Community Rights and Urban Land

The contemporary American understanding of community control over urban land is rooted in post-war organizing against government-driven redevelopment and bank-driven financial disinvestment. Broader movement groups, like the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party challenging Mayor Daley’s urban renewal plans, and newly politicized residents of threatened neighborhoods, like Lincoln Square tenants fighting the construction of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, developed a new framework for urban planning in the 1960s.

At a time when the American Left began to embrace “the local,” low-income residents of cities sought to address structural inequalities by claiming a right to make decisions about what happens in their immediate environment. Historian Roberta Gold defines this claim as community rights based in a “place-based collectivity bound by neighborhood ties.” Community rights provided a framework for claims to urban land based on social ties and everyday use of urban space, rather than landownership.

Today, urban neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods of color, face a different, but related host of issues: aggressive reinvestment resulting in displacement. Community rights—manifested as the right of people, businesses, and institutions to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods—is an important undercurrent in contemporary neighborhood-based organizing.

Community land trusts (CLTs)—entities organized to maintain the ownership of land for a specific, community-oriented purpose, in perpetuity—are gaining traction as an anti-displacement measure with an explicit focus on community rights. The promise of CLTs is not only that residents will get to stay in their neighborhood, but that they will be able to exercise a degree of control over land use through the CLT.

CLTs formalize the often slippery definition of “community” through a governing board that includes some combination of people who use the buildings on CLT land, the surrounding neighborhood, and representative “experts” or members of the public at large. Ideally, a CLT ownership structure puts into practice ideas about community rights and diffuses power between people who directly benefit from the CLT and the broader community indirectly affected by the CLT. However, without a perpetual focus on resident education and engagement, the flexibility of the CLT model also creates the possibility for immediate cooptation and gradual mission slippage.

Contemporary community land trusts exist in an environment of scant public resources and intense competition from for-profit developers, especially in high-cost real estate markets. Individual CLTs should be part of a broader framework that elevates community rights over the profit-making potential of land. Specifically, this includes policies that equalize the relationship between tenants and landlords, like just-cause eviction laws and rent regulation. In addition, this includes protecting embattled public resources, public housing especially. Finally, this includes connections to broader movements for addressing spatial segregation, which continues to be the defining characteristic of American cities. As the Movement for Black Lives’ economic justice platform describes, it should include a coordinated review of “ . . . tax credits, insurance systems, and budgets concerning various elements of development (e.g., housing, schools, community, highways, etc.)” and “alignment around the goal of fair development with an emphasis on community land trusts, cooperatives, and community control.”

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