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Common Ground: How Community Land Trusts Build Stronger Societies

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the restorative Cotton Magnolia, we’re exploring community land trusts. From securing affordable housing to fighting racism, this communal model of landownership can do a lot for our neighborhoods.

In June of 2020, amid the historic nationwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a group of homeless Philadelphians established an encampment at Von Colln Memorial Field, less than a mile from the art museum steps made famous by Rocky. A second encampment was soon established elsewhere in the city, near the offices of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Quickly, the encampments grew to contain nearly 200 residents between them.1

Some Philadelphians decried the encampments as eyesores. The city government threatened to clear them by force. But the residents stood their ground. They had a purpose. As Black Lives Matter activists called attention to the unjust treatment of Black people at the hands of American police, the Philadelphia encampments — working with a community organizing coalition called Philadelphia Housing Action — were demanding the city finally address the housing crisis that had left nearly 6,000 people homeless across Philadelphia.2

The timing was no accident. Encampment organizers argued that addressing homelessness had to be a key piece of the city’s coronavirus response strategy. Lacking stable shelters, homeless Philadelphians were especially at risk of contracting coronavirus. Moreover, the economic fallout of the pandemic threatened to unleash a wave of evictions, which would only drive more people onto the streets.3

The Von Colln encampment was located less than a mile from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, pictured above; Source: Unsplash

The persistence of the encampment residents paid off. After four tense months, Philadelphia Housing Action and the Philadelphia government reached a deal. The encampments would clear out. In exchange, the city would transfer 50 abandoned homes to a community land trust established by Philadelphia Housing Action, where the homes would be permanently reserved for households making less than $25,000.45

While the encampments were certainly a controversial tactic, Philadelphia Housing Action’s community land trust is part of a rich, longstanding tradition. Since the 1960s, this form of communal land ownership has been instrumental in helping communities fight racial injustice, secure resources for the vulnerable, and take control of their neighborhoods back from real estate speculators, who tend to invest in low-income neighborhoods not to help the community, but to maximize their returns as the neighborhood gentrifies.

As we explored last month, alternative corporate ownership models can help mitigate the negative impacts so many shareholder-focused companies have on people and the planet. Could community land trusts offer a similar way to enshrine values like kindness and collectivity in our neighborhoods themselves?

THe CLT model promotes community ownership and democratic control of land; Source: Parkdale Community Economies

Putting Land Into the People’s Hands

At its most basic level, a community land trust (CLT) is a democratically governed nonprofit corporation that owns land. Let’s pull that apart quickly: “Democratically governed” means that, typically, a group of land trust residents, community members, and public representatives collaboratively make decisions about how the land in the CLT’s possession will be used. As nonprofit corporations, CLTs expressly do not exist to create profit, but rather, to use the money they generate to uphold their missions.

While CLTs can be formed for a number of purposes, most share a common aim of preserving land for the public good. Essentially, what CLTs do is remove land from the real estate market so that it can’t be bought, sold, and developed by private investors with little regard for the community’s desires. Instead, a CLT ensures that land can be used to meet real community needs like affordable housing, farmland, or green space.6

“A CLT ensures that land can be used to meet real community needs like affordable housing, farmland, or green space.”

Anyone who lives in the CLT’s designated service area can join the nonprofit as a member. This ensures that control of the CLT — and, by extension, control of the land the CLT owns — always remains within the community, in much the same way that steward ownership ensures control of a company always remains with the people who work in it.7

American civil rights activists Slater King, Bob Swann, Marion King, and Fay Bennett [from left to right] helped pioneer the development of community land trusts in the 1960s. Source: CLT Roots

While communal forms of landownership have existed since essentially the dawn of humanity, the specific concept of a community land trust was first officially described in Robert S. Swann’s 1972 book, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America. A civil rights activist, Swann was part of the group that developed the first designated community land trust in the 1960s.8 In theorizing about CLTs, Swann sought a legal way to uphold traditional models of shared landownership outside of the standard financial-owner models that rapidly took over America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the time, Black farmers in the American South were largely shut out from financial landownership by formal and informal systems of discrimination. Instead, they often worked as sharecroppers, living on and farming land owned by white farmers; in exchange, white farmers took a cut of their harvests. The arrangement, though legal, was ripe for abuse. White farmers often seized larger shares than they were owed, and they would retaliate against Black sharecroppers who participated in the civil rights movement by forcing them off the land entirely.910

Swann — together with fellow civil rights activists Slater and Marion King, Fay Bennett, Leonard Smith, Lewis Black, Albert Turner, and Charles Sherrod — was looking for a way to help Black farmers break free of the sharecropping system. The group found the answer on a 1968 trip to Israel. There, they studied the Jewish National Fund, which bought and leased land to help farmers establish agricultural cooperatives.11

Established in 1969, New Communities was the first community land trust in the U.S.A.; Source: Chief Organizer

Swann and the others wanted to replicate the Jewish National Fund’s model in the US. In 1969, they formed New Communities — the first community land trust — and bought nearly 6,000 acres of land in Georgia for Black farmers to collectively live and farm on.12 While a disastrous drought — exacerbated by the refusal of the Farmers Home Administration to extend an emergency loan — forced the original New Communities farm to shut down in the 1980s, the nonprofit itself is still active and still managed by original members. In 2011, New Communities established a new farm, Resora, where the CLT continues to pursue its mission of empowering communities through collective forms of agribusiness and wealth-building.13

Beyond Housing

While CLTs are commonly established to secure affordable housing, that’s far from their only use. Even those CLTs that do provide housing often branch out into other community services. For example, Vermont’s Champlain Housing Trust, the largest community land trust in the United States, offers homebuyer education classes, loans for repairs, and hundreds of construction jobs for local residents through its development work.14

As the story of New Communities illustrates, CLTs have been key tools in the fight against racism and white supremacy in America — and they still are today. The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOCLT), for example, was established to combat the fact that an estimated 98 percent of all farmland in the U.S. is owned by white farmers. NEFOCLT aims to secure land for black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) farmers, while also promoting conservation through the protection of native ecosystems and the propagation of regenerative farming and agroforestry techniques.15

“As the story of New Communities illustrates, CLTs have been key tools in the fight against racism and white supremacy in America — and they still are today.”

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders established the Burlington Community Land Trust in 1984. The nonprofit would eventually evolve into the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest community land trust in America. Source: CLT Roots

As we made the move to Kingston, NY, last summer, we were lucky enough to meet members of the Kingston Land Trust. This land trust has a similarly conservationist orientation. They champion urban agriculture, affordable housing, and land conservation programs, with a focus on protecting and preserving environmentally and socially significant land. Through the Kingston Greenline project, for example, the Kingston Land Trust is helping to create a system of trails and parks that gives residents of the area more access to open space and more options for non-motorized transportation.16 Working with Harambee Kingston, another local nonprofit, the Kingston Land Trust also purchased the Pine Street African Burial Ground, a cemetery historically used to inter the bodies of enslaved Africans in Kingston. Harambee and the Kingston Land Trust acquired the site to ensure its history could never be effaced by commercial development.17

The Kingston Greenline — a joint initiative between the Kingston Land Trust and City of Kingston and Ulster County — has helped make Kingston more accessible and runs directly behind our candle studio; Source: Kingston Land Trust

Want a Functional Democracy? Start More Community Land Trusts.

Regardless of the specific ends to which they’re used, all CLTs have one thing in common: They take land out of the real estate market and put it in the hands of the community. The community then directs how that land is used. This level of citizen control is rare in our neighborhoods; more often, land is bought, sold, and developed by private owners according to their own whims. Imagine how different development might look in your neighborhood if it were controlled by a board of local community members and residents, including yourself.

“[Non-community minded] development can cause housing prices to skyrocket, forcing longtime residents out of their homes. And after all that, the locals may have nothing to show for it.”

Private real estate development can have dire consequences for local economies. The tax incentives used to lure private entities to towns transfer wealth from the public coffers to private hands. Development can cause housing prices to skyrocket, forcing longtime residents out of their homes. And after all that, the locals may have nothing to show for it. Consider how the village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, uprooted residents and handed out tax incentives to convince the electronics manufacturer Foxconn to build a factory that promised to bring 13,000 jobs to the area. Three years later, those jobs still haven’t arrived, and the village is nearly $1 billion in debt.18

Now-Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, President Donald Trump, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, and others celebrate the groundbreaking for the proposed Foxconn factory in 2017. The promised factory never materialized; Source: Wikipedia

Critics of traditional economic development models point to disasters like the Foxconn deal as proof that the status quo doesn’t work for the average person. Instead, they advocate for community wealth building, an alternative economic development model that relies in part on CLTs.19 Community wealth building prioritizes local ownership of businesses and land. The idea, obvious as it might seem on its face, is that reinvesting local money in the local community — instead of using it to lure new businesses from elsewhere — can help us build neighborhoods where everyone can share equitably in the wealth a society produces. CLTs factor into this vision as a way to keep control of land in local hands. That way, residents can decide what gets built, where it gets built, and what it gets used for. CLTs can also help ensure that, if real estate prices do rise as economic development proceeds, residents will still have access to affordable housing.20

“Reinvesting local money in the local community — instead of using it to lure new businesses from elsewhere — can help us build neighborhoods where everyone can share equitably in the wealth a society produces.”

Democracy and physical, public space that encourages public discourse are intrinsically interwoven; Source: Unsplash

And CLTs aren’t just good for our communities on a financial level. They’re also good for the continued functioning of democracy itself. As the political scientist John Parkinson writes in Democracy and Public Space, “Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space.”21

Public space — like parks, community farms, and historical sites — is where we come together. It’s where we meet our neighbors, experience a shared world, and even register our discontent when problems arise. Without public space, people are atomized, separated from one another, siloed off in their own little houses. Quite simply, a society cannot function without a social body of some kind, and public space is where the social body comes to life.

As we’ve seen, over decades, CLTs have helped ensure that affordable housing, community parks, and public spaces continue to exist. And they've proven that when people have a shared stake in something they experience every day, like communal ownership of the land in their neighborhoods, they have reason to find shared values and interests in pursuit of a deeper purpose. Such a common vision is fundamental to building better futures for our towns and cities, and perhaps even a better-functioning democracy itself.

— The Keap Team

"Taking Back the Bronx" (2017) follows organizers in the Bronx looking to take ownership (via CLTs) of underutilized spaces to create new community-owned assets. Source: Ben Ginsburg

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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