The community land trust (CLT) is an alternative tenure model in which a nonprofit corporation holds land in trust on behalf of a place-based community, provides long term stewardship, and facilitates democratic community control over development.
Problems and Purpose
Beyond the basic purposes of land acquisition, stewardship, and community governance, the CLT is a flexible model that can serve a number of different purposes, depending on local context and needs.
Housing affordability and economic inequality
Providing affordable housing that remains affordable in the long term is the primary focus of many CLTs today. Efforts to secure affordable housing—and, by extension, reduce economic inequalities associated with homeownership—are especially relevant in the context of the global housing crisis. This crisis has its roots in the shift towards neoliberal housing policies in the 1980s, and was exacerbated by the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. Beginning in the 1980s, governments slowly gutted public housing subsidies in favour of support for private ownership, development, and investment. By the 2000s, corporate finance had come to dominate investment and lending in the housing sector. Quantitative easing and austerity measures following the global financial crisis further encouraged speculation and exacerbated inequalities. These developments widened the gap between the rich and poor and sowed the seeds of the current crisis. In most countries today, growth in housing costs and rent continues to outstrip income growth; the result is that more and more families live in financial precarity, and homelessness is on the rise. Increasing access to affordable housing is essential in this context.
CLTs are designed to respond to the failures of market-led solutions to housing-related issues. The model is a form of social housing, which aims to insulate against market volatility, foster social equality, and encourage resident control. CLTs use ground leases to ensure permanent housing affordability and prevent owners from profiting off of land value inflation. The model can be used to address crises of affordability in both “hot” and “cold” markets. In “hot” markets, prices are high and gentrification is pervasive, meaning that property values rise as a result of development in traditionally affordable areas, which tends to displace lower-income residents. In “cold” markets, where prices are low, housing becomes unaffordable as incomes fall, and disinvestment and decline create problems. CLTs aim to promote affordability and protect vulnerable residents regardless of market cycles.
Social infrastructure and agriculture
CLT-owned land can be used for a variety of purposes apart from housing. Non-residential structures developed on CLT-owned land have included premises for neighborhood businesses, nonprofits, and social service providers, as well as community centres, daycares, and parks. CLTs are particularly useful for promoting land uses that are valuable to the community but devalued in the market, including so-called “third places”: the “informal, celebratory spaces in which neighboring occurs and community happens." Insulating these spaces against market forces is essential for preserving shared heritage and strengthening community bonds. Finally, the model has applications in agriculture: CLTs are used in rural settings to support farming, forestry, and conservation, and in cities to support community gardens, commercial greenhouses, and urban farms. The CLT is intended to be flexible, enabling support for a range of land uses depending on community needs.
CLTs are designed not only to promote socially valuable and sustainable land uses, but also to facilitate community control over the decision-making processes that determine those uses and guide development. This feature responds to the lack of community voice that contributes to resident disempowerment in other tenure models. With inclusive governance by a board that balances elected representation of residents, other community members, and the public interest more broadly, the CLT is a model of community-led development and democratic accountability.
Along with economic inequalities, CLTs promise to help address the racial gaps in homeownership, wealth, and debt that are common in places with legacies of discrimination and dispossession. In the U.S., for example, slavery, segregation, redlining, environmental racism, and discriminatory lending practices have systematically drained wealth from Black communities. The effects persist today: Black households own significantly less wealth and significantly more debt than white households. Black people and members of other racial minorities are also less likely to achieve homeownership, and are less able to use homeownership as a means of creating wealth because they are at a disadvantage in the loan and credit markets. Similar patterns of historical discrimination and entrenched inequality are prevalent in other countries. The CLT model can help mitigate the effects by making homeownership more accessible and secure for disadvantaged racial groups and by providing an opportunity to build wealth across generations.
CLTs in the global south
CLTs in the global south operate in unique circumstances, although these differ substantially by country and region. In the global south, the creation of informal settlements is a prominent response to housing unaffordability. Close to one billion people worldwide live in these “self-produced communities, classified as informal due to their lack of compliance to codes, laws, and regulations,” where poverty is often rampant and infrastructure is often lacking. Several policy interventions, including mass social housing, upgrading, and land titling, have attempted to address informality, with mixed effects. CLTs are being pioneered as an alternative policy response for promoting housing affordability, combating poverty, and promoting equitable and sustainable development in the context of informality in the global south.
Origins and Development
The community land trust in its modern form was developed by a group of sharecroppers and civil rights activists in the U.S. in the late 1960s. However, the model’s theoretical and ethical underpinnings are far from new, and its creators were inspired by experiments in communal land ownership from around the world.
Land as a sacred trust
CLT activists point out that the idea of land as a private commodity is relatively new, whereas the idea of land as a sacred, common inheritance is ancient and widespread, appearing for instance in the Vedic tradition, early Christianity, and Indigenous North American teachings. This latter understanding of land was articulated in the 19th century by the American political economist Henry George. George argued that landlords profit from, yet contribute nothing to, increases in land value created by the productivity of others. His proposed solution to this injustice was a “single tax” that would tax away the appreciation in value and use it for the public benefit. Ralph Borsodi, a CLT pioneer, built on this idea to argue that land should be “trustery,” not property. The land trust and its role in preventing profiteering from land value inflation is at the heart of the CLT model.
George deeply influenced Ebenezer Howard, the British urban planner who developed the model of the Garden City: a centrally planned, autonomous community built on land leased out to individuals by a municipal corporation acting on behalf of all residents. George’s ideas also inspired the creation of experimental “single-tax colonies” in the United States, which combined community ownership of the land with individual ownership of its improvements. In these early leased-land models, there are clear echoes of the modern CLT.
The Gramdan movement and agricultural cooperatives in Israel
Mahatma Ghandi articulated a concept of “trusteeship” in which land and other assets were to be held in trust for the poor, and envisioned a society made up of autonomous villages. Gandhi’s legacy was inherited by Vinoba Bhave, who started the Boodan or “Land Gift” movement, compelling rich landowners to give away some of their land to the rural poor. Because individual peasants easily lost their land to moneylenders and speculators, in 1952 the movement became the Gramdan or “Village Gift” movement: land was donated to entire villages, to be held in trust by the village council and leased to local farmers. Over 160,000 Gramdan villages were established, taking the leased-land model to a scale unprecedented in North America.
In Israel in the early 1900s, the Jewish National Fund bought Palestinian land and leased it out for Jewish settlement through 99-year ground leases. The result was planned agricultural communities called kibbutzim and moshavim. The moshavim, in which most production, procurement, and enterprise were cooperative but families held titles to their homes individually, more closely resembled the CLT.
New Communities, Inc.
The CLT in its modern form was born of the Civil Rights struggle in the American South. The first CLT, called New Communities, Inc. (NCI), was established in Albany, Georgia in 1969 by Charles and Shirley Sherrod, Slater King, and other community organizers for the purpose of combating discrimination in land rights and lending. Its creators had studied Henry George’s thinking and visited India and Israel to learn about the use of collective tenure models there. Bob Swann, who observed that past models were often “enclaves” insulated from the larger society, introduced the concept of open community membership, thus putting the “C” in CLT. Backed by a federal grant, NCI acquired nearly 6,000 acres of farm- and woodland, comprising the largest tract of Black-owned land in the U.S. at the time. The CLT faced hostility from white farmers and business owners and from the segregationist Georgian governor, as well as debt, drought, and discriminatory USDA lending. Because of these setbacks, NCI lost all of their land by 1985.
Following the foundation of NCI, CLTs began to spring up in other states, and spread quickly into cities in the 1980s. The model has been adopted in many countries across the global north and the global south—for instance Canada, Kenya, Australia, the U.K., and Puerto Rico—always tailored to meet local needs.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
A community land trust develops when a community-created nonprofit corporation buys parcels of land with support from public or private donors, removing it permanently from the speculative market. The land is never resold, but instead leased out to individual owners, housing cooperatives, nonprofit and for-profit developers, and other entities through long-term ground leases for uses approved by the community. Ground leases, which typically last 99 years, are renewable and inheritable, with built-in affordability and resale controls. The nonprofit corporation acts as a steward to the land, responding to evolving community needs. It has a continued interest in and responsibility for ensuring the appropriate use, structural integrity, and ongoing affordability of any building located on its lands. The enduring relationship between the steward and the community distinguishes the CLT from other models of development.
In the “classic” CLT model, the board has a tripartite structure in which a third of members represent residents or leaseholders, a third represent members of the broader community, and a third represent the public interest (i.e., public officials, local funders, nonprofit housing and social service providers, etc.). Importantly, CLTs have a system of “open, place-based membership” in anyone in the area covered by the CLT—which may be as small as a single neighbourhood or as large as a whole city or state—can become a voting member. Thus a key feature distinguishing the CLT from other tenure models is its democratic, inclusive, and community-led governance structure.
Collaboration with local governments and with third parties is an essential aspect of CLT operation. CLTs may work with municipal officials, private funders, other nonprofit and community-based organizations, housing cooperatives, and developers. The CLT governance structure ensures that all of these voices are heard, but none dominates. Finally, engaging and educating community members is essential for a CLT’s success. A community-led model requires that community members understand how the model works, support its objectives, and are motivated to participate. CLTs, therefore, depend upon and contribute to the creation of a network of strong public, private, and community-based relationships.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The influence of the community land trust model remains limited. Especially in the global south, CLTs are not yet a part of the mainstream land and housing policy debates. However, scholarly, government, and activist interest in CLTs is growing steadily, and as existing CLTs continue to demonstrate their merit, proponents of the model are hopeful that uptake will increase. More research is required to fully assess the benefits and limitations of the CLT, but empirical studies provide early validation for each of the beneficial outcomes described here.
CLTs have proven effective in securing long-term affordable housing and preventing displacement and loss. CLTs make homeownership and its benefits more accessible to households of limited means by decreasing purchase prices and making mortgages more affordable, and resale restrictions keep prices low over time. In effect, ground leasing keeps public and private subsidies in the land and distributes land-based wealth intergenerationally. CLTs can also prevent displacement in the context of gentrification via long-term affordability controls. Moreover, the steward can intervene to force building maintenance and repairs, protect residents against predatory lending and unfair property taxes, and prevent foreclosure in case of defaults. Thus in neighbourhoods plagued by disinvestment and decline, CLT stewardship can prevent erosion of equity, deferred maintenance, and home loss. The ability of the steward to advocate for residents’ rights also shields against the effects of financial shocks. This manifests in lower rates of home loss; for example, following the global financial crisis, the residents of resale-restricted homes experienced rates of default and foreclosure ten times lower than residents of market-rate homes. These housing-related benefits have been realized in both the global north and the global south.
Another important outcome of CLTs is democratic community control over development. The CLT governance structure is community-led, balances public and private interests, and keeps the steward accountable to the community on an ongoing basis. By facilitating participatory planning, the model provides a level of citizen control that goes beyond mere consultation. Community control also allows CLTs to respond more directly to community and resident priorities. Community control, which is missing from other tenure models, is the feature that defines the CLT as a democratic innovation.
The CLT has also shown promise as a means of addressing intersecting racial, class-based, and gender inequalities. CLTs serve mostly families making less than area median income, and serve more households of colour and women-headed households compared to other tenure models. Therefore, they can explicitly target land- and housing-related issues facing vulnerable groups, and the benefits of increased affordability, tenure security, and opportunities for wealth creation accrue disproportionately to members of these groups. Finally, the potential to empower people traditionally marginalized from decision-making through CLT governance can help to address disparities in political power along racial, class, and gender lines.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
CLTs are constrained by the need to cooperate with public and private partners in the context of a neoliberal policy environment. CLTs rely on local governments for support in land acquisition and development, and therefore must work closely with public officials and adapt to the political climate, in addition to complying with local laws and regulations. Moreover, CLTs must cultivate private development interest and convince private lenders to mortgage homes on leased land, all while balancing these actors’ profit-oriented goals with the goals of the community.
Internal organization may pose additional challenges. CLTs generally develop out of existing community organizations and require willingness, commitment, and agreement from community members and residents in order to work. Absent strong leadership and existing infrastructure for advocacy and community engagement, starting and sustaining a CLT may prove challenging.
More broadly, debate continues as to whether or not CLTs can achieve the kind of broad socio-economic and political transformations envisioned by their original creators. Some argue that because of the extent to which CLTs must compromise in order to survive within existing political and economic systems, the model has lost its radical edge. Some believe that the CLT has become a technocratic solution used by policy elites to respond to pressures in the housing sector, rather than a form of genuine community mobilization with broad applications. Another challenge moving forward will be to maintain the community-controlled nature of CLTs. As CLTs become increasingly institutionalized and professionalized, they may lose their emphasis on community control. Moreover, many CLTs now serve large geographic areas, which can weaken their relationship to place-based communities. These developments may limit the model’s transformative potential.
On the other hand, in many CLTs today grassroots activism for economic, racial, and environmental justice is alive and well. Additionally, the very existence of an alternative to the market model may be considered transformative, reshaping power relations despite operating on a limited scale. CLTs challenge the neoliberal paradigm by restricting the power of private developers and lenders and decommodifying land, which is central to the kind of “commoning” practice that combats accumulation by dispossession and other forms of socio-spatial injustice. Moreover, the redistributive effects of CLTs may be considered transformative, especially through intersections with the politics of resistance by oppressed communities. In the words of John Davis, the CLT “is a platform for redistribution, putting property and power into the hands of people historically deprived of both.” CLTs can, therefore, effect socio-economic and political change at a deep level.
CLTs are not the ultimate cure for poverty, housing insecurity, or historically-rooted inequalities. However, they can be a powerful tool for mitigating the impacts of these problems on vulnerable people. CLTs provide a compelling alternative to the market system and a means of securing long-term affordable housing and other community assets, addressing inequalities, and enabling community control over the land.
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