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Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network

Governing land democratically to prevent gentrification and grow the local economy

Background

As gentrification and displacement pressures continue to grow in the Boston region, lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color are looking to advance more systemic solutions. One strategy capturing increasing interest is the community land trust (CLT) model. This form of collective land ownership through a democratically governed community nonprofit takes land off the speculative market and supports community beneficial development. CLTs protect land from the pressures of the real estate market, as the land is never resold. It remains part of the commons.

In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) established a CLT in 1988 during a period of devastating disinvestment. Now, more than thirty years later, it has become the premier example of an urban CLT, owning more than thirty acres of land with 226 units of affordable housing, an urban farm, a greenhouse, a charter school, several parks, and a town common. DSNI’s nationally recognized model has inspired many other CLT efforts, including in other Boston area neighborhoods.

The seeds of the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network (GBCLTN) were sown several years ago when DSNI began to provide technical assistance and support to other organizations in the region interested in learning about and developing CLTs. The board of DSNI’s CLT was interested in promoting the model as a community-controlled means of development without displacement. They also wanted to build political strength to develop more CLT-supportive public policies and resources. DSNI began working with other groups across Boston and Somerville who were interested in using CLTs to address gentrification and displacement and to promote urban farming.

Meetings were convened in early 2015, and the network was publically launched in spring 2016. There are now fourteen member organizations. Of the members, only one is another legally established land trust, the Chinatown Community Land Trust (incubated by the Chinese Progressive Association in 2015). The Coalition of Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHIF), which started in 2012 to help keep residents who are in or at risk of foreclosure in their homes, is exploring transferring ten properties that it owns in Dorchester to a CLT to ensure permanent affordability. Other members are organizing tenants and working on strategies to address gentrification and displacement (including Boston Tenants Coalition, City Life/Vida Urbana, Community Action Agency of Somerville, Fairmont Greenway Collaborative, Greater Bowdoin/Geneva Neighborhood Association, Mattapan United, Highland Park Neighbors, New England United for Justice, and Right to the City Boston).

Several members are interested in using CLTs to support urban agriculture and open space. The Urban Farming Institute of Boston worked with DSNI and Trust for Public Land to develop a farm that will be stewarded by DSNI’s CLT. It is currently working on creating their own CLT to develop and permanently own farmland in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) is interested in securing long-term community control of land via CLT ownership of guerilla gardens that its youth have developed.

GBCLTN has pursued joint learning, provided mutual technical assistance, and is advocating for public policies and resources at the city and state levels. They have already made remarkable progress in Boston. CLTs are one of the four strategies prioritized by the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab and were highlighted in the Mayor’s 2014 housing report. GBCLTN has met with City officials to present policy recommendations in support of CLTs. They are working with the Housing Innovation Lab and Department of Neighborhood Development to develop more technical assistance for CLT initiatives in Boston. There is also growing interest at the state level.  CLTs are featured as an anti-gentrification strategy in the Special Senate Committee on Housing’s March 2016 Report, which recommends that the state provide seed grants and technical assistance to CLTs.

The GBCLTN is promoting a successful economic alternative that has already been well established, with more than 200 CLTs across the country. CLTs are a “hybrid” form of collective and individual ownership. The collective ownership allows the community to retain any appreciation of land value, which is due largely to public investments and collective efforts. Yet CLTs also allow private ownership of homes and businesses on the land. DSNI’s land trust features three different forms of ownership, including almost one hundred homes owned by individuals, fifty rental units owned by local community development corporations, and more than seventy-five units owned by a limited equity cooperative.

Courtesy of Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network

This dual aspect of CLTs makes them confusing to those who are accustomed to capitalist notions of private property. Yet, the ability to own your own home on a CLT also makes the concept more accessible to those in the mainstream. One of the biggest barriers to CLTs is the idea that they are a “second class” of ownership. With home equity accounting for one-quarter of all individual wealth,[i] it is no wonder that some in lower-income communities oppose CLTs because conventional home ownership has played such a big role in building wealth and a pathway into the middle class. However, studies have shown that CLTs not only help homeowners build wealth but also buffer them from foreclosure.[ii]

Jocelyn Fidalgo, a DSNI land trust homeowner, says that the land trust connected her to a bank that gave her a second mortgage so she could make a down payment large enough to avoid costly private mortgage insurance (which can run a couple hundred dollars a month).[iii] The land trust also helps her to steward her home, providing a list of contractors when she needs to make repairs. When she is ready to sell, she can sell at a price that includes any improvements she has made in the home, as well as a half percent increase for each year she has owned the home, capped at five percent. So while she may not benefit from the recent large increases in real estate value, she is building wealth that would otherwise have gone into rent. These benefits of land trust homeownership help explain why DSNI land trust homeowners experienced no foreclosures due to predatory loans in the recent crisis.[iv]

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Because CLTs run counter to widespread assumptions about private property, a priority for GBCLTN members is education to raise awareness of the CLT model and its history. Thus, members have been holding their own learning sessions, convening numerous meetings in their various neighborhoods, and connecting to the National Community Land Trust Network.

GBCLTN members found that acquiring land is one of the toughest challenges for the CLT model. In Boston’s hot real estate market, land prices are high and speculators are bidding them up even more. For instance, the Chinatown CLT has been trying to buy row houses owned by long-time families in Chinatown, but they have struggled to compete in a market flush with developers offering all cash and quick deals.

Courtesy of YES! Magazine, Photo by Paul Dunn

Thus, GBCLTN’s other top priority is building political power to win CLT-supportive policies and resources. Many of the members are part of the Right to the City Alliance and are campaigning for “public land for public good”. They are pushing the city and state to establish policies that give preference for land trusts and permanent affordability when selling off public land.

Organizing and political advocacy are not new for the GBCLTN members. In fact, DSNI’s land trust was a victory of the community organizing efforts in the 1980s to establish community control over development. DSNI’s Harry Smith, believes that CLTs only work if they are rooted in organizing and planning efforts in the community. In addition to demands for public land, GBCLTN is also advocating for public resources to seed and build new CLTs as well as for the inclusion of CLTs in numerous affordable housing and other public funding programs.

GBCLTN is also exploring how to structure itself as a network that can support the various neighborhood initiatives and coordinate partnerships with government and financiers. In the past year, GBCLTN has hosted a meeting with banks, investors, and other community development funders, and it has held a workshop to educate city officials and agency staff about CLTs. Instead of having multiple small CLTs all operating independently, the network is exploring strategies for collectivizing infrastructure and providing shared legal, administrative, and financial resources. Some estimate that a CLT can become financially self-sustaining when it reaches 200-300 units of housing, something that would be much easier to accomplish with a set of CLTs rather than an individual CLT.[v]

CLTs are ultimately about building community. As Smith says, “the land trust doesn’t exist just to acquire and manage land. It’s really about engaging community to decide together what they want on their land.”[vi] Tony Hernandez, a Dudley land trust homeowner and staffer, says that the land trust is the “bridge between the homeowner and the neighborhood… It fosters a culture of neighbors actually knowing each other. Now if you see my kid doing something they shouldn’t, then you can watch out for them.”[vii]

 

[i] Alfred Gottschalck, Marina Vornovytskyy, and Adam Smith, Household Wealth in the U.S.: 2000 to 2011 (US Census, 2011). http://www.census.gov/people/wealth/files/Wealth%20Highlights%202011%20Revised%207-3-14.pdf

[ii] See Kenneth Temkin, Brett Theodos, and David Price, Shared Equity Homeownership Evaluations of Champlain Housing Trust, Northern Communities Land Trust, Thistle Community Housing (Urban Institute, October 2010). See http://www.urban.org/policy-centers/metropolitan-housing-and-communities-policy-center/projects/shared-equity-research.

[iii] Penn Loh, “Land Trusts Offer Houses That People With Lower Incomes Can Afford—And a Stepping Stone to Lasting Wealth,” YES! Magazine, posted September 17, 2015. http://www.yesmagazine.org/commonomics/land-trusts-offer-houses-low-income-people-can-afford-and-a-stepping-stone-to-lasting-wealth-20150917

[iv] May Louie, Community Land Trusts: A Powerful Vehicle For Development without Displacement, Trotter Review, 23:1 (2016). http://scholarworks.umb.edu/trotter_review/vol23/iss1/7.

[v] Benjamin Baldwin, Networked Community Land Trusts: An Analysis of Existing Models and Needs Assessment for the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network (Master’s Thesis, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, 2016).

[vi] Penn Loh, “Urban Farming, One Vacant Lot at a Time,” YES! Magazine, Issue 72, Winter 2015, pp. 34-39. http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/cities-are-now/how-one-boston-neighborhood-stopped-gentrification-in-its-tracks.

[vii] Penn Loh, 2015.