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.

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