In the News




City Limits: City Dips Toe Into Funding Community Land Trusts

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By Abigail Savitch-Lew

Four New York City groups will receive a total of $1.65 million in funds from state bank settlements to assist in the development or expansion of community land trusts, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced today. It’s a small amount of money, but many hope it is a first step toward supporting a stronger community land trust movement.

The groups receiving funding include Interboro CLT, a new partnership of organizations dedicated to creating affordable homeownership opportunities; Cooper Square CLT, the only long-established community land trust in the city; the up-and-coming East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust and the New York City Community Land Initiative, which will provide learning opportunities to a variety of newly budding community land trusts.

A community land trust is a community-governed, nonprofit entity that sells the housing or other buildings on its property but retains ownership of the land. Advocates say the unique ownership structure helps ensure the buildings remain permanently affordable and that decisions about the building are made democratically.

Community organizations have long called for greater support for community land trusts, and in January HPD indicated cautious interest in the model by releasing a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), asking groups to explain their community land trust initiatives and what kind of support they needed.

HPD used the responses to the RFEI to apply to Enterprise Community Partner’s Community Land Trust Capacity Building Initiative, a grant program funded by bank settlements negotiated by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Enterprise is awarding a total of $3.5 million for community land trust initiatives in New York City, Albany, Suffolk County and Nassau County.

Cities applying to the program had to describe community land trust initiatives in their areas that would primarily serve homeowners making no more than 120 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) ($103,080 for a family of three in New York City) or tenants making no more than 80 percent of AMI ($68,720 for a family of three in the city). Many of the advocates involved in the community land trust movement in the city have in the past advocated for, and will likely aim to serve, tenants and homeowners making even lower incomes.

“Community-driven solutions are at the heart of Housing New York, and our efforts to secure affordability in neighborhoods from East Harlem to Edgemere require a robust set of tools and a diverse group of partners able to build and preserve affordable housing,” said HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer in a press release. “We are grateful to Enterprise for helping us to expand the use of Community Land Trusts to promote affordable homeownership and neighborhood revitalization, among other critical goals of the housing plan.”

Interboro CLT, a new partnership between the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the Mutual Association of New York and Habitat for Humanity, seeks to create affordable homeownership opportunities in southeast Queens, Edgemere, central Brooklyn, and ultimately citywide. There are currently few city programs to ensure single-family homes remain permanently affordable, so HPD has expressed particular interest in exploring the use of CLTs in this area. HPD notes that the funding will also “advance of the goals of the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, which was to identify city-owned sites in the neighborhood that could be developed by a CLT.” That plan includes flood protections, housing development and investments in a Sandy-hit part of the Rockaways.

Cooper Square, which has owned and stewarded buildings on the Lower East Side for over 20 years, is trying to expand its portfolio to other buildings in the neighborhood, while the East Harlem/El Barrio CLT, in collaboration with the nonprofit developer Banana Kelly, is in the process of acquiring buildings in East Harlem. So far, the tenants at three Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) buildings (buildings owned by the city that have had difficulty converting into co-ops) have petitioned to join the CLT.

According to the press release, “over the next 24 months, grants will fund operations and start-up support as well as capital projects.” Of course, the funds would only be enough to pay down a very small percentage of development costs—with a great deal more needed to acquire, rehabilitate, and subsidize properties.

A variety of other groups also responded to the RFEI but are not receiving funding directly. HPD is concerned that some of these groups may lack “the skillset needed to successfully complete affordable housing developments and general non-profit management,” according to Juliet Morris, a spokesperson for the agency. As a result, they are funding the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), a coalition including the New Economy Project and others, to launch a Learning Exchange that will help nine groups receive technical assistance.

They include CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and Faith in New York in Manhattan, Community Solutions and the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn, Staten Island’s Northfield Community Local Development Corporation, and Mary Mitchell Center, Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and We Stay/Nos Quedamos in the Bronx.

Mychal Johnson, a leader of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards and a NYLCCI board member, says he thinks the training is a good idea, so as to make sure “we’re not just throwing property at organizations and community land trusts but showing them how to manage it.”

“For us this announcement is a great thing,” says the New Economy Project’s Sarah Ludwig of the $1.65 million in funding. “It’s a kind of opening the door to what we hope becomes a much deeper commitment to the whole principle underlying community land trusts”—one, she explains, of taking land out of the private market, developing housing to serve the lowest income New Yorkers, and approaching land use in a way that prioritizes community-control.

Local councilmembers who have been part of the push for community land trusts also herald the news. East Harlem councilmember and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito says that supporting East Harlem’s community land trust “was identified as a priority through the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan process,” a plan created by Mark-Viverito and a steering committee of organizations that is at the heart of the East Harlem rezoning discussions. In the final city budget, Mark-Viverito also allocated $500,000 to the East Harlem/El Barrio CLT to renovate TIL buildings joining the CLT.

Rockaways Councilmember Donovan Richard heralds the announcement as “a victory for our local communities who are normally left without any tools to prevent speculation in their neighborhoods.”

But many groups hope this is just the very beginning of broader support for community land trusts—both from HPD and from other sources. Enterprise’s Elizabeth Zeldin, Senior Program Director at Enterprise says that the seed funding may create pathways to funding for successful initiatives.

“We do want to understand what works, what doesn’t, what are the sticking points, and once those are somewhat ironed out I would hope that community land trusts could probably turn to traditional sources of financing that might right now be hesitant to invest because right now the model is seen as more risky,” she says. Enterprise will also be convening its own statewide learning collaborative to support groups involved in community land trusts.

The Wednesday press release notes that “HPD will continue to dispose of development sites through an open, competitive RFP process, and welcomes CLTs to respond to future RFPs” and that the agency “will work closely with awardees and continue to support the potential for CLT growth in New York City.”