New York City Becomes a Hotbed of Community Land Trust Innovation

NYC skyline painted on brick wall.
“Brooklyn mural NYC,” by Franco Folini via flickr, CC BY SA 2.0

In 2013 when the first meeting of what would become the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI) took place in an overheated room at the City University of New York, community land trusts were well established in many parts of the country, but not well known in New York City.

There was one CLT in the city that was formed as a backstop organization to preserve the ongoing affordability of the homes of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association on the Lower East Side. But few people knew that a land trust had been created around those buildings, or what that meant.

The groups in the City University room had differing ideas about land trusts, and what one could do, but they knew that community control of land and permanent affordability sounded like things their city needed, and they jumped into organizing, educating, and advocating with a will.

Partnerships

Last week, the launch of the Interboro CLT was the latest in a series of milestones this year that together show just how much New York housing advocates have embraced the CLT model and are determined to adapt it to meet their communities’ needs. Interboro is one of four recipients of a $1.65 million grant from Enterprise Community Partners’ Community Land Trust Initiative to the city, funded by bank settlement money.

Every one of the recipients is pushing the envelope on thinking about what CLTs can do. Interboro is going to be fascinating for several reasons. It aspires to be citywide eventually, which in a place as large as New York City is essentially a regional land trust. It is being launched by a partnership of four organizations, which is, according to Melora Hiller of Grounded Solutions Network, “the first of its kind nationally.” And that partnership is of experts in four different affordable housing strategies: The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which works with limited-equity cooperatives; the Mutual Housing Association of NY; Habitat for Humanity New York City chapter; and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which along with research has focused largely on housing counseling, especially for existing homeowners affected by the foreclosure crisis and then Hurricane Sandy. The CLT model is complementary to what each organization does, and the benefits of connecting it with co-ops and Habitat homes has been under discussion in many places, but these overlaps are also still fairly new ground.

Interboro got early seed support from Citi Community Development, which has also now committed to a $1 million CLT growth fund, designed to “accelerate development of the CLT’s first 250 permanent affordable units and place the CLT on a trajectory to become one of the largest urban land trusts in the nation.”

Reaching Down the Income Scale

Meanwhile, the East Harlem-El Barrio CLT is pursuing a vision of a community land trust that is dedicated to serving extremely low-income families, including those at risk of homelessness, and preventing displacement in a neighborhood facing gentrification and the loss of affordable units. The plan is to have a land trust with a mutual housing association managing affordable rental buildings with resident participation. For a model that has long been primarily focused on affordable homeownership (even though CLTs contain plenty of rental units), this is a different focus. This was the vision of NYCCLI founding partner Picture the Homeless, which even helped create the board game Trustville to educate people about CLTs.

Cooper Square, the one existing land trust-Mutual Housing Association, is a third recipient. It will use the money to look into acquiring new buildings. In a city where there’s a lot of tension around the idea that new “affordable” units produced through the mandatory inclusionary housing program are not actually affordable to those who need them most, or to those living in the neighborhoods where they are being built (thanks to regional median income calculations), Cooper Square is an astonishing bulwark of affordability, with monthly payments for its co-op shareholders in the $375 to $800/month range. And at 400 units, around for decades, and having grown out of amazing organizing work, it’s not a pilot project either. But it is an unusual and complex structure that required special allowances from the state to create a co-op that had multiple buildings. Seeing if it can expand its model within Manhattan will be exciting.

Neighborhood Variations

And finally, NYCCLI itself will be using the rest of the money to support capacity-building and planning in nine different community-based organizations that are interested in creating CLTs to get up to speed. The nonprofits on the list include organizing groups, CDCs, and faith-based groups, and it’s likely that each will come up with its own slightly different twist on the model as well.

New York seems poised to move the concept of community land trusts in new and exciting directions, and we’re looking forward to exploring more about how they got here and following them forward on their journeys.

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