Community Land Trusts


Local, Equitable, Spiritual

Community-based groups across the country are working to create sustainable solutions to economic problems such as lack of affordable housing and the loss of local food systems. Within this grassroots movement, people are re-examining their relationships to each other and to their resources and experimenting with new models of development that try to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the community as a whole.

The community land trust (CLT) is an innovative solution that is gaining acceptance and success all across the country. The CLT movement’s origins lie in the civil rights movement of the sixties and were also based on the voluntary land reform campaign instituted by Mahatma Gandhi’s successors in India and the kibbutz movement in Israel. The concept was germinated in the 1960s by Bob Swann, a longtime pacifi st activist and advocate of decentralized economic alternatives. As of 2006 there were 162 CLTs actively operating within the United States and another 44 in the process of forming and acquiring land.

CLTs are community-based nonprofit organizations that hold land for community use. CLTs separate ownership of the land from ownership of housing on the land. Always retaining ownership of the land itself, the CLT sells the housing to individual families. CLT homeowners have lifetime inheritable ground leases to the land that define their rights and responsibilities to the community. CLT homeowners can build equity by making personal investments of capital and labor, but they will not be able to receive a “windfall gain” from the sale of their home. If a home rises in value beyond the personal investment of the homeowner, the additional value—that which is generated by the community’s investment—stays with the CLT.

Can low-income communities flourish through shared landholding? Low-income communities generate signifi cant earnings and are rich in ideas, practical skills, and other non-monetary resources. Yet the staggeringly high rate of absentee ownership in low-income communities (both urban and rural) causes the cash that comes in to flow right back out again. It is clear that gaining community control over vital resources (like land, food, housing, and businesses) is critical to the long-term health of our society. While absentee ownership drains assets and earnings out of an area, community ownership retains those assets and earnings.

A deeper examination of property ownership reveals that it is not enough that only individuals within a community retain and reinvest their earnings and build equity. When individuals purchase properties, they acquire something of value; when they improve their properties—by investing additional capital or labor—they add value. Yet in addition to individual work, property value also comes from community effort through public investment in infrastructure and services (like schools and roads) and by community development activity.

CLTs often provide homeownership opportunities to those who are traditionally shut out of the housing market. They also serve to protect access to land within a neighborhood where rising land values are pushing current residents out. Most CLTs permanently protect the affordability of homes on their land by limiting the price for which a CLT home can be resold.

The board of directors of a CLT requires equal representation of three groups: residents (“leaseholders”), community representatives, and other individuals who bring needed skills to the board.

Conservation land trusts acquire land to protect it as open space; community land trusts preserve land for active community use. Such uses are most often affordable housing, but can also include farms, schools, community centers, and/or businesses. For example, in today’s real estate market, the price of a farm is often far higher than a working small farmer can afford to pay. To protect farmers’ rights to working farmland and to protect the community’s right to have local sources of food, some farms (in particular Community Supported Agriculture farms, directly sustained by community members) have begun to partner with land trusts. When a working farm becomes part of a land trust, a common interest develops in the land remaining actively farmed, permanently protecting the farm’s affordability for future farmers.

Community land trusts demonstrate how successful partnerships between the individual and the community can be and suggest how new forms of economics challenge us to become more aware of our interdependence. We will need greater dialogue as we seek fair ways of allocating value, and as we adopt more cooperative ownership models for property. We will need to improve our communication skills so we can allow every voice to be heard. Collaborative decision-making will ask for our time and patience.

These are exciting times! People are discovering that we must make some real changes. In response, we have to rethink our economic relationships, envision forms that refl ect our full web of interdependence and are imbued with a quality of spirit.

Community Land Trust Success Stories

Portland OR

Portland Community Land Trust households are 49% minorities. PCLT aims to increase these numbers through enhanced outreach efforts and participation in projects like Operation HOME (Home Ownership and Minority Equity), a civic and business partnership targeting the minority homeownership gap in Portland.

PCLT helped Operation HOME identify objectives in three areas:

  •  To build consumer confidence within communities of color and promote homeownership as an achievable opportunity;
  • To provide tools and resources to the homeownership industry to help them better reach and serve communities of color;
  • To increase Portland’s business communityís investment in helping their employees become homeowners.

Burlington VT

Two vital CLTs based in Burlington -- Burlington Community Land Trust and Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation -- merged in 2006 to form Champlain Housing Trust. Approximately 80 staff members serve Chittenden, Grand Isle, and Franklin counties.

The combined trust offers a range of services to members, including low-interest loans for home repairs. Its Co-op Housing Program provides technical support services to housing cooperatives and resident associations, including membership selection, application processing, training and ongoing operational support.

Albuquerque NM

Sawmill Community Land Trust, located in the Sawmill neighborhood, serves the Albuquerque metropolitan area residents who are least served by the prevailing market. Sawmill is adjacent to the downtown business district and the historic Old Town area, one of New Mexicoís biggest tourist attractions. The encroachment of these interests have caused real estate values in the surrounding neighborhoods to spiral upwards, pushing land and housing costs beyond the affordability of most families that have lived here for decades.

Currently, the Land Trust is reclaiming 27 acres in the heart of the City of Albuquerque to create a livable community, Arbolera de Vida (Orchard of Life). This comprehensive revitalization effort includes housing, a park, plaza, community center, offices, retail space, manufacturing, senior apartments, and live/work spaces for home businesses.

Over the past five years, the primary emphasis of the organization has been in the planning and development of the first phase of 23 homes, the plaza, the Property Owners Association (POA) and the creation of an economic development plan.

For the next three years, SCLT will focus on Phase II of Arbolera de Vida: 68 additional ownership-housing units, 22 senior apartments, the extension of an existing acequia (irrigation channel)
and trail into the development and a park and orchard. Phase II also calls for expansion of the Community Land Trust to adjacent neighborhoods and redevelopment of the area through advocacy for a Sawmill Metropolitan Redevelopment Area Plan.

Inherent to the success of the Community Land Trust is the active participation of an informed membership. Strengthening the membership for self-governance and developing a citywide supporters’ network will further SCLT's organizing efforts.

Ellie Kastanopolous

Ellie Kastanopolous is executive director of Equity Trust, Inc. a nonprofit concerned with innovative ownership models that address both public and private interests.

Rebecca Fletcher

Rebecca Fletcher is publications manager of Equity Trust, Inc. a nonprofit concerned with innovative ownership models that address both public and private interests.