WHY A COMMUNITY LAND TRUST?

(A Long but necessary read to imagine black futures that are inclusive of black people having and owning homes and food to eat)

You might ask what the hell is a community land trust? Let me put you on real quick cuz most folks I know have no idea what the hell a community land trust (CLT) is in the first place.

A community land trust is a non profit land holding entity that owns and stewards land for community benefit. They are used for many types of development. Most commonly they are used to develop affordable housing, and often times agriculture, public green space or community gardens things like that.

The origin of community land trusts is blackety black. During the 1960s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizes in the Deep South primarily targeting and working with black farming communities. Who you think these activists stayed with when they went down south? How did they eat? You think SNCC organizers were living off grants and fundraising during the Civil Rights movement? Staying in hotels and shit like that? Sleeping in they cars in the middle of the racist ass black belt? SNCC organizers lived with the people and predominantly they people were small black farmers and other rural black folk.

In Georgia; Charles Sherod (who was raised in Petersburg VA and went to Virginia Union btw) is one SNCC’S first field secretaries in Albany GA. He does all the things but especially voter registration and protesting. He meets and marries a Shirley Sherod, who was from Georgia and knew first hand about the racial terrorism black farmers experienced. Her father was shot and killed by another white farmer in a dispute over livestock. She meets Charles while working for SNCC as a student at Albany State University. They organize together and I like to imagine they fell in love working for the people together.

Black farmers in the south experienced all types of racial terrorism but economic violence is one aspect that folks often don’t talk about. Farmers owning their land were able to offer protection, shelter and food for SNCC organizers. Once SNCC and other forms of civil rights struggle evolved into calls for Black Liberation – much of the attention that was focused in the South with the sit ins and marches and the passage of the Voting Rights Act went away. Those same farmers that gave refuge to SNCC organizers faced repercussions from the system in the form of being denied loans from the USDA to upgrade their farms, having land stolen from them by county officials and basically being locked out of the food system that was and still is controlled by white people. The work of the Sherods evolved to address the system persecuting black farmers who had been registering to vote. When SNCC evolved toward more of a black power stance, and as much of the attention around Civil Rights dissipates and evolves into the struggle for black liberation Charles Sherod retires from SNCC.

You might ask what does all this have to do with community land trusts? Well in 1969, 5 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act – the Sherods start a nonprofit called New Communities Inc. See while all the attention on the South moved on the Sherods stayed planted in Georgia working with the farmers that had been the bedrock and catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. New Communities’s mission was to provide housing and farmland to the farmers who were having their land stolen from them by the racist whites who controlled the county and state systems in Southwest GA. As a nonprofit farm cooperative in the beginning they were able to acquire close to 6000 acres of land in GA. They envisioned themselves as taking on the next stage of the civil rights struggle, that of economic development using agriculture as the base. At the time this endeavor was the largest black land owned operation in the country. New Communities was the first model for community land trust in the country ever, and was explicitly founded to provide affordable housing and farmland intentionally for black people.

The racist system did not stop and the Governor of GA blocked funding for their effort. The USDA also discriminated and denied loans. They were forced to sell land and later went into foreclosure. Even later they would file a claim in the black farmer case Pigfore V. glickman (largest class action suit in US history) and were awarded 12 million dollars. They recently purchased a pecan farm of some 1600 acres in size and are still doing the work.

What can a community land trust do?

Depending on how it is set up in its bylaws, a community land trust can do a bunch of things but most often it buys land and keeps ownership of that land, stewarding and preserving it for as long as the community land trust exists. Most CLTs across the country iterate themselves as nonprofit land holders explicitly to develop affordable housing. Some do explicitly farmland. Some do both.

For the affordable housing piece; the CLT purchases land or otherwise acquires it (perhaps as a city, county or regional land bank) and then works to develop above ground homes that can be sold affordably to community members. The land that is acquired by the CLT is taken off the speculative, home flip, gentrification market that is exploited by real estate developers especially in formerly redlined communities. The homes that are built on CLT land are as a result more affordable for home buyers because the home buyer is not buying the land underneath the home which knocks the price down significantly. In many (read most) instances, black people especially and poor people in general don’t have the capital (or credit) needed to just outright purchase a home. By putting the land in a community land trust – the purchase of the above ground improvements – I.e the home itself is an easier way for folks to purchase their first home thereby putting them on a path towards building equity. When they sell the home (in the instance of the MWCLT) a portion of that equity is paid forward to the next buyer of the home keeping the home permanently affordable. The remaining equity is theirs to do what they will with it.

The reason this could be an attractive option for someone is because as neighborhoods rapidly gentrify – the land in those neighborhoods become more and more scarce and as a result the values of the land and the home goes up. CLT’s often have explicit guidelines regarding who is eligible to purchase their homes related to income and housing size. For the cost of what one someone making less than 60k with a household of three might pay in renting, by working with a community land trust, they could actually build wealth through their mortgage payment and do what white folks have done for generations – take the equity that has been built into their home over time as the value for their homes goes up – building wealth through the equity that have accrued through the home value. This plus their purchase of the home through the CLT keeps housing stock affordable within communities that more and more black folk are being pushed out of due to gentrification.

This process not only works for homes it also can work for commercial properties. In the case of the Maggie Walker CLT, the secondary work is that of securing land for urban greening and urban agriculture. Again land is hard to access within cities for the same reason affordable housing is hard to find. Developers with money usually call first dibs on land tracts making it harder and harder for public greenspace, community gardens or urban farms to evolve in cities across the country. CLT’s have the capacity to make acquire land explicitly for this purpose and more importantly the better CLT’s in their efforts to create affordable housing also recognize the importance of building sustainable and resilient communities that include access to healthy food, that are walkable, have access to greenspace and also recognize the importance of communities have control over their local food system as an essential component of racial equity just as the Sherods did in the 70s with their development of New Communities Inc.

The lack of healthy food is ever present in predominantly black communities across the country. As a result, research has consistently correlated that lack with chronic diet related disease that disproportionately impacts black communities. Climate change is disproportionately impacting black communities through formerly redlined neighborhoods being hotter and higher instances of heat related illness due to the pervasiveness of impervious surface and lack of green infrastructure in black communities. The intersection of these issues cross at who controls and has access to land to develop greenspaces, urban farms, community gardens, walkable neighborhoods that manage storm water effectively with green infrastructure or even begin to mitigate urban heat island effect through the increase of urban tree canopy. CLT’s in some cities are developing agrihoods- housing development that include urban farms as an amenity for community residents that can foster circular, cooperative and solidarity economies. Others make acquisitions that include parks and greenspace that can help ameliorate these systemic killers of black people that choke us out in the built environment.

The only thing that jacks up the capacity of Community Land Trusts to be a tool for racial equity and social justice is how connected and committed they are to the communities they are designed to serve. Just like every other space in our society, white domination, lack of inclusion, Lack of impacted community leadership, the non profit industrial complex can infect this particular structure. The lack of understanding of community land trusts by community members, especially black community members who may not know the origins of CLT’s and their connection to our struggle and the lack of awareness of them as a wealth building tool can also negate their relevance for the people that they are designed to be of service to.

The other aspect of this that gets in the way is our societies focus on individual wealth building and lack of strategies to build wealth collectively and safeguard wealth as community. Land is the basis of independence and wealth. A wise man told me they aren’t making any more land. The indigenous communities of this country understood that land must be everyone’s, that no person can own the land. Settler colonialism has imposed this private land ownership paradigm upon us and it is indubitably going to be struggle for us to shake those shackles off. Given the current conditions, as I understand them, particularly with the looming eviction crisis and increasing lack of access to healthy food that our communities face? Community land trusts need to be higher on our list of weaponry to address these issues holistically.

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