Yes They Can. And They Bloody Well Did

As you watch the games of the XXX Olympiad, you should know that something extraordinary has been happening in a low-income neighborhood near the main Olympic stadium.  A different kind of flame is being lit—one that will likely endure long after the athletes leave town.   

For eight years, residents of East London have waged a grassroots campaign to redevelop St. Clements Hospital, a derelict site of boarded-up buildings on 4.5 acres of land. They have not only fought to remove this publicly owned blight from the middle of their neighborhood; they have pressured the City of London to allow them to control what happens on the site, insisting that St. Clements be put into the hands of the East London Community Land Trust. 

On July 16th they won!  Barely two weeks before the start of the 2012 Olympics, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, inked an agreement that will transfer ownership of the St. Clements site to the ELCLT.  In a statement issued by his office, Boris was quoted as saying: “The East London Community Land Trust at St. Clements will put local people in the driving seat and empower them to take stewardship of what will be a fantastic new neighbourhood that will boast over 200 quality homes.  This is a huge step forward for everyone who has been working so hard to deliver what will be the UK’s first urban Community Land Trust, right here in London.”
These 200 homes will be a mix of affordably priced rental housing and resale-restricted homeownership.  A “registered provider” of social housing will lease a portion of the St. Clements site from the ELCLT and will develop and manage the rental units.  The for-sale homes constructed on the site will be initially owned by ELCLT but immediately marketed to income-eligible households, subject to resale controls designed to keep these homes permanently affordable.

In how they have structured both the ownership of the real estate and the governance of their own organization, the ELCLT has borrowed liberally from its American cousins.  That a British CLT should lift ideas from CLTs over here is only fair.  After all, we lifted some of our best ideas from over there. 

The modern-day CLT emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement in the American South when grassroots activists began looking for a new way to secure the economic and residential security of black families who were being forced off the land in retaliation for resisting segregation.  These pioneers did not invent the CLT out of whole cloth, however.  They drew heavily upon the legacy of leased-land communities that had been in existence for decades.  Prominent among these CLT precursors were the Garden Cities of England, the first of which were founded by Ebenezer Howard at Letchworth in 1903 and at Welwyn in 1920. 

This was neither the first time that ideas about a new approach to land tenure crossed the Atlantic, nor the last.  Howard had been inspired to propose municipal ownership of the land underlying his Garden Cities by Henry George, an American writer whose notion of the single tax had been based on the theory of the “unearned increment” proposed by an Englishman, John Stuart Mill.  Much later, the ideas of both George and Howard informed the work of Ralph Borsodi and Arthur Morgan as they experimented with leased-land communities in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s.

Such trans-Atlantic cross-pollination has continued to the present day.  Leaders of the ELCLT have been most generous in crediting CLTs in the United States with inspiring their efforts to establish the first urban CLT in the UK.  But this is not a one-way street, for there is much in the story of St. Clements to inspire and inform CLTs over here. 

Especially impressive, apart from the ELCLT’s gutsy perseverance over so many years, is the link that’s been forged in London between community empowerment and community ownership.  The campaign to put St. Clements into the hands of a CLT was initiated and supported by a citywide coalition of 150 grassroots groups, unions, schools, and faith-based organizations.  Marching under the banner of London CITIZENS, this civic alliance has forced local councilors, public agencies, and the Mayor himself to address issues of concern to working people, with affordable housing at the top of the list – and ELCLT control over the St. Clements site as a major demand. 

Their victory at St. Clements has done nothing to blunt their political edge.  ELCLT and London CITIZENS continue to dog the agencies overseeing the Olympics, pushing them to deliver on promises they made back in 2005 when seeking the support of East London’s residents for London’s Olympic bid.  Some promises have been kept; some have been broken; and some remain an open question.  Among the last is the promise that most of the Olympic Village will be converted into housing for East London families once the games are over, with 800 of those homes kept permanently affordable through a CLT.

So a victory has been won – but the fight goes on.  Neither story of struggle is likely to be seen in TV footage of the Olympics, of course, despite thousands of reporters panting in pursuit of any “human interest” angle that might enliven the day’s interminable coverage of archery, badminton, and synchronized swimming.  That’s unfortunate.  The East London CLT deserves our applause for already winning the St. Clements marathon.  London CITIZENS deserves our cheers as it goes for gold, hoping to wrestle the Olympic Village from the reaching grasp of the private market.   These are the real champions we should keep in mind as we watch the Olympics in the days ahead.  

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