This morning I taught what was probably my millionth class on community land trusts—but this one was different. This was a course for the Democracy Convention, the second national gathering of the U.S. democracy movement in Madison, Wis.
For a change, the audience was way more radical than I was. And as I worked my way through a presentation on the division of property ownership, housing subsidies, and methods to minimize foreclosure rates, it dawned on me how much the language I used had changed over the years.
When I talk about community land trusts, now I use the language of lawyers, lenders, and funding sources. Those are the audiences I have to work hard to persuade, to make this crazy model of housing somehow palatable to them. Give me a crewcut and a suit, and my presentation could work at a young Republicans convention.
As my presentation wore on, I realized that the people who are attending this Democracy Convention are different than my usual audience. These are folks who believe that our economic system is broken, that Wall Street drives our entire housing agenda, and that our federal government is completely beholden to those same interests.
I was stunned to feel like the conservative in the room—how the hell did that happen?
Around the same time I realized this, I came to the piece of the class where I talk about the roots of the CLT movement, using slides from my good friend John Emmeus Davis. I spoke about the freethinkers upon whose work the CLT movement is based: Thomas Paine, Abe Lincoln, Chief Seattle, Henry George, Bob Swann, and Slater King. These people had the radical notion that land is a common resource, and therefore no more suited for individual ownership and profiteering than the sky or the water. I talked about the importance of being mindful of all those generations who will come after us, and how what we do today will have a profound impact on them. And fittingly, I talked about the importance of this very messy thing called democracy, where we agree to make decisions together, in full knowledge of how difficult that can be in moments.
I came away from this morning's class reminded why I became involved in this work in the first place.
In the old days, we had many conversations using the language of movement, about land reform, the importance of community control, and the fight for social justice. Community land trusts are, after all, children of the U.S. civil rights movement. But that language doesn't seem to surface much anymore, and the words we adopted to appease lenders, funders and lawyers has become the internal language we use as well.
There is no secret listserv where we all talk about this kind of stuff anymore. In corners at our national gatherings, we whisper about getting FHA approval for CLT mortgages, establishing set-asides for permanently affordable housing projects, and tracking 100 different metrics to prove the efficacy of the CLT model.
Maybe this is just the sign of a movement growing up, and that we can bend our model, without breaking it, to fit more mainstream notions of property ownership and financing.
But in moments, it feels to me that the CLT movement is trying to join a club that is just not interested in having us as a member.
Despite our phenomenal performance during the heart of the housing crisis, where CLT homes had 1/8th the foreclosure rate of conventional housing, it is now far more difficult for CLT homebuyers to get mortgages than it was before the crisis. Despite our shining moment, Wall Street has decided that our stellar performance is irrelevant, and we just ended up getting lumped in with all the other perceived high-risk forms of housing. And FHA, despite 20 years of polite advocacy, is still not ready to provide a mortgage product for CLT buyers.
So what do we really have to lose by just loudly and proudly being ourselves?
Our model works far better than conventional housing models. We can make public dollars work harder and longer than just about anyone else out there. We can back up our talk.
So maybe we could protest a little bit. Maybe we could confront a little bit more. Maybe we could once again start using the language of system change, because we sure as hell need it.
In closing, I leave you with one of my favorite CLT quotes, by none other than Abraham Lincoln: “The land, the earth God gave man for his home, sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man, corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the air or water.”