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The Awl: The Ungentrifiers

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The Awl

By Brendan O’Connor

In 1959, the Cooper Square Committee formed to organize against Robert Moses’ plan to tear down the twelve blocks in the East Village, which was at the time a low-income neighborhood, from Delancey Street to 9th Street, from Second Avenue to the Bowery, thereby displacing some twenty-four hundred tenants, four hundred and fifty furnished room occupants, four thousand homeless people, and five hundred businesses. The buildings would have been replaced with nearly three thousand units of cooperative housing, which have been affordable to just seven percent of the people living in the neighborhood at the time. In 1961, activists like Walter Thabit and Frances Goldin formulated the Alternate Plan for Cooper Square. “A renewal effort has to be conceived as a process of building on the inherent social and economic values of a local community. Neglecting these values through programs of massive clearance and redevelopment can disrupt an entire community,” the plan begins. “The physical improvements which will attract a higher income group must—first of all—benefit those affected by the program, not cause them to suffer from it.”

Thirty-five years later, after many legal and legislative battles, the Cooper Square Committee incorporated as a community land trust and mutual housing association. Basically, what this does is remove a given parcel of land (and the housing built upon that land) from the wider real estate market, thereby preserving its affordability. The land trust and the housing association are two separate, legal entities comprising building residents and neighborhood stakeholders. A community land trust is a non-profit organization that treats land as a public good; a mutual housing association is a non-profit organization that manages the housing that is built on that land. John Davis of the National Housing institute explains the dual-ownership model thus:

One party holds the deed to a parcel of land; another party holds the deed to a residential building located upon that land… Although CLTs do not resell their land, they provide for the exclusive use of their land by the owners of the buildings located thereon. Parcels of land are conveyed to individual homeowners (or to the owners of other types of residential or commercial structures) through a ground lease. This lease typically runs for ninety-nine years, unless a shorter term is required by state law. The lease is renewable and inheritable, giving homeowners (and their heirs) an exclusive right to occupy the land on which their homes are located.

The New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI; pronounced “nicely”) is an alliance of organizations, led primarily by the New Economy Project and Picture the Homeless, that is working to establish community land trusts and mutual housing associations throughout the city, beginning in East Harlem—a desirable neighborhood for developers that also has a relatively high proportion of vacant plots and residential buildings that the city has acquired by tax lien. “Some of these buildings have a lot of untapped resources. We think that if they were given the support that they need from a community land trust and a mutual housing association, other buildings that may be doing well, that they could be brought up to be in much better shape, essentially,” Monica Garcia, of the New Economy Project, told me. “Really the idea is that if these buildings come together and at least some of them form this large scale co-op or a mutual housing association that they can create economies of scale, that they can cross-subsidize.” She emphasized, “The idea is that we want to take this housing out of the real estate market indefinitely.”

What NYCCLI is doing in East Harlem—which already has a long history of anti-gentrification activism—is a pilot project: Activists and organizers are knocking on doors, talking to residents about what is happening the neighborhood (“In the next five years, we will invest $75 million to connect East Harlem to the Upper East Side,” one developer told the New York Times), and explaining how incorporating as a community land trust and a mutual housing association can preserve the neighborhood’s affordability. “We essentially are doing grassroots organizing: going into community meetings, speaking with as many residents in those buildings that have already shown some interest, and making sure that the entire building is on board, so we’re not just talking to one person who thinks it’s a great idea,” Garcia said. “We really want to have the full buy-in consent and awareness from the entire building, that they understand what the option is and that they feel like it’s a good one for their building.”

Some of the buildings that NYCCLI has approached are low-income co-op buildings incorporated under the Housing Development Fund Corporation, acquired by the city through foreclosure and then sold to community groups for rehabilitation. Known as HDFCs, these buildings are already owned by their shareholders; other buildings are owned by the city. (If you are a bad landlord, for example, and you don’t pay your taxes, eventually the city will take your building away from you.) The city, however, is bad at building management, and generally looks to unload such properties, either through programs like the Tenant Interim Lease program (these buildings are called TILs) or the Affordable Neighborhood Cooperative Program (ANCPs), which is good for the neighborhood, as it encourages rehabilitation and community ownership amongst people who are already there, or by selling the tax lien on to investors, which is bad for the neighborhood. Claudia Wilner, who works on policy at the New Economy Project, told me that NYCCLI is focusing on figuring out ways to create a pipeline so that the city can feed these kinds of properties into a community land trust. “It’s definitely in the city’s interest to give the building to the trust,” Wilner said. “Selling liens to investors does not help create affordable housing or improve conditions.”

In both Moore and Garcia’s estimation, most community land trusts elsewhere in the country focus on preserving ownership of single-family homes. Which is important! But New York is a city of renters and of gaping inequality. “We want to focus on reaching the most marginalized, with the least amount of means,” Garcia said. “That definitely includes currently homeless people as well as those who are seniors, who have shrinking incomes, that are just receiving social security benefits, for example, or disability, and also those who are making slightly more money but are still very very low on that income pay scale.” She added, “One of the things we’re looking at is the amount of vacant land that is in East Harlem. So it’s important for us not to just look at existing buildings that people are already living in, but, if we want to include people who are homeless, we need to have units where they can move in.”

Picture the Homeless’ office happens to be in East Harlem, where Moore is involved in community outreach; he commutes there from Far Rockaway, where he lives, and where he was also recently involved in organizing a workshop for residents who were interested in organizing a land trust. “We’re in New York City. Real estate is serious business in New York City,” he said, with a raised eyebrow. “I always felt like community land trusts is revolutionary because you can’t make a killing by selling the units… Whatever guidelines that’s in the package of the community land trust, you’re gonna have to follow it. And try to make money off it like it’s the private market, how you can go and sell your apartment, make money off your apartment, sell your brownstone, and make a killing—it’s not gonna happen with a community land trust. It keeps it affordable for the next person.”

“Communities gonna start fighting back for their community. It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “People are waking up. Maybe not as fast as we want them to, but they are waking up.” He went on: “And those that’s waking up is gonna let those that don’t know, listen, we been doing this for a while. This is it. You gotta get on board with this here. They gonna wake up eventually.”