NYC, Repeat After Me: “Community Land Trusts”

Posted by Claudia Wilner

On November 17, affordable housing advocates and developers, community groups, and unions gathered at City Hall for a hearing on the Mayor’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. New Economy Project testified at the hearing on behalf of NYC Community Land Initiative, about why community land trusts should be a key part of the City’s plan.

The hearing opened with lengthy testimony from NYC’s Housing Commissioner Vicki Been, who outlined three key principles underlying the Mayor’s plan — all of which sounded promising: First, an emphasis on local neighborhoods (“the City needs to build not just housing, but neighborhoods”); second, a recognition of the importance of preserving existing affordable housing units (“we can’t just build our way out”); and finally, a renewed focus on meeting the needs of New Yorkers, for example, who are homeless, have extremely low incomes, or who are elderly or disabled.

Given these principles, it is surprising that the City does not do everything possible to promote the creation and development of community land trusts (CLTs).

CLTs are non-profit, democratic, and community-based organizations that offer an alternative vision of land ownership that puts people before profit. CLTs own and manage land for the good of the community, leasing the land to organizations, businesses and individuals, usually for affordable housing and related community-serving uses like green spaces. The CLT’s entire mission is stewardship: to maintain for future generations the quality and affordability of housing on CLT land.

By permanently removing land from the private market, the CLT structure eliminates much of the speculation, profit-seeking and gentrification pressure that drive the increase in housing costs. And by partnering with non-speculative housing providers such as mutual housing associations, a CLT can very competently and effectively provide affordable housing even for people with extremely low incomes. As an example, consider the Cooper Square Land Trust and MHA, which has for decades provided quality housing on the Lower East Side at extremely low cost.

CLTs fulfill all the City’s stated key principles. CLTs are democratically run and community-controlled and allow for neighborhood-led, contextual development. They offer opportunities to preserve existing affordable housing, especially in low-income cooperatives that are at risk of foreclosure. And they can be a source of housing for homeless and extremely low income New Yorkers who are otherwise shut out of the housing market.

This last point alone is reason enough for the City to support community land trusts. At the hearing, Commissioner Been admitted that, out of 10,846 units created or preserved so far under Housing New York, only 27–fewer than 1%–were affordable to extremely low income New Yorkers.

Clearly, the City has no viable plan for housing the poor. But CLTs can help. The New York City Community Land Initiative has launched the East Harlem/El Barrio CLT to create and preserve affordable housing and resist gentrification in East Harlem and to serve as a model for neighborhood-based CLTs citywide.

Incorporating CLTs into the City’s affordable housing plan should be a no-brainer. Read our testimony here.

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