This past week, activists in Philadelphia made an incredible announcement: the city government had tentatively agreed to turn over 50 vacant homes to a community land trust, ensuring that those homes will remain affordable forever. This historic victory comes after six months of direct action: supported by a diverse network of activists, over 120 people in two homeless encampments protested the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), while 15 mothers and their children weathered threats of eviction from the formerly vacant homes they had moved into. Activists and organizers at various levels coordinated and sustained pressure on the PHA to lead to this tentative agreement. With over 5000 homeless people in Philadelphia, and with this present deal for the first 50 homes not yet finalized, much more work is still to be done. But the success so far is a model for many other communities seeking to secure permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development -- a model first pioneered by Black farmers on a 5700-acre tract of land in Albany, Georgia in 1969.
The first community land trust (CLT) was New Communities, Inc., organized primarily by civil rights activists in the late 1960s for Black sharecroppers who had lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote. It was an experiment in cooperation and collective resilience in the face of endless challenges. Like the recent efforts in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the creation of New Communities grew out of resistance and necessity -- and so did the movements around the world that inspired the CLT in the first place. Influences include the Gramdan village movement in India organized by Vinoba Bhave, who had worked with Gandhi, as well as the single-tax movement in the United States and the garden city movement in the UK. One key figure in the development of the CLT was Bob Swann, a founding member of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (NECNVA; predecessor of the Voluntown Peace Trust), who began to explore “nonviolent economics” when he was in prison as a war resister during World War II. Swann’s major theoretical contribution to the development of community land trusts was to put the “C” in CLT, emphasizing the importance of community control of the land they put in trust.
The “Peace Farm” that eventually became the Voluntown Peace Trust was an early experiment in some of Swann’s ideas for an intentional community, but it wasn’t until he began working with Slater King, president of the Albany Movement and a cousin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others from the civil rights movement that the first community land trust in the United States was born.
But what, exactly, is a community land trust? A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit corporation that actively acquires, holds, and stewards land for a place-based community, usually in order to provide affordable housing, increase food security, and equitably redevelop neighborhoods. The CLT acquires land with the intention of owning it forever, but any building on that land may be sold to an individual homeowner, a housing cooperative, a rental housing developer, or some other nonprofit, for-profit, or governmental entity. In addition, the CLT may also lease the land on which a building stands to the new building owner in a ground-lease, granting long-term exclusive-use rights to that land and a resale formula which maintains the permanent affordability while allowing limited equity. This means that one may buy, sell, alter, inherit, and even mortgage a building on land owned by a CLT.
CLTs are designed to be guided by and accountable to the community that lives in and around it. The size of the community can range from a single neighborhood to an entire county, and all adults who live within the community typically qualify as voting members of the CLT. A board of directors leads the CLT, with members drawn equally from three groups of stakeholders within the community: residents/leaseholders of CLT-owned land, CLT members, and public representatives who can connect to broader constituencies. Many CLTs actively seek to expand their land holdings, including community gardens, civic buildings, commercial spaces, and other community assets. There is a great deal of diversity under the umbrella term of “community land trust.” The fundamental purpose for the CLT, however, is always primarily to secure permanent affordable housing for people with low or moderate income in an equitable way.
From its founding in 1969 to 1983, many of the resident farmers of New Communities considered their land trust as a safe haven for other Blacks. The dozen or so residents of New Communities, as well as dozens more participating community members, grew and sold crops, raised and slaughtered hogs, operated a smokehouse, and even built a sugarcane mill. But a combination of systemic racism and bad fortune conspired against them. Racist Whites in the area boycotted their market and otherwise sabotaged New Communities. Blight and bad weather caused financial troubles to mount. Requests for an emergency loan from the federal Farmers Home Administration were consistently denied by local officials, despite the approval of similar requests from neighboring White farmers. Then, starting in 1981, a severe drought devastated the farms of southwest Georgia, exacerbating problems. When finally Washington officials forced local administrators to approve the loans, the assistance New Communities received was consistently too little, too late, and tied to arbitrary restrictions. New Communities persisted for a few years longer, but eventually lost the property to foreclosure in 1985.
The residents of New Communities were just some of the victims of the systemic discrimination by the Farmers Home Administration over several years, as was revealed in a national class action lawsuit brought by Black farmers against the FHA in 1997. As one judge wrote later, “In several Southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer.” But the members of New Communities did not disappear, instead continuing to meet regularly even after losing the original property. The case against the FHA was eventually settled, and in 2009, New Communities was awarded $12 million in damages. The community land trust invested the money in a new 1600-acre property named Resora, some miles outside of Albany, GA, to pick up where they had left off all those years ago. After almost two and a half decades, their persistence paid off.
New Communities continues to foster and inspire community land trusts across the country and around the world as a model for permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development. They celebrated 50 years of resilience last year, hosting community land trust activists from around the country, supported by Grounded Solutions. Today, more than 330 CLTs exist around the United States, including the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SE CT CLT), affiliated with the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Arc of Justice: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Beloved Community. Producer/Directors Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman. Open Studio Productions. 2016. https://www.arcofjusticefilm.com/
Breed, Allen G. “Black Farmers’ Lawsuit Revives a Dream.” The Washington Post. December 6, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/12/06/black-farmers-lawsuit-revives-a-dream/f286668f-67de-400f-a10b-051ba9bf47a7/
Elliot, Debbie. “5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers.” National Public Radio. October 3, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766706906/5-decades-later-communities-land-trust-still-helps-black-farmers
Lacey, Akela. “Philadelphia activists on verge of historic win for public housing.” The Intercept. September 29, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/09/29/philadelphia-public-housing/
Mills, Stephanie. On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics. New Society Publishers. 2010.
Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (who led the Philadelphia CLT campaign): http://blackandbrownworkerscoop.org/
Philadelphia Housing Action (latest info from the coalition of groups in the Philadelphia CLT campaign): https://philadelphiahousingaction.info/
New Communities, Inc.: https://www.newcommunitiesinc.com/
More on the history of CLTs: http://cltroots.org/
Video-lecture and slideshow on the history of CLTs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC7YRbih4IY&t
Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust: https://sectclt.org/
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