#161 Spring 2010 — Organizing Post ACORN

In Land We Trust

The Community Land Trust Reader, edited by John Emmeus Davis. Lincoln Institute, 2010, 616 pp. $35 (paper).

To capture the history and essence of community land trusts is a complicated and demanding task taken on by this must-read compendium. But adages aside, The Community Land Trust Reader will help people recognize that the CLT approach to land stewardship is needed now more than ever.

First things first: never before has such a large volume—over 600 pages—captured the history and essence of community land trusts (CLTs). The book contains 37 authors, including editor John Emmeus Davis, who provide “the seminal texts that inspired and defined the CLT,” according to the Lincoln Institute. In other words, this book explains the past, present, and future of CLTs. Not only is this an essential volume for current and future practitioners in affordable housing, land conservation, and economic development, but also for those in the public and private sector who will hopefully recognize that the CLT approach to land stewardship is needed now more than ever.

With the rapid growth of CLTs there are many working in the community development field for whom this publication is especially timely and useful. As Davis says in the preface, many newcomers to the CLT field lack the historical background:

“Too few of them have heard of Henry George, Ebenezer Howard, Arthur Morgan, Ralph Borsodi, or Bob Swann, whose ideas of property and community sowed the seeds for the modern-day CLT. Too few of them appreciate the intellectual debt that is owed to the founders of similar movements in other countries, where the long-term leasing of community-owned land was pioneered: the Garden City movement in England, the Moshav movement in Israel, and the Gramdan movement in India. Fewer still are familiar with the lasting contributions of community organizers like Slater King, Charles Sherrod, Lucy Poulin, Marie Cirillo, and Chuck Matthei, who imbued the CLT with a passionate priority for serving people who had been excluded from the political and economic mainstream.” (Page 9)

The book is divided into a seven-part history lesson on the evolution of CLTs. Part I, “Precursors,” provides the theoretical background, beginning with Davis’s informative essay on the evolution of the CLT movement in the United States. Part II, “Prophets and Pioneers,” reviews the individuals directly involved with the establishment of the first CLTs. The remaining sections include “Definitions and Purposes,” “Affordable Housing,” “Beyond Housing,” “Beyond the United States,” and “Beyond the Horizon,” which provides a glimpse into the future and what it may hold for CLTs and affordable housing.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a CLT is a type of land reform that facilitates permanently affordable housing and economic development. Typically a nonprofit owns the land and provides a long-term land lease to homeowners (and in some cases to commercial property owners). This allows the property to be affordable, as the value of the land is taken out of the price of the property. CLT owners are responsible for the structures that sit on top of the land (“improvements”). CLT owners enjoy the tax and financial benefits that come with owning a home. With a one-time investment in the land made by the nonprofit, this stewardship of land allows the home to be affordable not only to the first time homebuyer, but for generations to follow.

Davis’s own essay, the first in the collection, “Origins and Evolution of the Community Land Trust in the United States,” provides a fascinating historical understanding of the development of the community land trust movement and the significant ideas, activists, and political events that shaped it. Starting with the most basic question — Who should own the land? — Davis points out that land speculation in the United States is a recent phenomenon that broke with Native American attitudes of community ownership and contradicted the feelings of early New England colonists and important American figures like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Davis takes issue with the evolution of private land ownership:

“Instead of seeing land as part of a shared human heritage that should be shepherded and used for the common good, land is typically treated as individual property, chopped up into parcels that are bought and sold to the highest bidder. It is deemed to be our god-given right to accumulate as much of it as we can.” (Page 18)

The essay further explains how CLTs in the United States developed alongside the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders of that movement, such as Bob Swann, Charles Sherrod, and Slater King, cousin of Martin Luther King Jr., recognized the fundamental need to return to the early values of community land ownership and helped establish New Communities Inc., the first CLT in the country, near Albany, Georgia. New Communities was established in 1970 by African Americans with the goal of agricultural land reform.

Beyond Davis’s “Origins and Evolution,” I found the following essays particularly useful for a CLT newcomer: “Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America, The Community Land Trust,” by the International Independence Institute and “A Growing Trend in Affordable Home Ownership,” by Julie Farrell Curtin and Lance Bocarsly. Written nearly 40 years ago, “Guide to a New Model” provides a philosophical explanation to the concepts of “community,” “land,” and “trust” that to this day provide an organizational structure for CLTs. This chapter also foreshadows the challenges CLTs face today in gaining acceptance within minority communities that have historically been unable to own land and stresses the importance of local community leadership.

In “A Growing Trend in Affordable Home Ownership,” authors Curtin and Bocarsly offer a chronology of CLT evolution over the last 40 years and analyze the ways in which land trusts are being used to accomplish different goals. CLT practitioners will find the sections on organizational structures — from the traditional tripartite membership (CLT owners, persons living in CLT communities who are not owners, and members of the general public) to a growing trend of CLTs created as programs of local government and larger nonprofits — particularly helpful. For example, Curtin and Bocarsly review the organizational structures of Dudley Street Neighborhood Inc., a traditional tripartite land trust in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood established in 1988, and the Irvine Community Land Trust in California, which came into existence a generation later in 2006. DSNI is the only CLT in the country with eminent domain power. The Irvine CLT was established to address the needs of affordable housing on a citywide level with the annexation and redevelopment of El Toro, a former military air station.

To better understand the new generation of municipal CLTs, you need to read Rick Jacobus and Michael Brown’s chapter on “Local Governments’ Embrace of CLTs.” Here you learn the details behind Irvine CLT’s creation, along with the establishment of the city of Chicago’s CLT and other new municipal CLTs established over the last decade. Jacobus and Brown explain the benefits of municipal CLTs, with their citywide focus on affordable housing using the land lease tool. Jacobus and Brown recommend municipalities and existing CLTs work together in forming partnerships with the ultimate mission of preserving and expanding permanently affordable housing on a larger scale.

In light of the current economic crisis, largely attributed to the housing crash, CLTs stand poised to change the paradigm of future real estate development. This quote from the ICE Community Land Trust Handbook, written 28 years ago, has proven to be prophetic:

“America is plagued increasingly by land speculation and absentee ownership of both land and buildings. Speculation often pushes the price of urban property far beyond the reach of the people most dependent on it — poor and moderate-income families in need of secure homes, small businesses in need of commercial and industrial sites.” (Page 228)

Predatory lending, bad speculation, poor regulations, and greed are all factors in today’s real estate bust, and the reader learns that CLTs are a critical tool for preserving community real estate by taking out a large portion of the speculation by owning the land. Community land trusts give working families an opportunity to remain in urban and suburban communities that would otherwise be unaffordable. The majority of growth of CLTs has been in response to gentrification of urban communities, and now with the foreclosure crisis there is a new opportunity to raise awareness of the effectiveness of land stewardship under the built space. A recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University for the National CLT Network shows that CLT homeowners are only one-eighth as likely to go into foreclosure as homeowners over all. Today there are over 200 CLTs in 45 states and on four continents.

The Reader suffers from some repetitiveness in its 46 chapters, and needs more “in the trenches” reports. I wanted to read more chapters like the two on Madison’s Troy Gardens in Part V, as they give the reader on-the-ground accounts of the challenges and success of growing CLTs. Still, as a practitioner in community development, working with and as a part of CLTs for nearly 20 years, I appreciate Davis’s book as a one-stop source. The Community Land Trust Reader raises the level of credibility of CLTs and helps all of us in the field build legitimacy for our work.


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