The role of community land trusts in equitable neighborhood revitalization

Land, labor, and capital are considered to be the primary factors of production, regardless of whether one is planning for the fabrication of durable goods in an industrial plant or the revitalization of dilapidated homes in a residential neighborhood. Every analysis of a project’s feasibility begins here. A great deal of creative thought is devoted, accordingly, to these essential inputs, figuring out how best to tweak their design, reduce their cost, and increase their effectiveness.

Creativity is especially important in community development, where the production of goods and services for people of limited financial means must be heavily subsidized out of public coffers and private contributions. Every dollar must be inventively stretched and cleverly invested for maximum effect.

Land has been the glaring exception to the predilection for innovation in community development. Experimentation abounds when it comes to finding new ways to improve infrastructure, to incubate enterprises, to finance homeownership, or to train low-skilled workers. Far less ingenuity has gone into designing new ways of owning, controlling, and utilizing land to make distressed places more livable or to make prosperous places more inclusive.

This pattern has persisted despite the presence of an innovative model of community-owned land that has gradually spread across the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, and England. Known as the community land trust (CLT), this unconventional approach to place-based development has three distinguishing features:

  1. A nonprofit organization, acting on behalf of a geographically defined community, acquires and retains scattered parcels of land that are put to a variety of socially desired uses through long-term ground leasing;
  2. Any residential or non-residential buildings located on these leaseholds are sold off to individual owners, either real persons or corporations, whose ownership interest is encumbered by long-lasting affordability controls over each building’s use and resale; and
  3. The nonprofit landowner is guided in the development of the lands under its care by the people who live on them and around them.

A shorthand description of this strategy, pursued by CLTs and by other nonprofit organizations operating in a similar fashion, would be community-led development of individually owned buildings on community-owned land. Or, shorter still, common ground.

Any sort of building can be raised on a foundation of community-owned land, although CLTs have devoted most of their resources to date to the production and preservation of affordable housing. On leased land, CLTs have developed many types of renter-occupied and owner-occupied housing, all priced within the financial reach of persons of limited means. But the forte of community land trusts is stewardship, taking care of this housing long after it is created. CLTs have been effective in preventing the disappearance of affordability when real estate markets are hot. They have been equally effective in preventing the erosion of owner equity, the neglect of necessary repairs, and the loss of homes to foreclosure when markets turn cold.

The documented success of CLTs in making such “counter-cyclical stewardship” a reality has not been enough to overcome the resistance of many practitioners in the field of community development, who have been slow to incorporate common ground into their own programs. The simplest explanation for their hesitancy is that doing affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization on community-owned land is hard work, especially when a community’s residents are given a say in deciding how land should be used. That can scare away the timid and give pause to even the boldest practitioner. Most choose an easier path. They sell off local lands. They shut out local voices. They roll out affordably priced housing that looks familiar to public funders and private lenders, while minimizing their own responsibility for preserving the affordability, quality, and security of these homes after they are built.

Choosing a path of least resistance is understandable, but shortsighted. It pays heed to the difficulties and demands of common ground, without looking closely into how it actually works and without weighing fully its larger and longer advantages vis-a-vis other place-based strategies. Community-led development of resale-restricted buildings on community-owned land is harder to do, but the extra effort is worth it.

This essay argues that common ground, as practiced by CLTs and by other nonprofits, is an especially effective strategy for promoting equitable and sustainable development in residential neighborhoods, be they urban, suburban, or rural. It is a platform for redistribution, putting property and power into the hands of people historically deprived of both. It is also a bulwark against loss, protecting hard-won gains that improve conditions, expand opportunities, and further fair housing for disadvantaged populations far into the future.

The case for common ground is presented here through a series of arguments that identify what practitioners strive to achieve with regard to equitable and sustainable development and how community-owned land can get them there. Some of these claims are closer to being working hypotheses or the kind of reasoning found in a lawyer’s brief, than they are to being any sort of definitive proof. Community land trusts are simply too young, too small, and too few to render a final verdict on their performance.

Arguments for the superiority of community-led development on community-owned land are compelling nonetheless. They illustrate that land may be deployed as creatively as any other factor of production in doing place-based development. They suggest that community-owned land, in particular, may be transformative in ways that other strategies are not, creating places where justice is deepened and sustained. There are good reasons for giving common ground a try.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

See full paper by John Emmeus Davis (PDF).

Learn more about the history of community land trusts on Roots & Branches website..

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