It also allows for economies of scale in buying heating oil, insurance, and other goods, helping to keep rents low.
The Community Land Trust, which owns the land under the housing, ensures that buildings cannot be sold for a profit and that housing remains permanently affordable, at levels reflecting neighborhood needs.
Despite Cooper Square’s decades of success, CLTs have remained an underutilized housing model in NYC.
In 2019, the City no longer proposes bulldozing entire neighborhoods, but the scale of displacement is worse than ever. In many low-income neighborhoods across the city, “affordable” housing rents are set far above what most people in the neighborhood can afford. More than 63,000 New Yorkers are homeless, while more than half of all low-income renters are rent burdened. NYC has lost 291,000 rent-regulated apartments since 1994.
More than a dozen groups from every borough in the city have started to form their own CLTs to meet this new generation of threats. Joining important efforts to strengthen tenants’ rights, CLTs can take housing and land off the speculative market — for good.
But these CLTs won’t be able to emulate the success of Cooper Square without meaningful support from our city government. That is why we are proud sponsors of a proposed City Council initiative for this year’s budget that would put public resources behind these efforts across the city and help these groups get organized at the local level.
From the Bronx to the Rockaways, and everywhere in between, communities are pursuing CLTs to collectively imagine—and implement—solutions to their housing needs, while also addressing their desire for open space, affordable space for retail, the arts, community services, and even community gardens.
It won’t be easy work, but with a little help from our city, these CLT initiatives can gain ground—and make New York City stronger in the process.
Councilmember Carlina Rivera is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Hospitals and Represents District 2 in Manhattan, which encompasses Murray Hill, Kips Bay, Flatiron, Gramercy Park, Rose Hill, the East Village and the Lower East Side. Councilmember Donovan Richards is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and represents District 31 in Queens, which encompasses Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway.