From NYC to California, Communities Take Control of Land

Scenes from a recent virtual learning exchange with the California CLT Network


This is the second in a series of reports on exchanges with community land trusts across the U.S. Read more about our visits with CLTs in Boston and Seattle.

From coast to coast, a growing number of community land trusts (CLTs) are creating deeply-affordable housing, preventing displacement, and advancing self-determination in Black and brown communities. As the COVID-19 crisis exacerbates racial and economic inequality, and leaves millions at risk of eviction and homelessness, this work is more urgent than ever.

New Economy Project is organizing a series of learning exchanges to deepen learning and collaboration among mission-aligned CLTs in New York City and across the country. Recently, we teamed up with T.R.U.S.T. South LA to host a virtual exchange with members of the NYC Community Land Initiative and California CLT Network. During the discussion, groups shared their strategies to combat speculation, reclaim land and housing for community needs, and center CLTs in just recovery efforts.

California CLTs shared exciting examples of direct action:

  • Oakland CLT uplifted the work of Moms4Housing, which last year took over a vacant home in West Oakland and demanded that it be turned over to the community. The Moms brought national attention to the city’s housing and homelessness crisis, and helped the Oakland CLT raise cash donations to purchase and rehab the home. “It was all organizing,” said Steve King of the CLT. “It’s a catalyzing event for us and hopefully for other CLTs.”
  • Inspired by the Moms4Housing victory, community members in El Sereno, Los Angeles helped move two dozen homeless families into vacant homes, in the spring of 2020. Eddie Torres of El Sereno Land Trust explained that the homes were among hundreds of boarded-up properties owned by California’s transportation department. The CLT has negotiated the transfer of 23 homes to the City of Los Angeles, with 40 more homes in discussion. The City will eventually transfer the homes to the CLT for long-term stewardship. In the meantime, the City is recognizing the formerly homeless families as tenants, allowing them to remain safely housed during the COVID pandemic.
  • Farther south, THRIVE Santa Ana recently acquired its first plot of land from the City of Santa Ana, after a multiyear campaign by community members. Lucero Garcia described the CLT’s plans to develop a micro-farm that will grow and distribute fresh produce, promote food and environmental justice, and partner with a worker co-op to provide jobs and training to community members.

NYC groups described a new crop of CLTs organizing across NYC, rooted in movements for housing justice and economic democracy:

  • Edward Garcia of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition and Jessica Clemente of We Stay/Nos Quedamos spoke about Bronx housing victories achieved through tenant organizing, squatting, and sweat equity programs in the 1970s and 1980s, through which community members rehabilitated abandoned buildings into affordable cooperatives. Ultimately, NWBCCC and We Stay/Nos Quedamos came to see the absence of community ownership as a missed opportunity. Drawing on these lessons and years of organizing and community planning in the Bronx, both organizations are developing CLTs to support community-controlled housing, commercial and retail space, green infrastructure, and more.
  • Similarly, Cypress Hills LDC launched its CLT effort in East New York, Brooklyn, after decades of work on housing and neighborhood development. “It was disturbing to see that deeply-affordable condos that CHLDC built in the 1980s are now being sold for close to $1 million,” said Hannah Anousheh, who is helping organize an independent East New York CLT. “East New York is one of the last bastions of low- and moderate-income Black and brown homeownership in NYC, but we’re seeing that threatened by predatory real estate.”
  • NYC’s veteran Cooper Square CLT has preserved hundreds of deeply-affordable apartments and dozens of retail storefronts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for nearly 30 years. Ryan Hickey described the CLT’s continued growth and its work to deepen intergenerational tenant leadership and decision-making. Cooper Square is also mentoring new CLTs — including the East Harlem El Barrio CLT, which grew out of organizing by Picture the Homeless with support from NYCCLI, and is now in the process of acquiring its first four City-owned multifamily properties for deeply-affordable, community-controlled housing.

CLT organizers discussed the need for comprehensive public policy and funding support. NYC groups described how they secured groundbreaking City Council discretionary funding to bolster grassroots CLT organizing, education and technical assistance. Local organizing has also generated support from NYS’s Attorney General; and a commitment by Mayor de Blasio to transfer public land to CLTs.

Both New York and California CLTs talked about their work to advance state and local Opportunity to Purchase legislation. An important policy tool gaining momentum across the country, Opportunity to Purchase preserves affordable housing by giving tenants and community organizations a first right of refusal when a landlord plans to sell a multifamily building. Coupled with meaningful subsidy, the legislation could go far to curb speculation and channel affordable housing to CLTs and others for permanent affordability.

Thank you to members of the California CLT Network and NYCCLI for this exciting conversation!

Participating organizations:

• Brownsville CLT
• Center for NYC Neighborhoods
• NY City College
• Community Service Society
• Cooper Square CLT
• East Harlem El Barrio CLT
• East New York CLT
• El Sereno Land Trust
• Fideicomiso de Tierra Comunitaria Tierra Libre
• Hester Street
• Liberty CLT
• Mott Haven Port Morris Community Land Stewards
• Northern California CLT
• Northern Manhattan CLT
• Nothwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition
• Oakland CLT
• Picture the Homeless
• Sacramento CLT
• SOMOS Mayfair
• TakeRoot Justice
• THRIVE Santa Ana
• T.R.U.S.T South LA
• We Stay/Nos Quedamos

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