W(h)ither the Community in Community Land Trusts?

By James DeFilippis, Brian Stromberg & Olivia R. Williams

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) have grown dramatically in both number and size in the last twenty years. A product of civil rights activists, the CLT first emerged as a mechanism explicitly for community control of land and development. In this form, the CLT was a vehicle to use land ownership to contribute to – in their own words – “the much-needed social and economic reconstruction of America” (Swann et al., 1972, p. xvi). Eventually, the CLT model was adopted by the urban community development movement/industry. It became a tool to deal with the myriad problems facing low income urban communities: environmental injustices (in Sawmill CLT in Albuquerque, NM); disinvestment (in Dudley Street in Boston, MA); losses of affordable housing because of gentrification (in Burlington, VT).

The authors are all longtime supporters of the CLT model and we have been excited by the expanded use of CLTs.  We are concerned, however, that this growth has diluted the meanings, uses, and aspirations for CLTs.  The CLT model is flexible and, in theory, can be utilized in any way that local zoning and land use regulations allow for. In practice, however, the CLT model has increasingly been used solely as an affordable housing tool in places where real estate prices are rapidly increasing.  In short, rather than being part of the “social and economic reconstruction of America,” it has become policy tool prized more for its capacity for subsidy retention than anything else.

We see a variety of different types of evidence of this dilution of the CLT model’s intention.  First, an analysis of CLT mission statements shows that more CLT organizations focus on affordable housing rather than community control; fewer than one-third even mention the word “community” in their mission statements.  Second, interviews with CLT staff members and executive directors also emphasized this focus on affordable housing, sometimes alongside a clear subjugation or outright rejection of the idea of community control. Third, as the numbers of CLTs have grown, so too have the sizes of CLTs.  In a 2015 survey of CLTs, only 10 percent of them reported their service as being one neighborhood or community; the vast majority cover entire cities or counties, with some even larger. With service areas this large, the CLTs lose some—if not most—of their ability to be highly participatory and responsive to neighborhood-scale needs.  Finally, CLTs are increasingly emerging from local elites, rather than any kind of community organization or mobilization.  In cities as different as Chicago, IL; Irvine, CA; Rochester, MN; and Flagstaff, AZ, local elites (either in the government or in philanthropy) have created CLTs solely to do affordable housing construction.  There is no particular emphasis on community control, or even community engagement, in any of these CLTs.  These examples epitomize the CLT when the model is used as just a tool in the housing toolkit.

We argue that there are two primary reasons why this lack of community control (or even community engagement) matters.  First, by narrowing the uses of CLTs solely to affordable housing we lose the flexibility of the model and make non-housing uses much more difficult to pursue.  When, for instance, a CLT in St. Paul, MN decided – based on the desires of members of its community – to pursue a commercial project to maintain black-owned retail in the community, it confronted a CLT infrastructure utterly unable to handle this pursuit.  Second, removing the goal of community control from CLTs reinforces the political marginality of low income communities and reproduces the idea that services and improvements come from the outside, rather than emanating from within those communities.  Poor communities in the US have very few institutional avenues for political empowerment and control; losing CLTs as one of those avenues would be a significant loss.

As advocates for a more equitable society and increased access to affordable housing, we are excited to see more CLTs appearing. However, we can’t help but wonder if they could be and do so much more than what they are currently doing.  We have a potentially politically transformative model in the CLT; let’s not reduce it to just another tool in the technocratic toolkit.

James DeFilippis is a Professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

The article, W(h)ither the community in community land trusts? By James DeFilippis, Brian Stromberg & Olivia R. Williams, appears in Volume 40, Issue 6 of JUA and is currently available for free access, for a limited time. 


Swann, R. S., Gottschalk, S., Hansch, E. S., & Webster, E. (1972). The community land trust: A guide to a new model for land tenure in America.

Book Review Preview – Development Drowned and Reborn: Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans

By Brittany Lee Frederick

Development Drowned and Reborn: Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans, by Clyde Woods (Athens: University of Georgia Press 2017).

In 1927, long before Hurricane Katrina bore down upon Louisiana with devastating force, city planners dynamited the levees in the predominately black St. Bernard and Plaquemine parishes in anticipation of a hurricane and created a “biblical-scale tragedy” out of the storm (108). In 1965, city planners constructed the MR-GO that channeled storm water into the lower Ninth ward and away from the rest of the profit-earning city during hurricane Betsy accruing one billion dollars in targeted damages. With this history in mind, the lack of aid for residents in the 9th ward following Hurricane Katrina is unsurprising.

Author Clyde Woods, with editors Laura Pulido and Jordan T. Camp, explores qualitative historical data to offer a portrait of the tumult in the New Orleans region from the Louisiana Purchase to the period after Hurricane Katrina. In doing so, the work explores the importance of New Orleans as the center of the United States’ international activity at the height of its hegemonic power, theorizes the rise of ultra-Conservativism as having existed long before Post-Fordism, and beautifully describes the resilience and community-centered ethics of care that the multi-ethnic coalition of Black slaves, Black migrants, and Indigenous populations and explores how the city’s rich fabric of cultural traditions survived decades of violence and attempted destruction by the “Bourbon blocs” of militarized and planter-dominated conservatives. The book suggests that nothing but a man-made disaster as devastating as Katrina could remove New Orleans’ Black community.

As Pulido and Camp edited the volume after Woods’ passing, the latter half is understandably less-theorized than the first half, however, their conclusion is masterful. The book offers valuable insights beyond theorizing Katrina and is valuable for urban scholars interested in the geopolitics of cities, scholars in black studies interested in militarization, police brutality and prison proliferation, and social movement theorists.

Brittany Lee Frederick is a doctoral student in Sociology at Boston University. 

Book Review Preview: Trajectories of Conflict

Trajectories of Conflict and Peace: Jerusalem and Belfast Since 1994, by Scott Bollens, New York, NY, Routledge Press, 2018

By Anne Shlay

Scott Bollens tackles two stubborn conflicts – one between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the other between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast.  We encounter space, nationalism, ethnicity, urban and national politics and policy, the underpinnings of peace and conflict, and trajectories for both cities.

Belfast’s conflict between Catholics and Protestants has been long standing. Jerusalem’s conflicts are recent. Despite biblical claims to the contrary, Israel as a state did not exist until 1947.   What is Northern Ireland is not in question.  What is Israel, not just Jerusalem, is contested.

Bollens describes the various mechanisms that Israel has used to hold onto Jerusalem. He argues that Jerusalem (through national policy) uses planning to allocate land for Jewish growth and development while rendering illegal any Palestinian housing construction.

Bollens shows how the separation barrier/wall is used overtly and covertly to eliminate Palestinians from Jerusalem.  Palestinian neighborhoods are literally walled out of Jerusalem.

Bollens looks at Belfast 20 years after the agreement to end violent struggles between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics.  This was an internal civil war as well as a revolution against Britain.  Suddenly, poof, the overt conflict had ended.

Well not really.  Bollens addresses the building of peace.  He shows that peace has not brought with it social and spatial integration but has brought continued segregation and exclusion.  Catholics and Protestants may be willing to share power, but they refuse to live together.

The commonalities between Jerusalem and Belfast are difficult to discern.  Belfast’s situation illustrates how political negotiation may eventually restructure urban life.  The denouement of conflict over Jerusalem often seems impossible and this book, more optimistic than most, does not make a claim that the conflict will end.

Trajectories of Conflict and Peace is useful for students of urban conflict as well as urban practitioners and policy makers.  Belfast provides reason for hope. Jerusalem has a long way to go.

Anne B. Shlay

Anne B. Shlay is a Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University.

Our Year Three: Change and Continuity at the JUA

By Igor Vojnovic

We begin our third year with changes to the JUA’s main editorial team. Deirdre Oakley accepted a new role as editor-in-chief of City & Community, so she has stepped down from her position as the JUA’s community development, housing, and urban affairs managing editor. Congratulations Deirdre! Given her role and impact with the JUA over these past three years, we are sad to see her go but certain she will have great success with City & Community. They are very lucky to have you, Deirdre! All the best with your new adventures!

To fill Deirdre Oakley’s shoes, we have been very fortunate to get Deirdre Pfeiffer, from the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Deirdre Pfeiffer is our new community development, housing, and urban affairs managing editor. In addition, Andrew Kirby, from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, is joining the team as the JUA’s managing and review editor. His brief includes reviewing manuscripts with scientometric content and papers that provide critical synoptic coverage of thematic urban research, emergent national urban systems, and global linkages.