By Abigail Savitch-Lew
Across New York State, millions of tenants are at risk of eviction and property values are falling. A recent analysis found that New York City renters in neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19—largely Black and Latinx communities—face nearly four times the number of eviction cases as less hard-hit areas. Local housing justice advocates fear a repeat of the 2008 housing crisis, when properties fell into distress and investors bought up 100,000 rental units across New York City, which, advocates say, led to displacement and worsened living conditions for many tenants.
Against this backdrop, advocates and some New York City councilmembers are calling for a bold possible solution: supporting efforts to turn the land that buildings sit on over to residents, and create more social housing—housing as a social good instead of as an investment vehicle.
“The pandemic is likely to exacerbate the predatory real estate activity as private financial actors look to take advantage of the real estate down cycle and residents’ increased economic vulnerability,” Debra Ack, a board member of Brooklyn’s new East New York Community Land Trust, said at a City Council hearing in January. “We need the City Council to take bold action to create this real social housing in New York City, and that means prioritizing [community land trusts] when it comes to land disposition.”
Typically, a property owner owns both the land and the buildings that sit on it; a community land trust (CLT) separates the two. The CLT, a nonprofit organization, maintains permanent ownership of the land and enters into long-term ground leases with building owners. Many CLTs are governed by a board that includes residents of the buildings, people who live in the surrounding neighborhood, and other stakeholders such as elected officials, funders, or non-profit leaders. This arrangement gives the CLT, not developers, the power to ensure permanent affordability and to say what the land is used for, and ensures local control while also balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders. CLTs typically obtain property with government funds, foundation grants, or private donations, or by forming agreements with local governments to take over vacant land or distressed buildings.
In recent years, community groups in New York City have formed over a dozen new CLTs, but most of these have yet to acquire land. Advocates are calling for a range of government policies that would more rapidly steer properties owned by the city and private entities into CLT control.
CLTs have been around since the 1960s, but the model has been growing in popularity in recent years: Between 2005 and 2020, the number of community land trusts in the country grew from 112 to 277, though many new ones remain small because of limited funding. As reported by Jacobin, an increasing number of progressive lawmakers across the nation are questioning the country’s prevailing method of building housing for poor and middle class families, which entails giving tax incentives to for-profit developers. Polls show that, just as the majority of Americans favor a “public option” for health insurance, they also favor a “public option” for housing.
“We feel like there’s a moment where there’s more recognition than ever of the need to pursue really bold strategies like community land trusts that get at the root causes of neighborhood inequality and housing insecurity,” says Deyanira Del Rio, co-director of New Economy Project and a board member of the New York City Community Land Initiative, an alliance of groups committed to advancing CLTs and housing justice.
The City Council has already taken steps to support the city’s growing CLT movement, including allocating funds for the past two years for CLT capacity building, community organizing, and legal and technical assistance.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has funneled grant funds to a CLT capacity building initiative, appointed a director of CLT initiatives to the city’s housing agency, and released a call for information about different types of shared equity models, among other efforts. In February 2020, the administration also committed to “include enough City owned land to gain over 3,000 units of community owned or shared equity housing.” According to city officials, projects including roughly 1,000 units have closed or are in a predevelopment stage, and more projects are set to close in coming years. (One advocate who met with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation told me that the city’s numbers include the existing CLT units that the city is helping to preserve.)
“New York City is deeply invested in creating pathways for nonprofits, MWBEs [minority and women-owned businesses] and various mission-driven groups, like CLTs, to acquire and build affordable housing. Their partnerships are an ever-expanding part of the City’s affordable housing pipeline,” Jeremy House, a representative for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, wrote in an email.
It remains unclear, however, exactly how quickly the city will complete these potential projects, and advocates say they will continue to pressure the city to meet and exceed the 3,000 unit target, to prioritize CLTs for subsidy that reaches the lowest incomes, for funds to support land acquisition, and to transfer public land to CLTs for both housing and non-housing purposes.
A number of mayoral candidates are already making CLTs a part of their campaign platforms, and advocates hope that the new City Council members, who will be elected in November, will make CLTs a significant part of a pandemic recovery plan. Alongside this, advocates are pushing for a range of bills they believe will facilitate community control of land.
First, advocates want a revamp of the city’s municipal tax debt collection system. Under current policy, the city sells property owners’ municipal tax debts to investors, who then tax indebted owners at interest rates of up to 18 percent. Advocates say the policy exacerbates gentrification and the racial wealth gap by pushing low-income Black and Latinx homeowners into foreclosure or into selling to house flippers.
Under a possible reform outlined by the New York City Community Land Initiative, the city would waive those debts if a homeowner sells their land to a CLT. Homeowners would have to abide by the CLT’s affordability rules, but they would remain homeowners and would not be displaced. After significant advocacy, the City Council passed a bill in January that will renew the existing policy for only one year and also launch a task force to consider future reforms, including the possibility of transferring delinquent properties to community land trusts.
Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn has also proposed a bill to create a land bank—an entity that would acquire, hold, and transfer property to facilitate the development and preservation of affordable housing. Lander, who is running for city comptroller, says on his campaign website that the land bank could help facilitate the transfer of tax-delinquent buildings to CLTs, and it could also allow the city to acquire other distressed properties, like hotels shuttering as a result of the pandemic, and transfer them to CLTs and other nonprofits before predatory investors scoop them up.
Another related bill would require the city to give priority to reputable nonprofits that are dedicated to permanent affordability when it seeks to develop its own land with affordable housing. Advocates are generally supportive of these two bills and hope these efforts can be expanded to include the transfer of property to CLTs for non-housing purposes.
The CLT movement is also calling for the passage of the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), which would require landlords to inform the city, as well as a list of nonprofits, CLTs, and other qualified mission-driven groups, when they are selling residential buildings. Those groups would have about four months to offer a buying price, and although the landlord would still be able to refuse the offer and seek a higher bid, the nonprofits would be given the opportunity to match new offers. Advocates are also pushing for the passage of the statewide legislation Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which would give building tenants a similar right to make a first offer. Similar legislation is already in effect in San Francisco and in Washington, D.C., and several cities are considering adopting TOPA-like bills. New York City advocates are also calling for boosted funding to help nonprofits purchase and rehabilitate buildings, as well as for $1.51 million from the City Council discretionary fund this year to help CLTs organize, educate community members, and obtain legal and technical support.
Advocates say these efforts are part of a larger movement for “housing justice, economic democracy and racial equity,” which they hope to be adopted in tandem with cuts to the NYPD budget, rent and mortgage cancellation for the duration of the pandemic, relief funds for nonprofit housing and small landlords, and more. Yet for-profit real estate actors have criticized some of the bills that give priority to community land trusts and nonprofits.
“Private developers are better equipped to navigate the myriad of complexities that arise in renovating tenanted properties, and we fail to see why New York City would want to limit the pool of qualified developers who are able to assist in preserving and increasing affordable housing throughout New York City,” the Real Estate Board of New York wrote in a recent testimony against the land bank bill. The board also called COPA “an over reach into private property transactions,” among other criticisms.
While CLTs are often primarily focused on creating permanently affordable homeownership opportunities, they are also used to fulfill other local needs, including rental housing, green space, or community and commercial facilities.
When Raymond Figueroa Reyes, an organizer in the South Bronx, learned that his borough had the highest COVID-19 morbidity rate in New York State, he knew this didn’t happen by accident. It was, he said, the result of “a cumulative history of land-use decision-making over decades that has resulted in generational, disproportionate environmental health disparities.” Prior to the pandemic, the Melrose, Mott Haven and Port Morris sections of the South Bronx, which are 97 percent Black and Latinx, had some of New York City’s worst health outcomes. The rate of diabetes here is almost twice that of the city at large; emergency hospital visits related to childhood asthma are nearly three times as common.
Organizers have long strived to address the hazardous environment of the South Bronx—the industrial facilities and the tangled maze of transportation arteries. They’ve fought against policy decisions that they argued would worsen pollution and block access to the waterfront, and they’ve organized many community gardens. In recent years, with rents rising and real estate developers flocking to the area, many organizers have also been concerned about gentrification, which threatens to displace residents, including those who have worked hard to improve the neighborhood.
“For us, community land trusts are a very visceral response to something that is a function of structural racism playing itself out as we speak,” says Reyes, who is a board member of the South Bronx’s Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, which is seeking to convert an abandoned hospital facility into a center for health, education, and the arts. “If we controlled this land, if we owned this land, we could begin to chart a new way by which the community is developed, the built environment is configured. We could chart a new destiny for our community.”
Now the question, in New York and elsewhere, is whether this growing call for community-controlled development can overcome the still widespread belief that the private sector does things best.
After the economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s, when the city grappled with widespread property abandonment, activists in Lower Manhattan took hold of foreclosed properties and later established Cooper Square CLT, the city’s most established community land trust, which today still stewards more than 320 permanently affordable homes as well as storefronts for local small businesses. These days, however, much of the city’s land has been privatized. In addition, nonprofit development organizations say they’ve been sidelined by recent mayoral administrations in favor of partnerships with for-profit affordable housing development companies.
“There’s going to be resistance to these ideas—I don’t think there’s really any question to that,” says Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “But I also think that we cannot let it stop us from working to transform what it means for communities of color to own, and to be in the driver’s seat of our community’s development and destiny.”