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Community Land Trusts and the Fight for Sustainable Cities.

  • Oct 09 2023
  • Ashley Dawson
    is Professor of Environmental Humanities at the Graduate Center/City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. He has published many books on the ecological emergency, including the forthcoming Environmentalism from Below (Haymarket), as well as People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). Dawson is an activist with the Public Power NY movement and the abolitionist campaign for a Renewable Rikers.

After the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, New York City has endured decades of violent restructuring by the interlinked complex of real estate, financial capital, and neoliberal governance. As I write these lines, the city is in deep crisis, with over 100,000 unhoused people and a severely botched effort to provide services for a population of 90,000 immigrants dispatched to NYC by the right-wing governors of states including Florida and Texas. Making the crisis far worse, the Rent Guidelines Board, under the direction of Mayor Eric Adams, recently voted in favor of a 3 percent rent hike on over one million rent-stabilized tenants.

In the face of such savage forms of urban enclosure, social movements in the city are fighting to reclaim empty buildings and land for public use. These movements – which are overwhelmingly driven by organizers based in working-class communities of color around the city [1] - are increasingly employing community land trusts (CLT) to provide genuinely affordable, collectively-controlled housing. Given the scale of the crisis in New York, CLTs alone cannot provide a solution to the intensifying social and ecological problems presented by what I call the extreme city. Nonetheless, CLTs offer a potent symbolic alternative to the brutal injustice of the racial-capitalist urban project. By virtue of their very existence (and their increasing expansion), they inspire community mobilization for more sustainable cities. 

CLTs allow organized citizens to take land off the private, speculative market, where they cannot control its value. They are nonprofit organizations chartered to hold land in perpetuity. The rights of residents on land held by the CLT are protected through long-term leases that can be bought and sold. Individuals cannot own (and/or attempt to sell off) the land on which their property is built, a model that counteracts the tendency for one generation to cash in on social housing by selling it at market rate, as has happened with previous affordable housing efforts in NYC, such as the Mitchell-Lama program. [2]

The CLT model of land tenure was created as part of the struggle against racist land dispossession during the era of the Civil Rights movement. This history underlines the CLT’s role in the fight for self-determination. As the urban planner Cassim Shepard has documented in an essay published in the journal Places, the first community land trust in the United States was New Communities, Inc., which was established by Shirley Sherrod and the Reverend Charles Sherrod near Albany, Georgia in 1969. [3] The couple set up the CLT after realizing that wealthy white landowners were kicking Black sharecroppers off their land in retaliation for registering to vote. Civil rights would be hollow, the Sherrods concluded, unless people made poor by racial capitalism could assert control over the land that they worked and lived on. As Rev. Sherrod put it, “All power comes from the land.”

The Sherrods worked with the white peace activist Robert Swann to buy land in rural Georgia that — like the land collectivized by the Gramdan movement in India in the mid-20th century — allowed for individual ownership of homes, but would be communally farmed and remain collectively controlled. [4] The CLT thus developed as a way to decouple the ownership of property from the ownership of the land on which a property is built.

The Cooper Square Community Land Trust, NYC’s first of this sort, was born out of the fight against the community-destroying “urban renewal” plans of Robert Moses during the 1950s and 1960s. Cooper Square now controls 23 buildings in the city’s Lower East Side, protecting homes, small businesses, and community spaces in an area of the city that has been subject to decades of disenfranchisement linked to disinvestment and subsequent rampant gentrification. Cooper Square Community Land Trust helped establish the paradigm for CLTs in New York, where the boards that control the trusts are democratically elected and generally three equal parts comprise the structure: one-third of residents of the CLT, one-third of residents of the neighborhood, and one-third public stakeholders who support the CLT with various skills.

Today, nearly thirty CLTs are organizing across all five boroughs of the city to ensure permanently affordable housing and community-led development. Elise Goldin and Will Spisak of the New Economy Project, a nonprofit that functions as a resource network for CLTs across the city, explained to me that the growing interest in, and enthusiasm for, CLTs is a result of the failure of previous housing programs. [5] Members of the City Council are reaching out to the Project to find out how to organize CLTs as part of a renewed push for social housing in the city. Goldin and Spisak told me that housing advocates across the city are fighting for passage of the “Community Land Act” (CLA) in the state legislature, one part of which directs the city to prioritize nonprofits and community land trusts (rather than private developers) when it sells off city-owned land. The CLA would enshrine in law the idea of public land for the public good. 

While providing decommodified housing will certainly remain a crucial aspect of CLTs, it is important to note that they also play other key roles in building community power and self-determination. CLTs are also being used to create spaces of communal liberation and cultural rejuvenation in city neighborhoods long afflicted with economic marginalization and environmental injustice. Many of the CLTs developing in NYC today can be seen as contemporary versions of what the activist architect Nandini Bagchee, author of the important book Counter Institution, calls “activist estates”: buildings or other urban places occupied by social movements providing a base through which communities can build cultural power and launch critiques of the city or the nation. [6]

One prominent example of such a version of the CLT is the H.E.ARTS complex proposal, a project of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards CLT in the South Bronx. [7] H.E.ARTS is to be located in an abandoned city-owned building that was built during the New Deal era as a local health clinic, and which was subsequently taken over by the Young Lords and Black Panthers in 1970 as part of a community mobilization for better health care. Arif Ullah, executive director of sponsoring local environmental justice organization South Bronx Unite, told me that the H.E.ARTS Center will continue this tradition of community-based care, with health defined in preventative terms through arts and education-based healing. [8] The building will house a culinary arts kitchen, classrooms, performance spaces, and meeting and office spaces for local organizations that have been doing critical work for decades in the Bronx, but which are now faced with displacement as a result of gentrification. Demonstrating the important role that radical architects can play in these struggles for community self-determination, Nandini Bagchee helped design renovation plans for the building that would house the H.E.ARTS Center.

The model of community cultural mobilization advanced by the H.E.ARTS Center is being replicated in other parts of the city. In Western Queens, for example, a successful struggle to fight off a massive land giveaway to the Amazon corporation by local community groups has led to a proposal for the establishment of the Queensboro People’s Space in an under-utilized government building. As the Western Queens CLT argues in their proposal, the Queensboro People’s Space would serve as “a people-centered hub tailored for manufacturing, art-making, and the provision of community benefits, including workforce training, food and nutrition services, and family-centered care.” [9] Set near the luxury housing towers that line the riverfront in Long Island City (among the city’s most massive development projects of recent years), as well as next to the nation’s largest public housing complex, the Queensboro People’s Space will constitute an important example of democratic and equitable land use.

Linked to their role as liberated cultural spaces, CLTs such as the H.E.ARTS Center and the Queensboro People’s Space are playing a growing part in community-based climate adaptation projects. South Bronx United’s Mychal Johnson wrote that:
“as environmental justice advocates, we see the potential for the Community Land Act to enhance public health equity, access to green space in underserved communities, and a chance to mitigate the disproportionate pollution burden that communities of color have been forced to bear as a result of racist public and private land use decisions.” [10]

Johnson’s colleague Arif Ullah emphasized to me that the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards CLT has made such environmental justice aspirations tangible by developing a waterfront plan that would give 100,000+ people access to the waterfront along the Bronx River. In a part of the city with some of the nation’s highest asthma rates (linked to the heavy traffic associated with highways and other infrastructure in Bronx), this greenspace would be a life-saving piece of urban infrastructure. Additionally, the waterfront plan would also help offset the potentially toxic effects of storm surges such as the one that devasted NYC during Hurricane Sandy. Linked to their role as liberated cultural spaces, CLTs are thus playing a growing part in community-based climate adaptation projects.

The provision of affordable food to economically and racially marginalized communities in NYC is another role that community advocates envisage for CLTs. Boris Santos, co-founder of Brooklyn-based East New York CLT, shared with me that their project envisages a series of spaces that include spaces for urban agriculture and food distribution. [11] The East New York CLT’s Black Paper publication emphasizes that the neighborhood has been heavily targeted by racist policing practices for decades, resulting not just in criminalization of residents, but in police ownership of significant portions of land in the area. As the Black Paper puts it, “[t]his land must be brought into public ownership. This is why we are telling the City, ‘Don’t cop out on community ownership!’.” [12]

As this survey of the struggles around land, housing, and community self-determination in NYC underlines, community land trusts are a pivotal element in broader efforts to establish liberated spaces in the city. These efforts to decommodify land are key to the contemporary insurgency against collective displacement and ecological emergency in NYC.




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