On a bright October morning, I took a walk around Mott Haven in the South Bronx. My destination was a three-story yellow brick building located where 140th Street dead-ends into a superblock. On the other side of Willis Avenue, 140th continues, but a playground bisects the street, providing a tranquil pedestrian thoroughfare between a public housing complex and an elementary school.
Bas-relief caducei indicate the yellow brick building’s original purpose as a hospital, while its modest size recalls a bygone era when healthcare at the neighborhood scale assumed similar architectural gravitas to the large, institutional campuses that define modern medicine. The now-abandoned building was erected by the Works Progress Administration, at a time when public investment in public facilities set new standards for the salutary role of design in civic life. The clinic soon became a satellite of nearby Lincoln Hospital, which, by the 1960s, had fallen into infamy for its number of patient deaths. In 1963, the City condemned a cluster of properties adjacent to the yellow brick building, and four years later, construction of the resulting superblock left the erstwhile hospital on a dead end in the shadow of the 20-story Mott Haven Houses, beside the flat box of P.S. 49, the Willis Avenue School.
Once, this vacant building would have been seen as ‘blight.’ Contemporary activists are changing the narrative to reconsider such sites as beneficial.
In 1970, the Young Lords — Puerto Rican youth who had evolved from a street gang into community activists in the mode of the Black Panthers — occupied part of Lincoln Hospital to protest what they saw as official indifference to the health needs of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. According to the New York Times, during the Young Lords’ twelve-hour occupation, the group “presented a list of demands that the hospital’s administrator deemed valid.” 1 They established a radical drug-rehab program in the yellow brick building that explored holistic alternatives to methadone, such as acupuncture. By the end of the ’70s, the city had shut down the community-led program, but authorities continued to use the building as a drug-treatment facility until 2012. Still owned by the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the building now known as the Lincoln Recovery Center has been empty for the last ten years.
Once, this vacant structure would have been seen as “blight.” Contemporary activists have helped to change the narrative to reconsider such sites as beneficial: The building on 140th Street is an underutilized, publicly owned space that could instead be owned and operated by an ambitious nonprofit representing local needs. The group these activists founded envisions “a community-owned asset [that] will contain offices, meeting areas, a culinary arts kitchen, classrooms, and performance spaces which will house local organizations facing displacement.” In this vision, the 23,000-square-foot structure would become H.E.ARTS, “a center for health (H), education (E), and the arts (ARTS).” 2
The legal and administrative mechanism for managing a transformation like this is a community land trust. Such organizations are rapidly rising in popularity as a means of making housing permanently affordable to low-income households. The Mott Haven example, however, demonstrates that CLTs offer far more to our political culture than housing affordability alone.
In the years since the subprime mortgage crisis, I have followed this type of organization as it has proliferated around the country and the world, tracking both enthusiasm and skepticism regarding this alternative model of land tenure. Today, there are almost 300 community land trusts in the United States, in 47 states plus Washington, D.C. 3 A highly significant CLT has been operating in Puerto Rico since 2009. Four decades ago, only a handful existed. Three years ago, New York City had one active CLT and one other in the works. Today, in the city, there are seventeen. It’s no surprise that the past decade has prompted interest in new approaches to housing affordability: Homeownership rates are falling as costs increase, construction productivity declines, and wages stagnate. The majority of inhabitants in the 100 largest U.S. cities are now renters, and the majority of those renters spend more than half their income on rent. 4 Eviction is a constant threat. Nationwide, median home prices are almost five-and-a-half times median household income. 5 Home prices have jumped 118 percent since 1965, while income has increased by just fifteen percent. 6
Our system of property only really allows for two ways of occupying our homes: renting or owning. Community land trusts provide a third way.
These statistics reflect the fact that our global system of property only really allows for two ways of occupying our homes: renting or owning. The politics — and the design — of urban space hinge on this binary. Community land trusts seek to provide a third way. The model confers the stability of homeownership while protecting residents from the property market’s inherent instability. In a boom year, a renter can be evicted so his landlord can raise the rent; in a bust year, an owner can owe more to the bank than her home is worth. That instability creates risk for current residents (renters and owners alike) and increases the cost of housing for future residents. The CLT model of land tenure decouples the basic components of private property in order to shield residents from this boom-and-bust cycle. Simply stated, a CLT separates the ownership of property from the ownership of the land on which that property is built. In effect, organized citizens remove land from the private, speculative market where its value is difficult to control. The land is owned in common by the CLT, a nonprofit chartered to hold land in perpetuity while protecting residents’ rights through long-term leases that can be bought and sold. A long-term ground lease (typically 99 years) knits these two types of ownership together. The structures built on CLT land are owned by individuals; collective ownership does not automatically entail communal living.
Owners of property within a CLT have considerably more affordable mortgages than they would if borrowing at market rate, because land can account for as much as 50 percent of a home’s price.7 And they are able to build assets even though the CLT controls rents and resale prices to ensure permanent affordability for one occupant after another. 8 Therefore, any public subsidy or investment stays with the home instead of being bestowed on the tenant or owner, and then lost as soon as she sells or affordability restrictions expire. An organizational detail that many proponents say is crucial is the tripartite structure of a CLT’s board: one third drawn from the leaseholders; one third from among neighborhood residents who are not leaseholders; and one third from the ranks of professionals with relevant expertise, including housing advocates, lawyers, and public officials. According to Robert Swann, one of the movement’s pioneers, this kind of membership — in which all parties value neighborhood stability and empowerment — puts the “C” in CLT. Earlier leased-land experiments, Swann explains, lacked “broad participation by the town or community.” 9
Community membership — in which all parties value stability and empowerment — puts the C in CLT.
Beyond such core arrangements, CLTs in the U.S. and abroad are strikingly diverse. 10 Most are organized around housing. Some prioritize the establishment of cultural facilities, such as the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards CLT in the South Bronx, the proponents of the H.E.ARTS complex proposal. Others seek to preserve community-oriented retail, supporting entrepreneurs of color and retaining businesses that represent deep-seated local character. 11 Still others focus on agriculture or ecological preservation, as does the Little Jubba Maine Agrarian Commons, which has enabled Somali Bantu refugees resettled in Maine to farm land that would otherwise be out of reach financially. 12 Some CLTs own contiguous parcels; others link sites scattered across a particular area. They also differ in how closely they work with government, a factor which may be predictive of their success. All require profound community organizing and political education. Yet their origin stories differ widely, touching on commitments as varied as environmental justice, cultural heritage, and workforce development. The Sterling Land Trust in Greenville, South Carolina, was formed in 2010 to honor the legacy of a high school that had been an anchor for the community before a suspicious fire destroyed it in 1967. 13 The Caño Martín Peña CLT in San Juan, Puerto Rico, emerged in 2009, in direct response to government attempts to dredge a polluted canal in the center of the city. The cleanup itself was welcome, but the corollary increase in waterside property values threatened to uproot eight longstanding informal settlements by opening their land to speculative development. In the Bronx, the Community Land Stewards CLT gathered steam from a groundswell of opposition to the proposed siting of a grocery delivery depot in Mott Haven, tapping into the neighborhood’s long tradition of activism in the face of environmental racism.
Unsurprisingly, many community land trusts across the U.S. today cite displacement via gentrification as the primary driver behind efforts to decommodify housing. The rising cost of housing is not a natural phenomenon. Incentives for real-estate development or infrastructure provision, regulatory restrictions on new housing production, and lax tenant protections drive up costs for everyone. Tenants who fear displacement from established neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods of color, are therefore primed to pay attention when activists begin the community organizing process. But while contemporary displacement is a product of financialized speculation, the displacement that gave rise to the original American community land trust was born of violently racist dispossession.
Therefore, to truly understand the community land trust, we must understand the model’s civil rights-era roots, for the CLT has always been, primarily, an exercise in self-determination. We are living in a moment when rights-based approaches to housing activism are gaining ground. At the same time, as interest in CLTs grows, I have come to believe that their relevance extends beyond the affordability crisis. Given the ongoing person-to-person organizing necessary to found and to sustain a CLT, the model is not easily scalable. The hours and hours of meetings, deliberations, and training they require are not for everyone, nor fit for everywhere. But CLTs also build something else, something more foundational. Instead of asking only if they help to solve problems in our housing market, we should be asking if they address problems in our democracy. The greatest benefit CLTs offer is in demonstrating ways to build power and raise political consciousness in vulnerable communities.
In order to truly understand the community land trust model, we must understand its civil rights-era roots.
I put these propositions to Ryan Hickey, project director at the Cooper Square CLT, founded in 1991 and now the oldest operational CLT in New York City. A community land trust is “a political project,” he agreed, encompassing more than the immediate goal of keeping homes affordable. For Hickey, the core agenda is about “changing how we see housing and land tenure, how we think about and practice these things. We want to get folks into the CLT who understand that and want to challenge the status quo.” 14 Monxo López, from the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, expresses similar thoughts. Everyone wants cheap rent, he told me. But prioritizing housing costs alone “devalues the potential and underserves the population by flattening it to the transactional. We are committing political malpractice if a CLT is only concerned about cheap rents.” 15
Hickey and López thus hark back to the original conception of the community land trust as a means for fostering civic empowerment among the vulnerable, rather than merely ensuring tenure in a particular place. Such investments recall CLTs’ diverse intellectual origins in 19th-century critiques of industrial capitalism, Gandhian land reform in India, and the establishment of intentional farming communities in Israel. The model’s most relevant precedent, however, was forged in crucible of the civil rights movement in the American south.
New Communities, Inc.: “All Power Comes from the Land”
Commonly understood to have been the first community land trust in the United States, New Communities, Inc. was established by Shirley Sherrod and her husband Reverend Charles Sherrod near Albany, Georgia, in 1969. The Sherrods came to land-tenure activism through voting rights activism. Young Shirley Miller was politicized by the murder of her father by a White man who was never prosecuted, after which she vowed to stay in the South and work tirelessly for change. She soon met Charles Sherrod, an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose members had been knocking on doors across southwest Georgia throughout the 1960s, helping to register rural African Americans to vote. Reflecting on this period in the 2016 documentary Arc of Justice, Rev. Sherrod describes his profound sense of guilt upon realizing that many of the sharecroppers he had helped to register were later evicted from the land they farmed, made homeless and jobless in retaliation for enjoying hard-won rights. Maybe, Sherrod thought, the exercise of civil rights required the security that land ownership provides. Individual purchase was out of reach. “Collectively owned and farmed land,” in contrast, “would make individual laborers less likely to be subjected to economic and political disenfranchisement.” 16 Control of real property meant self-determination.
Rev. Sherrod puts it plainly: “All power comes from the land.” 17 Building power, in this sense, has always been the goal of grassroots organizing, as a community works to protect and to expand its autonomous ability to articulate claims, create campaigns, develop leaders, and forge new coalitions. New Communities, Inc. added community control of land as an essential means for building power for a (literally) disenfranchised population. According to Mtamanika Youngblood, a farmer-member of New Communities, the idea was “to take civil rights one step further into economic independence and economic rights, using agriculture as the economic base.” 18
In Georgia in 1969, New Communities, Inc. added shared control of land as an essential means of building power for a disenfranchised population.
The Sherrods found an important ally in Robert Swann, a White peace activist, homebuilder, and autodidact who would become one of the first thinkers to codify, and to evangelize for, the operational elements of the community land trust. In 1968, Charles Sherrod joined Swann on a delegation visiting cooperative agricultural settlements in Israel. The two men saw these kibbutzim and moshavim — with their commitment to communal self-reliance and resistance to traditional private-property arrangements — as models for land reform in the rural south. 19 The moshav, in particular, combined shared ownership of land, individual ownership of homes, and cooperative agricultural entrepreneurship, and this “seemed to them the perfect mix for the community development they hoped to do and the impoverished population they hoped to serve.” 20
Israeli moshavim were sited on land owned by the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit founded in 1901 by European Zionists who were inspired by the writings of the 19th-century political economist Henry George. The JNF’s express purpose at the time of its founding was to purchase land for Jewish settlement in Ottoman Syria (and later in the British Mandate for Palestine), and to steward that land in perpetuity, prohibiting sale while facilitating long-term leases. Sherrod and Swann visited just a year after the Six-Day War, though extant sources do not make clear whether they and their fellow delegates were aware that much of the JNF’s land had been confiscated from Palestinians after the Nakba of 1948. Notwithstanding the JNF’s explicitly ethno-nationalist mission, however, the paradigm of a nonprofit organization serving as permanent custodian of land and thereby enabling communal enterprise emerged as key to the operational design of community land trusts. 21
For the Sherrods, community control of land was about power: a grounded, place-based counterweight to the forces of racialized oppression encoded in the American property system. For Swann, it was about peace. Years earlier, Swann’s friendship with Bayard Rustin had influenced his decision to refuse the World War II-era draft. Before Rustin became one of the most influential strategists of the civil rights movement and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., he had been a conscientious objector, and in 1943, he and Swann landed in the same federal penitentiary in Kentucky. Sentenced to two and a half years, Swann read widely, took correspondence courses, and explored relationships between peace activism, community development, and land rights.
According to his life partner, Susan Witt, “[p]rison was his monastery and his university.” 22 He discovered urbanistic visions of collectively owned planned communities in the ideas of Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard. He also encountered the work of Ralph Borsodi, who in 1936 had founded one of the first “land-lease communities,” School of Living in Suffern, New York. Like the Zionists who established the JNF, Borsodi was inspired by the writings of Henry George, which confirmed Borsodi’s belief that our inherited ideologies of private property will always lead to impoverishment for the landless. To George, landlords are “parasites feeding off the productivity of others. Whenever there is economic progress … landowners simply raise their rents or the selling price of their real estate holdings.” George called this “an invisible tax on enterprise” that landlords collect without contributing themselves to increases in productivity. 23
Upon his release, Swann went to work with Borsodi, who had recently returned from India. There Borsodi had studied the Gramdan movement, a Gandhi-inspired program wherein landowners donated parcels of land to be held in trust by a village council and leased to farmers. For Borsodi, Gramdan affirmed “his own ideas about rebuilding rural economies on the basis of self-sufficient villages on leased land.” 24 The two men wondered what a Gramdan movement for America would look like. For Swann, who had put his carpentry skills to use rebuilding firebombed Black churches in Mississippi in the early 1960s, the primary beneficiaries should obviously be African American southerners, whose land holdings and housing security were decreasing during the civil rights era. 25 Swann and Sherrod presented these ideas to the National Sharecroppers Fund, which helped to finance the research trip to Israel.
The colleagues returned from Israel “convinced that something like a network of agricultural cooperatives, developed on lands leased from a community-based non-profit, might be a powerful model for the rural South.” 26 They set to work on what would become New Communities, Inc., and in 1970, the fledgling group managed to purchase almost 6,000 acres in Georgia. At the time, it was the largest single tract owned by African Americans anywhere. Ambitions were expansive:
Charrettes were held so that future settlers could plan their community. The future settlers, with the help of experts, decided the kind of educational, health, industrial, housing, recreational, and agricultural systems they would have. … Over 500 families wanted to move to the community in the initial phase. 27
New Communities secured a federal grant to begin housing construction. But while shared control of land may indeed be a necessary platform on which to build self-determination, communal landowners remain confined by our financial and political systems. In 1970, Governor Lester Maddox, a staunch segregationist, vetoed the federal allocation, preventing housing construction and forcing the nascent organization to focus exclusively on building an agricultural cooperative. That too was subject to the overtly violent restrictions of racial capitalism: “You’ll get a loan here over my dead body,” said one state loan officer when New Communities sought an emergency grant to carry them through a drought. 28 White farmers received state relief money; New Communities did not. The land was foreclosed, and New Communities dissolved. Nevertheless, the Sherrods’ work continues. In 1997, the USDA admitted that its loan policy had been racially discriminatory. A court ruling awarded the Sherrods sufficient funds to purchase a new property, a former plantation where their bold vision of economically independent Black farmers continues to inspire communities of color to apply their principles to a wide variety of contexts. 29
Discussion moved from homogeneously composed rural groups towards the urban CLTs we recognize today — with open membership, occupying pre-existing buildings.
The manufactured failure of New Communities deepened Swann’s resolve as well. His 1972 book The Community Land Trust: A Guide to the New Model for Land Tenure in America defined an emergent movement, surveying historical paradigms for collective ownership and proposing some new elements. For more than a decade after 1968, in this country, CLTs tended to be “organized on behalf of small groups of like-minded people. These homesteaders moved onto land that was leased from a nonprofit corporation in order to live in communities with others who shared their social or political values. Although they called themselves ‘community land trusts,’ they were closer to being intentional communities — or, as Swann later called them, ‘enclaves.’” 30 Swann helped to move discussion of CLTs away from such homogeneously composed rural groups (often former hippies creating communes), and towards the integrated, urban CLTs we recognize today — groups with open membership, occupying pre-existing buildings.
This vision became reality in 1981. The first urban CLT, Community Land Trust of Cincinnati, emerged in a predominantly African American neighborhood called the West End. Like New Communities (and indeed like the international precedents in India and Israel), the CLT of Cincinnati “served a population that had been excluded from the economic and political mainstream. It was a product of grassroots organizing and a vehicle for community empowerment.” 31 The goal was to prevent displacement in an area that had seen successive waves of disruption from urban renewal programs and the negligent absentee-landlordism that challenged so many neighborhoods of color in the 1970s. Comparable projects took shape throughout the 1980s: in Syracuse, Albany, and Schenectady, New York; Durham, North Carolina; Youngstown, Ohio; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Washington, D.C. An ambitious city-scale CLT in Burlington, Vermont, was set in motion by then-mayor Bernie Sanders. In an oft-cited example, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative established itself in a multiracial part of Boston, where “impetus came from the neighborhood’s opposition to a top-down plan for the redevelopment of Roxbury that had been put forward by the City of Boston and local foundations.” 32
This type of resistance to redevelopment often mobilizes the intensive organizing necessary to establish a CLT. Although the Cooper Square CLT in New York City was founded in the early 1990s, community planner and historian Tom Angotti explains that “its roots go back to 1959.”
[P]lanning czar Robert Moses proposed to level an 11-block area in the Lower East Side and replace it with what might now be dubbed “affordable housing” — union-sponsored co-ops. The Cooper Square Committee of residents and businesses organized in opposition to the Moses project stating that even at below-market prices the new co-ops would be out of reach of the majority of current residents. 33
Angotti’s comments highlight the contextual imprecision, and political manipulation, to which terms like “affordable” are susceptible, the ways in which this language can mask disjunctures between public sector planning and on-the-ground needs. Even when CLTs don’t yet own the land they would require to deliver on housing promises, they can serve — indispensably — to articulate those needs. Yet despite this important voice-giving aspect of the model, CLTs are too often evaluated exclusively according to the number of “affordable” units provided. 34
Measures of success should not be exclusively statistical. CLTs are places, where lives are lived and social experience matters.
Indeed, as the model has grown in popularity, a common critique is that it cannot scale. CLTs are just one option for creating shared-equity homeownership, a category that includes limited-equity cooperatives and deed-restricted homeownership units (often created through inclusionary housing programs enacted by local government). 35 In the U.S., shared-equity housing units of any type number only about 250,000, which is less than two percent of the estimated 139 million housing units nationwide. 36 Fifteen years ago, however, it was less than one percent. Moreover, data on the kinds of households served are promising. According to a 2019 study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 43 percent of residents in shared-equity households are people of color. The majority of purchasers are first-time homebuyers and female heads of household, and 95 percent of shared-equity homes are “priced affordably” for families earning 80 percent of area median income or below. Despite restrictions on resale prices, sellers of shared-equity homes do tend to build wealth. 37 Take into account the fact that most shared-equity households would otherwise be renting, and the modest wealth gains start to seem more significant.
However, measures of success should not be exclusively statistical. CLTs are places: places where lives are lived, where social experience matters. They are also often places with shared histories of trauma and resilience that a CLT can help to honor and preserve, not simply by maintaining affordability, but by safeguarding social continuity and intergenerational awareness of the past. As many practitioners remind us, the CLT is a strategy for building political capital among groups traditionally excluded from the official decision-making that most affects their lives. According to Monxo López, CLTs emerge from and sustain processes that “require people to be active, educated, committed stakeholders.” 38 He described to me his view that capitalist rent dynamics have reduced people to acting either as purveyors or customers, and that to transform from a customer into a stakeholder depends on intentional consciousness raising and skill building. 39
In other words, this is a political project. Underscoring the political potential of CLTs is important, but we must not do so in the abstract. We must do so by recognizing the shared historical traumas and contemporary challenges that define these spaces. The next step is to leverage that understanding as an opportunity to invent something new, something as radical and boldly confrontational as it is practical and laboriously mundane. To design a new set of economic, cultural, and political relationships between people and land and buildings, we must first account for — and celebrate — the spatial and cultural nuances of communities that have done the hard work, over decades, of pooling resources to build their capacity to articulate and advocate for specific community needs.
Caño Martín Peña: Protest & Proposal
One CLT that exemplifies this kind of hard work — garnering international attention in the process — sits in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers in central San Juan, Puerto Rico. It takes its name from the Caño Martín Peña, a body of water that connects the seaport in San Juan Bay to the airport on the San Juan Lagoon. Informal settlements were first established along this channel in the 1950s. Yet property rights in the capital city, like so much in Puerto Rico, are complicated by the fact that U.S. federal agencies (notably FEMA) do not recognize Puerto Rico’s unique legal framework, derived from Spanish Civil Code, wherein one can legally own property without a formal title or deed. 40 This mismatch leads to tragic imbalances in relief and rebuilding efforts after a disaster, such as Hurricane María in 2017. But it also speaks to a long tradition of community self-governance, especially in neighborhoods like those along the Caño.
When the U.S. took control of Puerto Rico in 1901, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the economy was largely agrarian, based primarily on sugarcane. A devastating hurricane in 1921, followed by an economic crisis and several more storms, triggered rural migration to San Juan. With housing in short supply, verdant wetlands surrounding the channel attracted newcomers from the countryside. After World War II, the American and Puerto Rican governments launched Operation Bootstrap to industrialize the island’s economy, and generous tax exemptions induced mainland corporations to take advantage of cheap labor. San Juan’s metropolitan population expanded from under 500,000 in 1950 to a peak of 2.5 million in 2000. (The island and the city have been depopulating ever since).
Housing supply was never sufficient to meet such demand, and settlements flanking the Caño grew. Originally, the approximately 5,000 houses were built on stilts, using scavenged wood and scrap metal. 41 Successive generations introduced cement and corrugated iron, allowing for second floors and pitched roofs. Many homes have fences delineating small yards or driveways. But the lack of municipal waste collection or sewage infrastructure has contributed, over decades, to the degradation of the channel, as has its use as a dumping site for businesses and factories. The loss of mangrove habitat and frequent storms has hastened cycles of flooding and erosion. Debris clogs the channel. The water no longer flows; it only grows more fetid.
Even more salient than the tradition of self-building (or auto-construcción) has been the tradition of self-governance (or auto-gestión).
Despite these challenges, the neighborhoods are vibrant. Many homes are still occupied, and continue to be adapted, by the families of original inhabitants. Perhaps even more salient than this self-building (or auto-construcción) has been the Caño communities’ tradition of self-governance (or auto-gestión). The main driver for the formation of the CLT was an announcement in 2002 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to dredge the channel. This news was welcome, but also cause for alarm. In the 1970s, the government had expropriated the adjacent community of Tokio in the district of Hato Rey, displacing occupants without offering a relocation plan. Tokio became the tony financial district now known as Milla de Oro (Golden Mile). For residents of the Caño neighborhoods, memories of this urban renewal plan intensify the understanding that “the area along the Caño is similarly some of the most valuable land in San Juan, placing these low-income communities under constant threat of top-down proposals for hotels and other high-end developments.” 42
The plan to dredge the channel coincided with implementation of a 2001 law “proclaiming as public policy the empowerment of residents of low-income communities.” Thanks to their long history of community participation and protest, those dwelling along the Caño were well-positioned to take advantage of this newfound (and short-lived) requirement that government agencies “carry out well-planned actions to stimulate the participation of low-income communities in the decision-making processes related to the issues affecting their development.” 43 Gabriela Zayas del Rio, an urban planner from San Juan who has studied the Caño extensively, offered me a telling example of the community’s longstanding commitment to organizing: In the 1980s, the neighborhoods came together to stop the planned closure of the main bus route connecting them to the rest of the city. Deploying private vans to demonstrate the route’s viability, Caño residents convinced the transit authority to maintain it. By the early 2000s, when the government signaled readiness to listen to its lower-income constituents in planning processes around the canal’s dredging, the eight Caño neighborhoods already had the tools to engage. 44
The USACE is responsible for waterways in Puerto Rico. But the first government body to involve Caño residents was the highway authority, which conducted more than 700 meetings with small groups representing the approximately 25,000 inhabitants of the affected neighborhoods. With this engagement came education and thoughtful deliberation. Understandably, for those worried about displacement, a traditional individual land title remained the most familiar and appealing form of securing tenure, which would allow title-holders to formalize the intergenerational inheritance of homes, connect to the power grid, and access mortgage credit. But after learning from experts about a range of options for collective land ownership — including a presentation by a Spanish-speaking member of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston — community representatives voted to form a CLT. 45
Almost immediately, changing political headwinds threatened to reverse these gains. In 2009, the mayor of San Juan, in alliance with a new territorial governor, passed legislation to transfer the land back to the municipality and eliminate the trust. The process for clearing individual titles went into overdrive, with a goal of creating divisive individual incentives and encouraging speculation. Putting the needs of the community above those of individual households is the reason why CLTs exist. Moreover, finding mechanisms for doing so are especially urgent in places like Puerto Rico, where disaster capitalism and predatory austerity converge. Since the 2006 expiration of federal tax exemptions for mainland U.S. companies, “land is one of the only assets that the government can still monetize.” 46
Mindful of these urgencies, in June 2009, the CLT filed a civil-rights suit against the territorial government. That November, the government of Puerto Rico, the municipality of San Juan, and three government corporations countersued. Despite the suit, the local government honored its earlier commitment and transferred 200 acres of public land to the CLT. The decade-plus of intense activism that followed has seen the CLT’s holdings grow. Occupants of homes made uninhabitable by the dredging have been able to relocate within their neighborhoods. The CLT has laboriously executed “surface rights deeds” granting heritable rights to houses, but not to the land beneath them, which is owned by the CLT. In 2015, the Caño Martín Peña CLT was recognized with an award from the international NGO World Habitat, which enabled the sharing of their story with housing-movement leaders around the world.
Putting community needs first is especially urgent in places where disaster capitalism and predatory austerity converge.
Two years later, Hurricane María devastated the island. Public services ground to a halt, and hundreds of public schools closed. Many remain shuttered to this day. But not La Jaime Rosario Báez elementary school, which lies within the CLT’s catchment area. Soon after the storm, students, parents, and teachers from the Caño neighborhoods occupied the school as a staging ground for education and relief programs. The CLT is now headquartered in the building. This example of proactive reuse speaks not only to the communities’ initiative to turn liabilities into assets, but also to their strong commitment to leadership development. Many successful CLTs benefit from close coordination with a distinct nonprofit (whose board membership sometimes overlaps) that can be nimbler in its programming than is possible for the CLT itself, given the necessarily slow pace of real-estate transactions. In the Caño neighborhoods, such needs are met by an organization called the G-8, that (among other services) offers leadership training though its Universidad del Barrio. 47 Building such capacity, especially among younger generations, is a crucially important investment in the multigenerational viability of a project like the Caño CLT.
Political consciousness and technical capacity are prerequisites to building the power necessary to hold accountable traditional decision makers — in government and the private sector — and to amplify demands that local needs be addressed and local voices heard. That power is easily squandered, however, if it is not matched with a clearly articulated vision for a desired future. Organizers in the Caño neighborhoods often describe this dynamic as the tension between protesta and propuesta, between protesting existing circumstances and proposing something new. Jerry Maldonado, who has been closely following and supporting the CLT movement for years (most recently in his former role as Director of the Cities & States program at the Ford Foundation), characterizes this tension as a balance between “fighting back and fighting forward.” The move from protest to proposal, he told me, “requires centering community and centering this aspiration for what self-determination actually means.” 48
Maldonado grew up in public housing on the mainland, the son of Puerto Rican farmers displaced by Operation Bootstrap, and he has dedicated his career to creating a sense of possibility around equitable development. 49 He believes that “any transformation of the built environment first requires a transformation and a reinvestment in the social fabric of that community. And that’s the central power of the community land trust model. It centers this idea of community self-determination and reinvesting in that social fabric to reimagine the built environment and to drive investment in these communities in ways that challenge traditional market dynamics.” 50
Political consciousness and technical capacity are prerequisites to building the power necessary to hold decision makers accountable.
Such attentiveness to the social fabric reminds us that community land trusts are more than merely an organizational model for securing land tenure; they are places inhabited by people who care about them. Foregrounding the importance of politics and place in CLTs might free these organizations from unrealistic expectations about meeting large-scale goals for housing affordability. A trust is just one tool in a suite of strategies that needs many more. Moreover, fostering the political consciousness on which CLT formation relies may be one way to incubate new strategies for housing security that go beyond this one particular model. Indeed, CLTs can foster the kind of generative citizenship that can help to realize an even broader definition of community self-determination.
South Bronx Unite: Articulating a Vision
Political consciousness has long been acute in the South Bronx, where several generations of robust activism have emerged in the face of malign neglect. For years, Mott Haven, the borough’s southernmost neighborhood, has exemplified the stereotypes brought to mind by mention of “the South Bronx”: abandonment, crime, buildings burned to the ground. While these clichés from the 1970s are obsolete, the culture of community organizing and protest fomented in those years is still a defining force. This tradition drew Monxo López here when he moved to New York City in 2004. López is a multi-hyphenate urbanist — a curator, cartographer, writer, teacher, and activist. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he knows the story of Caño Martín Peña well. As a founding member of South Bronx Unite, the community-based organization that has incubated the Land Stewards CLT, López has also become well versed in the nuances of CLTs that are specific to New York City.
Fostering the political consciousness on which CLT formation relies may incubate new strategies for housing security that go beyond this particular model.
Today, housing insecurity and displacement are driven less by disinvestment than by private speculation and gentrification. As in nearly every neighborhood in New York, rents are rising in Mott Haven and newcomers able to pay those higher rents are arriving. But Mott Haven’s underutilized industrial buildings and proximity to the Harlem River waterfront and to Manhattan make it more vulnerable to these new pressures than inland parts of the Bronx.
The day I wandered through the neighborhood looking for the site intended to become H.E.ARTS, local vitality was on full display: reggaetón spilling out of bodegas, colorful murals honoring local heroes and the community’s links to cultures around the world. The four-story brick rowhouses along Alexander Avenue recall a time when this was a destination of choice for European immigrants escaping Manhattan tenements. More recent waves of immigration from Central and South America have brought other kinds of positive change, as López notes, “building social capital, opening their own businesses, and creating demand for services.” 51 All this was palpable as I turned the corner onto 140th Street to check out the yellow brick building.
At the same time, I was acutely aware that Mott Haven is a peninsula edged by highways that cut off much of the neighborhood from the waterfront. Highways in the Bronx evoke a painful legacy of environmental racism, harking back to 1955 when Robert Moses cleaved the borough in two with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The area came epitomize the national crisis of urban disinvestment when President Jimmy Carter made an unannounced tour in 1977. People on the streets greeted the motorcade with pleas for federal aid and jobs. He surveyed block after block of abandoned and burned-out buildings, although he also found hope in “the strong effort of tenant groups to rebuild.” 52 The president’s visit established a trope in which politicians with national stature, from Ronald Reagan to Jesse Jackson to Bill Clinton, have used the South Bronx as a backdrop when highlighting their positions on urban policy, no matter how different those policies might have been. Not until the Clinton administration did the environmental and public-health costs of concentrated racialized poverty — in addition to its socioeconomic challenges — begin to be recognized.
By the early 1990s, concerns regarding environmental justice were emerging as a basis for policymaking. 53 In 1994, Clinton signed an order that “directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of their policies or programs on low-income people and people of color.” 54 In 2017, after the Trump administration sought to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, the New York City Council pledged to “require city agencies to develop plans to address environmental injustices in communities of color and low-income communities.” 55 The law mandated community consultation, but the City and the State were already moving forward with a plan to subsidize FreshDirect’s relocation of a diesel trucking operation to a 94-acre waterfront site known as Harlem River Yards, on public land owned by the State of New York. 56 The surrounding area already suffered from the highest rates of asthma in the country, and the promised job creation neither prioritized local workers nor guaranteed a living wage. South Bronx Unite formed in direct opposition to this plan, and while they were unsuccessful in thwarting the FreshDirect depot, the “diverse coalition of neighborhood residents, community organizations, religious groups, and many others” was able to marshal Mott Haven’s spirit of activism to assert a community-led vision for environmentally sustainable and equitable development. López told me that he and his neighbors had come to understand that the “environmental crisis in this neighborhood really required us taking stewardship of the land. … Someone has to speak on behalf of the land and environmental rights,” because those rights are “made real on the land, and the land is being violated.” 57
To move from protest to proposal, no group can deal exclusively with harm; activists must also identify opportunities.
An early project by South Bronx Unite was to map assets within the community, and, indeed, to challenge official definitions of what constitutes an asset. Community organizing is often about cataloguing deficits and generating civic capacity to hold to account those responsible for creating or remediating such deficits. To move from protesta to propuesta, however, no group can deal exclusively with harm; activists must also identify opportunities embedded in a neighborhood, from sites of cultural production — the South Bronx birthed hip-hop and popularized graffiti and street art — to neglected buildings that could be repurposed. Nandini Bagchee, an architect and educator who worked with López and his South Bronx Unite colleagues on a feasibility study for the H.E.ARTS proposal, reminded me that the Lincoln Recovery Center building had already housed a community center, and is situated in a park closed to through traffic. So the idea to convert this abandoned building is “a natural continuation of a process that had been disrupted.” Bagchee, who has worked with a number of CLTs in recent years, elsewhere in New York City and in Mississippi, notes that local history is often a point of departure for such projects, because “they tend to operate out of what already exists within the community, rather than seeing it as a developer would, as a tabula rasa.” 58 She adds that the design community can help community groups to move from an understanding of historical assets and contemporary needs towards a vision of the future that does not yet exist.
The Community Land Stewards CLT has additional ideas on the horizon, López told me, including a housing project dedicated to underserved household types, such as those headed by single parents, or comprised of senior citizens or multigenerational families. The CLT has also considered housing that prioritizes neighborhood activists, similar to housing for artists as it has been supported for decades in New York. Housing needs, then, are indeed part of the long-term plan. But the first project is to acquire and transform the vacant building into H.E.ARTS. Thus, the Mott Haven CLT represents an evolution that emphasizes community self-determination over and above a narrow focus on housing affordability.
Beyond Protest, Beyond Proposal: The Art of the CLT
The capacity to frame new visions and to accelerate the building of durable power in disinvested neighborhoods often arises from conflict with authorities. And, as in the South Bronx and San Juan, such conflict often starts as opposition to redevelopment plans. In many early instances, including the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati (1981), Dudley Street in Boston (1984), and Cooper Square in New York (1991), the proposed redevelopment amounted to a barely revised version of urban renewal, complete with the destruction of viable buildings, the displacement of low-income people of color, and planning processes that excluded residents. For these very reasons, housing insecurity has historically provided an entry point for labor organizers, civil-rights activists, and environmental-justice advocates who seek to transform community reaction into community self-determination. In example after example, this shift emerges in response to a painful past of public disinvestment, a pernicious present of displacement fears, and an anxious anticipation of housing insecurity stretching into the future.
Housing insecurity has historically provided an entry point for civil-rights activists, labor organizers, and environmental-justice advocates.
At the same time, no CLT can mature without reaching some détente with government. Municipalities have the power to transfer public land to CLT ownership, to encourage banks to write down a CLT’s mortgages, or to otherwise broker alliances between the real-estate industry and a trust. Similarly, CLTs need internal real-estate expertise to execute transactions pertaining to new properties and to manage maintenance of existing holdings. These skills do not always graft neatly onto the model’s radical roots and are often at odds with the political proclivities of early adopters as well.
Accordingly, as CLTs have multiplied across the U.S., scaling up has often meant diluting an expansive political project in favor of a narrow focus on affordability. As scholar and organizer Olivia R. Williams puts it, “CLTs’ dependence on external grant funding to acquire land and maintain their operations make them particularly susceptible to mission drift … losing their focus on grassroots community organizing in favor of professionalization to chase grant opportunities.” 59 Organizing is hard work, especially when a group is moving back and forth between protesta and propuesta. Outrage at injustice galvanizes people to come together to make demands; realizing a shared intention requires technical planning and the capacity to implement solutions.
Oksana Miranova, a housing-policy researcher who has been following the CLT movement for years, echoes the difficulty of this balancing act, before reminding me that the challenge is by no means unique to CLTs. It’s hard for “any kind of radical grassroots organization [that] institutionalizes and becomes more of a formal entity.” As a CLT grows from scrappy partnership to organized nonprofit, formalization can weaken or deprioritize the consensus-based direct democracy that fueled early efforts; such groups risk becoming just “another kind of homeownership program.” 60 Speaking about the Caño Martín Peña, Maldonado stresses that their governance structure is central to avoiding mission drift. As he observes, “so many groups get stuck on that tension between the organizing piece, the public policy component, and then the execution.” 61 Miranova, for her part, thinks that the recent proliferation of CLTs signals “more excitement and acceptance of the model from state actors, different municipal actors, and from foundations too”; she argues that “normalizing the idea of alternative tenure is really important for the U.S.” But she agrees that the radical goal of decommodifying land and buildings will inevitably run up against the practical requirements of managing properties, which, at the end of the day, are still commodities. “You need to be able to engage with the market and engage with capitalism in a real way, even though the idea is that you’re removing the land and the buildings from the market.” 62 This is why a CLT’s staff and board members must have expertise in both community organizing and real-estate development.
To shift how housing is conceived, we must highlight the people and places that make these diverse housing types a lived experience.
For me, the thought that it all comes down to governance seems counterintuitive when the fundamental goal remains as radical as reshaping relations between housing and property. But no single strategy is going to reset these vast and ramifying relationships. As Miranova puts it, “CLTs are just one tool among the universe of different types of alternative tenure models. If there are more CLTs but also more public housing, more mutual housing associations, more limited equity co-ops, and honestly just stronger rent regulation: All of those things together are going to shift the ways that housing is approached in the U.S.” 63 To shift how housing is conceived, we must highlight the people and the places who make these diverse housing types a lived experience. We must invest in understanding what they share, in order to build a durable political constituency that can counter the entrenched interests of the speculative real-estate market.
These interests are obviously global, and the Caño Martín Peña CLT represents a model that might apply to many informal settlements around the world. Close to a billion people live in self-built housing, often on land that residents do not own, that is disconnected from infrastructure like water and electrical systems. The prospect of the CLT as a mechanism for stabilizing informal settlements in the Global South is very different from the ways in which CLTs have matured in the United States and proliferated in the Global North. Following the vision of New Communities, Inc., early CLTs were established on undeveloped rural land, where new homes were to be built for new residents; the next generation of urban CLTs in this country has focused on acquiring vacant buildings and rehabilitating them. But the Caño CLT offers yet another prospect for contexts where “the homes of hundreds of families were already in existence and already occupied prior to the creation of the CLT.” 64 Scholars and practitioners eager to assess this adaptability point to characteristics that have favored success for the Caño: a significant population living on lands to which they do not have title; proximity to areas where rising land values threaten displacement; the possibility of land acquisition; and a “high sense of community cohesion and belonging.” 65 Worldwide, inhabitants of such neighborhoods number in the hundreds of millions. Across the globe, informal settlements constantly face urgent, overlapping, daily challenges — including crises of sanitation, violence, or lack of access to jobs and education — that may eclipse longer-range concerns about eviction and displacement. Even so, many informal settlements combine extreme housing insecurity with an intergenerational sense of place. That mix of vulnerability and belonging prepare the ground for the laborious process of organizing to wield robust political power.
In a conversation about limited equity co-ops (another form of shared-equity homeownership), the director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, Andrew Reicher, told me, “If you practice democracy at home, well, then you practice democracy in your community.” 66 In San Juan, residents of the Caño neighborhoods may still be marginalized, but they are no longer marginal; authorities cannot pretend they don’t exist and can never again exploit their vulnerability by offering the land beneath their homes for sale to the highest bidder. In the South Bronx, the Mott Haven example offers lessons that go beyond housing to redefine what community self-determination can look like. I’m not sure that CLTs can ever meet the magnitude of need for affordable housing. Moreover, long-term community-led stewardship of the land entails more than the provision of safe and secure housing. Nevertheless, the realities of housing insecurity often spark imaginations for a transformed world. The political education required of CLT members — and of residents in other types of shared-equity housing — can exert downstream effects on our political culture that will benefit everyone, traditional renters and homeowners alike. Because, ultimately, CLTs are about managing urban change, not about trying to halt it, and when people most affected by change have a say in what is allowed to happen on the land they occupy, more humane ways of living become possible. Learning to keep all these factors in balance — direct democracy, radical commitment to housing justice and to community self-determination, real-estate savvy, and productive diplomacy with government — is the art of sustaining a community land trust. Perhaps it also constitutes the contemporary practice of citizenship.