How Community Land Trusts Can Advance Racial and Economic Justice

An Expert Q&A

Neighborhood “revitalization” that spurs private real estate investment in disinvested neighborhoods has, both intentionally and not, contributed to gentrification and displacement in low-income communities. To combat these consequences, practitioners increasingly use community land trusts (CLT) as a tool to concentrate community control and protect against low-income resident displacement.

CLTs are nonprofit, community-based organizations governed by a board of residents and public representatives that work to ensure community-held decisionmaking and shared equity homeownership opportunities. CLTs acquire and secure property with a renewable ground lease and ensure housing affordability in perpetuity. This provides a powerful platform for wealth building and family stability. Importantly, CLTs shift leadership, power, and decisionmaking to residents and help equip communities with the resources to weather the potential impacts of nearby gentrification, such as displacement and sociocultural alienation.

We spoke with Tony Pickett, chief executive officer of the Grounded Solutions Network, to learn more about how CLTs can be used as a mechanism to ensure long-term affordability in gentrification-prone areas, promote inclusive community development, and advance racial and economic justice.

In your article (PDF) with Emily Thaden, you suggest CLTs can help combat “political displacement.” Could you elaborate on how the governance structure of CLTs contributes to advancing racial and economic justice?

The CLT model was intentionally created and first implemented during the late 1960s by African American leaders in rural Albany, Georgia, who were responding to the harsh reality of oppression, violence, and eviction endured by Black tenant farmers across the American South. The historic roots of the CLT model are intimately linked with the goals of the national civil rights movement: supporting African American families to own and control land, achieve greater economic security, and fully exercise their legal voting rights without obstruction. Today’s model is based on nonprofit organizations serving as the vehicles for collective community ownership of land, governed by a board of directors, including community resident representation. Modern CLT organizations are part of a broader shared-equity housing sector typically developing, selling, and stewarding affordable homes that provide security and stability for low- and moderate-income families. A 2019 study of shared equity housing performance includes evidence that CLT homes (which comprised 73 percent of the over 4,000 homes analyzed) significantly contribute to family wealth creation and are increasingly serving families of color, with the potential to narrow the racial wealth gap.

How can CLTs mitigate not only gentrification risks but also the unexpected consequences of neighborhood revitalization?

The intentional targeting of new public/private real estate investments to catalyze neighborhood revitalization often attracts new, higher-income residents, bringing upscale commercial businesses, higher rents, increased home-sale prices, and escalating property tax values. While such changes are considered desirable by some, they are most typically detrimental to communities of color, often leading to physical displacement and undesired cultural shifts. CLTs provide permanently affordable housing to ensure existing community residents who have endured the challenges of intentional disinvestment have options to remain in their neighborhoods, benefiting from revitalization activities and new investment with a powerful voice in the ongoing decision making shaping their communities.

Designed to be multifaceted, a CLT can ensure that both homeownership and rental opportunities are accessible while making sure that the mix of commercial and community spaces serve new and old residents alike.

However, the key to all of this is collective land ownership—at scale. CLTs are most impactful when they can steward land on behalf of the community for the uses desired by a majority of local residents. Examples of CLTs partnering with cities to vision, plan, and implement revitalization strategies that prevent displacement are evident in areas such as Buffalo and Houston.

What are some other ways to shift land-use decisionmaking power to people with a stake in the decisions but limited financial capital?

Many communities and neighborhoods of color are often perceived as inferior and in need of revitalization. However, we now know the public policies shaping development in these areas historically, intentionally, and systematically devalued them. While the power of strong public-private partnerships is well understood, there is an urgent need for public-private-community partnerships that define and prioritize informed decisionmaking by community residents who have been most impacted by the historically racist, exclusionary policies. This new partnership approach represents a profound, systemic change, requiring diligent efforts to take the time to build trust and promote healing conversations. Grounded Solutions currently has two national signature program initiatives piloting a shift toward a new partnership approach: ForEveryoneHome in San Antonio, Indianapolis, and Winston-Salem and the Catalytic Land Cohort Initiative in Atlanta, Houston, and Portland.

Early potential lessons from our work include using a racial equity lens to evaluate possible land-use planning outcomes, balance the composition of executive decisionmaking tables, and prioritize community development activities designed by and for people of color.

What are the biggest challenges you see in expanding the use of CLTs over the next decade?

Scaling the proven success of shared equity housing models is the primary challenge Grounded Solutions will work to address in the years ahead. The next decade will be particularly significant as we strive to expand the capacity of our shared equity housing sector. While the hard work, commitment, and success of our member organizations benefit approximately 255,000 families today, the limited number of shared equity technical experts remains a significant constraint on increasing the scale of our impact toward reducing the racial wealth gap.

CLTs will also require significant, new, dedicated financial resources from a combination of both public and private sources to assist some portion of the estimated 18 million families currently paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing. Promising, innovative, large-scale CLT efforts are emerging across the nation in places such as Houston, Texas, and most recently, Tampa, Florida.

What policies and strategies can local, state, and federal governments undertake to position themselves as meaningful partners for CLTs and related agencies?

Foundationally, local, state, and federal governments can support and expand community land trust activities by removing regulatory barriers. Government housing policies should specifically encourage and prioritize lasting affordability by offering preference or greater funding to nonprofits utilizing shared equity models, including community land trusts. For example, the City of Boulder’s permanently affordable home program requires lasting affordability. At the state level, affordable housing Qualified Allocation Plans, including in DC and Massachusetts, award additional points for low income housing tax credit applicants who commit to an affordability period longer than 30 years.

When these incentives are available, we find there is a shift in the number of units produced and systems developed that are supportive of community land trusts and lasting affordability models. Cities can also be supportive of CLTs in exploring initial feasibility, business planning, and growth, becoming critical partners themselves and using their influence to broker partnerships with private-sector financing entities.

For more information on CLTs, visit the Grounded Solutions Network’s resource library.  

Photo by David Harmantas/Shutterstock