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Next City: NYC Opens Door Wide to Community Land Trusts

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By Oscar Perry Abello

Second-generation NYC resident Rosa Custodio was born at Metropolitan Hospital Center, on First Avenue in East Harlem. Growing up on East 103rd Street, Custodio and her sisters sometimes slept out on the fire escape on hot summer weekends, blankets and pillows and all. They weren’t the only ones.

“From First Avenue to Second Avenue, the whole block it was like that. All the parents made sure we were safe, that nothing happened to us,” she remembers.

Her father worked in a coat factory, and sometimes brought home coats for his daughters. Her mother got help from a program to send Custodio to private boarding school at St. Dominic’s School, in Blauvelt, New York. “My mother wanted us to have our education, because she couldn’t have hers,” says Custodio, who has worked as a medical assistant and also a case manager for a Head Start program.

Custodio has raised four kids of her own in East Harlem. One time, after a family dispute, Custodio found herself homeless with a 2-month-old child. She had a job, had income, but just needed to move right away. The homeless spell only lasted two weeks, but it stayed with her. “The title ‘homeless’ puts people down, I don’t like it,” she says. “Some of them are ex-teachers, ex-counselors, some of them had jobs, some of them still have jobs … . You don’t know their situation.”

Worried about the city’s homelessness and affordable housing crises, and how they’re connected to speculative developers harassing tenants out of affordable housing units, Custodio is now active in organizing for permanently affordable housing, as a founding board member of the East Harlem-El Barrio Community Land Trust. It’s one of a citywide network of groups that is feverishly working to finalize and submit a response to a new request for expressions of interest (RFEI) from the city to identify qualified groups that are interested in forming a community land trust (CLT).

CLTs are community-controlled organizations formed to take collective ownership of land and shape development on that land in a way that reflects the needs and wishes of a community. They are often formed to protect housing affordability, by either placing rent restrictions on any buildings built on CLT-owned land or limiting resale value of homes or condominiums. NYC has one land trust in full operation, the Cooper Square CLT, which formed to protect affordability of residences, workspaces and community spaces on the Lower East Side.

“We need more protection for buildings, protecting our friends and our family to stay in the community if they want to, especially from new developers [from outside the community] who come in just to invest and make money,” Custodio says. “If you look along Third Avenue, there’s a lot of warehousing. Storefronts open at the bottom, but above, no tenants.”

East Harlem-El Barrio CLT wants to preserve or develop quality, safe housing that is affordable for very low and extremely low-income people who currently live in East Harlem, where the median household income is around $33,500 a year. Even as the city makes headlines for building the most affordable housing units in one year since 1989, it still faces criticism from advocates that units built aren’t affordable enough, especially in East Harlem, where nearly half of residents spend more than 30 percent of their monthly gross income on rent. One big elephant in the room: Because of expiring subsidies or other regulatory mechanisms, East Harlem could lose between 200 and 500 affordable housing units a year over the next 30 years, according to a report from the Regional Plan Association. There are currently about 56,000 units of affordable housing in East Harlem, according to the report.

“If [NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development or HPD] has been criticized for anything under the Bill de Blasio administration, it has been that it hasn’t been creating enough housing at the very low-income end,” says John Krinsky, a founding board member of the NYC Community Land Initiative (NYC CLI), an alliance of affordable housing and social justice organizations that advocates for community land trusts as a mechanism to create deeply and permanently affordable, community-controlled housing.

After numerous meetings with NYC CLI (pronounced “nicely”), East Harlem-El Barrio CLT and others, HPD recognizes the possibility that CLTs could plug in gaps in its current affordable housing programs, such as lower affordability levels. The first strategic goal in the RFEI: “Design a CLT model that improves upon, or fills a gap in, the City’s existing affordable housing programs.”

“The city is recognizing that CLTs can be a really valuable tool for its housing program,” says Deyanira Del Rio, another NYC CLI board member and co-director of the New Economy Project.

At a pre-submission conference on Jan. 27, Matthew Murphy, HPD assistant commissioner for strategic planning, walked through the RFEI in a room with Custodio, Krinsky, Del Rio and close to a hundred other residents, community development groups, NYC CLI members, and lawyers. Murphy encouraged any group, no matter how informal, to submit a response. Groups do not have to have a nonprofit registered as a CLT, nor even a formal board. He explained that HPD is looking for a landscape of where people are in this process, given the flurry of interest in CLTs that has spiked in recent years.

NYC CLI has cultivated much of that interest, holding numerous organizing meetings and other public gatherings since forming in 2013. It even created a board game, Trustville, to simulate the process of organizing a CLT.

East Harlem-El Barrio CLT has been a NYC CLI pilot project to incubate a neighborhood-based CLT focused on extremely low-income housing. Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization created and controlled by homeless and formerly homeless individuals, helped found NYC CLI, and serves as a community organizing lead partner for East Harlem-El Barrio CLT.

“With the RFEI being released, this is a very exciting time for all the organizations and community members in EH that have advocated for a CLT for years now,” says Marie Winfield, East Harlem resident and board chair of East Harlem-El Barrio CLT. “The RFEI represents a really great opportunity to formalize all of the discussions we’ve been having.”

The RFEI deadline for submissions is Feb. 28, after which HPD says it will “take the spring” to look at responses and begin shaping a program to work with CLTs. Without knowing more from the submissions, Murphy declined to narrow down what the outcome of the RFEI process could look like. It could be anything, from a specific request for proposals to work with HPD on transferring one or more city-owned properties into a CLT for development, to a program to build the capacity of CLTs to participate in such an opportunity when the time arises, or both.

One thing was clear: Although CLTs are applicable for non-residential development, and there are groups in NYC interested in exploring that as well, HPD’s RFEI is focused on housing, as it would not be able to conduct an RFP that did not have housing as a major component.

So far, in just a few weeks, the RFEI has sparked new and renewed interest in organizing around CLTs in NYC. Since the announcement, NYC CLI has fielded multiple requests for organizing support.

“It’s reinforcing and reenergizing,” Del Rio says.