Controlling Land Collectively: The CLT Ground Lease Reimagined

Community control often gets conflated with affordability for neighborhoods seeing rising prices, and it’s obviously good to make land stay affordable. But affordability is not the same as democratic decision-making.

An undesignated open space in a community land trust in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Deborah Martin

Community control of land should mean the ongoing capacity of people who are part of a community to make (and also remake or change) meaningful decisions about the use of that land.

Community control often gets conflated with affordability for neighborhoods seeing rising prices, and it’s obviously good (and sometimes vitally important) to make land stay affordable. But affordability is not the same as democratic decision-making about collectively owned land. If we are to imagine more explicit control over land through CLTs, what would it look like?

We argue that CLTs might start by restructuring the way land ownership is actualized through the ground lease. CLTs are said to allow for community control of land because they own land in perpetuity, but in reality that ownership is greatly constrained by the ground lease. CLTs are not in a position to do much of anything with the land under normal circumstances when a homeowner is in the house on a CLT parcel. The homeowners use the land and the “community” has no control or access. The CLT members cannot, for instance, decide to plant fruit trees in a homeowner’s yard to sell the fruit at the local farmer’s market. Nor can they decide to double the floor area ratio on the site by building another house on the land. Nor can they combine contiguous parcels’ backyards to create a pocket park or community garden. The CLT owns the land but does not exercise the control that ownership normally brings with it.

Thus for all practical purposes, the role of community control of the CLT is most explicitly exercised in moments of new land acquisition. That is when a CLT is in a position to make decisions about what can happen with the land (and where CLT land will be). Here we have another dilemma: in order to get the funding necessary to acquire the land, you have to use the land for the purposes the funding is intended, so most of the decision-making is over by the time the acquisition is happening. Non-housing uses of land, like playgrounds, community gardens, or community centers, might not be options that are typically considered for this reason. Non-housing uses take forethought, financial planning, and different funding sources (which often are harder to come by).

Thinking beyond the typical affordable housing ground-lease model would be necessary for a broader discussion about community needs, use, and CLT control in relation to land. What if the CLT membership actually made decisions about the land that was forever “in trust” for them? Rather than giving homeowners private use of the land, the membership could decide, with the homeowners’ agreement, to implement other uses, writing flexibility into the model. This would require a radical transformation of how CLTs operate. It would mean de-emphasizing affordable housing as a goal, which would likely come at the cost of broad political (and perhaps financial) support. But redesigning the ground lease for community control could make non-housing uses like parks and gardens more feasible. Ultimately, this change would mean residents of low-income neighborhoods could have more land available to them for community uses. Essentially, a re-orientation of the CLT model back to its ideals of community control would mean a reconceptualization of the relationship between individual CLT residents, the CLT, and land.

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