To Keep Housing Affordable, Support Community Land Trusts

By Deyanira Del Rio

This piece was originally published by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs

In her State of the City address last week, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called for an additional $4 billion in next year’s City budget for affordable housing, nearly tripling Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed investment.

As rents skyrocket and New Yorkers brace for an onslaught of evictions, the City must invest not only in affordable housing creation, but also in proven strategies to combat speculation and displacement – including community land trusts (CLTs).

CLTs are community-controlled nonprofits that permanently remove land and housing from the speculative market. Through CLTs, communities own land in common and ensure that it is used to provide permanently affordable housing and other local needs. CLTs engage neighborhood residents in development and stewardship of land and in ongoing, intergenerational organizing to build power and collective community wealth.

Cities across the U.S. are increasingly turning to CLTs to stabilize and protect public investment in affordable housing. Spurred by local activists, New York City has funded CLT organizing and technical assistance over the past three years, helping catalyze CLTs in Black, brown and immigrant neighborhoods across the five boroughs. CLTs are now at the forefront of campaigns to bring vacant land into productive use, fight speculation, and keep New Yorkers safely housed.

It’s time for New York City to double down on its investment, by increasing funding for CLTs and passing legislation to give communities democratic control of land.

Rooted in civil rights struggles in the South, CLTs provide a form of collective land ownership that can meet an array of needs and serve as a bulwark against speculation and displacement. CLTs are governed by boards composed of CLT residents and members of the surrounding community, as well as public representatives and other stakeholders. Together, they decide how the CLT will acquire and develop land to meet community needs.

CLTs issue ground leases to property owners on CLT land that lock in affordability and resale restrictions. In this way, CLTs protect public subsidies and ensure that housing stays affordable over generations.

Cooper Square CLT on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for example, has preserved more than 320 deeply affordable apartments for households earning 26-36 percent of area median income – as well as two dozen storefronts for mom-and-pop businesses – over decades, in a neighborhood with rising rents.

A few years ago, just two CLTs operated in New York City. Today, upward of 18 CLTs (and counting) are organizing across the five boroughs.

In the South Bronx, the Mott Haven Port Morris Community Land Stewards is working to transform a vacant City-owned building into a community center providing health, education, and arts programming.

Queens activists who defeated Amazon’s planned Long Island City headquarters have formed the Western Queens CLT with a community-driven plan to bring affordable manufacturing and arts space, urban agriculture, and more to the same site (pictured above).

The East Harlem El Barrio CLT, organized by homeless New Yorkers and activists, recently secured its first properties from the City – four multifamily buildings that will be converted to mutual housing for 36 low-income households and people experiencing homelessness.

And the East New York CLT, formed during the pandemic, has surveyed 250 vacant lots, released its first Black paper arguing for the redistribution of NYPD-controlled land, and waged a campaign to protect Black homeownership by abolishing the City’s notorious tax lien sale, the practice of selling off property tax debts to private investors.

These and a dozen other CLTs have come together through the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI) to support each other’s work, build citywide power, and advance a set of policy demands to expand CLTs and the supply of non-speculative housing.

The coalition, which New Economy Project co-facilitates, has laid out a bold agenda, calling on the City Council and Mayor to:

  • Fund CLT organizing and technical support at $3 million in the City’s budget, and increase subsidies to help CLTs reach deeper affordability levels and fulfill their anti-displacement mission.
  • Pass the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), to curb speculative sales and expand tenant- and community-controlled housing. Modeled on similar policies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., COPA would give CLTs and other nonprofits a first right to purchase multi-unit buildings when landlords sell.
  • Prioritize CLTs and other nonprofits when the City sells or transfers public land for affordable housing, commercial development, or other use.
  • Replace the City’s tax lien sale with a preservation system that uses CLTs to stabilize tax-distressed properties and keep homeowners in place.

Throughout the pandemic, CLTs have ramped up their organizing to stabilize housing and advance a just recovery. The City Council and Mayor must step up to support this vital work.

New York City’s housing and land disposition policies have long favored large for-profit developers and accelerated market-rate development in low-income neighborhoods of color. Public subsidies have too often generated so-called affordable housing that is out of reach for most neighborhood residents, fueling displacement of low-income New Yorkers from their communities and networks of support.

That’s why we are calling for community-driven solutions, like CLTs, and policymaking that removes land and housing from the speculative market, for good.