The Indispensable Community Land Trust
“Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge,” the celebrated words of William Shakespeare summarize all too precisely our present predicament. We are circumstantial inheritors of land tenure patterns spanning centuries that typify gross disparities in land distribution and the accompanying maldistribution of social and economic benefits, along with a limitless expansion of destructive “externalities” (a term used by economists to describe the largely unaccounted-for fallout of economic progress) such as ecological collapse, resource depletion, and massive social dysfunction. That the majority of people lack access to affordable housing is just one example of lost benefits. Thus, the return of those benefits accruing back to the people can only be accomplished through land reform.
The Community Land Trust (CLT) is a type of land reform that doesn’t simply redistribute land but radically alters underlying land tenure arrangements. It provides enduring relief from the unrelenting rise in land values and reverses destructive land tenure patterns that have led to our predicament. It is a form of common land ownership and common stewardship for the common good, as opposed to private land ownership for personal gain, and is based on very old land use patterns that existed for millennia. The CLT model is not simply a philosophical idea for the eventual attainment of affordable housing in decades to come but provides a proven, practical means by which affordable housing is attainable now.
The way this is accomplished, quite simply, is by eliminating the cost of land from the cost of housing. There are only two major costs to housing, a) land, and b) the house itself (including infrastructure, if there is any, to be explained in Part 5). Land is typically a major expense, if not the major expense in housing and that is why “affordable housing” is typically concentrated in areas where land prices are lowest, such as the south side of Santa Fe, while the amount of land provided to homeowners shrinks to a pinhead. The ever decreasing availability of “affordable” land, and congestion, trying to fit more and more on less land, are a growing problem for affordable housing initiatives. Houdini-like attempts to escape these realities are chimerical.
A CLT eliminates the cost of the land to the homeowner because the land is held and owned in common by the community, in perpetuity. The homeowner does not purchase the land on which the home sits. No one person owns, controls, or can sell any part of it. The land in a CLT is held in trust by a democratically-governed, not-for-profit organization (federal tax-exempt status not necessarily recommended) with membership open to any resident in the region. The trust removes land permanently from the speculative market and facilitates multiple uses of the land through the drafting of a sustainable land-use plan with affordable housing being a primary component. Other uses for the land can include: farmland preservation; appropriate small-scale industry, CSA’s, co-ops, and guilds; community gardens; community facilities such as arts & crafts workshops, libraries, dining halls, and schools; outdoor recreation areas for parks, playgrounds, and walking trails; and land conservation. The CLT leases land for affordable housing (or other agreed upon purposes) to individuals or groups (e.g. co-op), with an inheritable and renewable long term lease, typically for 99 years. The lessee pays a nominal, yearly, ground lease fee for use of the land.
The reason that homes remain affordable for future generations is twofold, a) homeowners are simply leasing land from the CLT at a trifling expense as opposed to purchasing it, and b) the homeowner owns the improvements to the land, namely the home only, not the land itself. Homeowners build equity in the home, but do not build equity from the land. The home can be sold at a profit but there are re-sale restrictions that the CLT imposes to ensure that future homebuyers can afford the home.
Individual home equity profit is balanced by community needs and each CLT decides what is fair and equitable in their re-sale formula. Homeownership in a CLT provides an opportunity to not only obtain an affordable home but provides an opportunity to build equity, unlike renting which does neither but assure the impoverishment of individuals and communities.
The land for a CLT is obtained in any number of ways: through a private gift of land; through a public gift of land (city, county or state); through a private monetary donation or a public donation (city, county or state grant); or through direct purchase. If the land is donated or the money is supplied through a donation or grant, there is nothing to pay off or pay back. If the land is purchased, the original purchasers can choose to recapture their investment through the ground leases over time. Once the land is free and clear of any financial encumbrances, the cost of housing to all future generations is reduced dramatically, whatever type of housing there is, because a CLT member only pays for the home and not the land.
Hopefully, as people become accustomed to the myriad social, economic, and ecological benefits of community land trusts, people will consider it natural, sustainable, and sane to gift land to CLT’s for the long-term, well-being of their communities.
Land for a Community Land Trust need not be rural and there are many examples of successful urban CLT’s around the country, with or without homes already standing. Urban CLT’s, like rural CLT’s, were originally designed to provide affordable housing to disenfranchised, low-income communities plagued by absentee landlords, concentration of ownership, land speculation, displacement, and gentrification. In the city, gentrification leaves people homeless, but in rural areas, the influx of recreation enthusiasts and the wealthy seeking vacation or second homes has the same effect.
One of the most successful urban CLT’s is located in Albuquerque, NM. The Sawmill Community Land Trust is located in a traditional neighborhood near the downtown business district and historic old town. This low-income neighborhood was threatened with displacement due to rising land values and gentrification so they banded together to save their homes and way of life. Since 1997, Sawmill has reclaimed 27 acres from the city of Albuquerque. They now have 23 affordable homes, a park, plaza, community center, offices, retail space, manufacturing, senior apartments, and live/work spaces for home businesses.
A Community Land Trust is exceptionally versatile and adaptable and there is no one way to do things. Besides being urban or rural, a CLT can be very small or very large. The Jacona Farmland Trust in Jacona, NM is just 3.8 acres. It has five homes and a two-acre farm. One of the largest CLT’s is in Vermont, the Champlain Housing Trust, with over 2,000 households stretched across three counties. Rhode Island, Delaware, and Montana boast emerging statewide CLT’s. There is however great merit in “small is beautiful,” as coined and discussed in E.F. Schumacher’s classic book on community economics, and so a CLT should consider the implications of size on participatory democracy, social well-being, ecological impact, and other quality-of-life factors. A convincing argument can be made for a natural limit to the size of communities as demonstrated in traditional villages and among indigenous peoples.
Another example of the natural elasticity of a CLT is that it can be located on contiguous or non-contiguous land. It needn’t be altogether in one place. Many CLT’s are in the business of acquiring more land for affordable housing, either urban or rural, and often the land acquisitions are non-contiguous. In a city, with land ownership so checkerboard, this approach can prove very practical in creating affordable homeownership opportunities, eliminating affordable housing concentration in any specific area. Furthermore, CLT’s can form alliances and confederations for greater economic and social benefits.
The roots of the community land trust are very ancient. The underlying principle, which has been accepted by most people throughout time, is that land and natural resources are by nature bequeathed to all of us communally as our inheritance, one generation to the next, and it is our obligation to use these resources equitably and wisely. The land and resources are not ours to own. The land owns us (we come from, are nourished by, and return to earth) and we are merely stewards for the moment. In the timeline of human habitation on Earth, the idea of private land ownership is very recent. Our indigenous ancestors could never for a moment dream of owning land, something given by the spirit world that no human created. It was as inconceivable as owning air, rivers, or mountains. The only conceivable corollary to contemporary notions of private property were personal items, like clothes or tools, which were made from the land by the people who used them and were often buried with them.
The social philosopher Ralph Borsodi is the first individual to be associated with the CLT movement. He was concerned about the problems of urban society as early as the 1920’s and assisted in the development of several communities based on Georgist principles. Interestingly enough, he was corresponding with Peter Van Dresser, who in 1949 was building solar and wind-powered homes in northern NM for similarly decentralized, self-sufficient communities. Borsodi noted that governments were reluctant to institute a land-vale-tax as proposed by Henry George, so he discovered a way to translate George’s ideas into the field of applied economics. He resurrected the ancient idea of land stewardship and trusteeship in Seventeen Problems of Man and Society, published in 1968; that land does not come into existence as a result of human labor and thus cannot be morally owned but can only be held in trust. And that with land being a limited commodity with increasing demands put upon it, it must be regulated for the long-range welfare of all people.
Consequently, the CLT idea is as much about common ownership as about ownership for the common good, a point that can be easily missed, and in the final analysis is the more significant piece of the equation. This is the ancient and indigenous way of understanding our correct relationship to land, natural resources, and one another. “All our relations” is a clear and simple expression of that understanding. A corporation (an elite form of common ownership) can own land as well but its aims and interests are only for profit and gain, because it is situated within the old land tenure structure that allows and perpetuates parasitism. Within the CLT structure, land cannot be bought and sold, and that imposes in some real, material, economic sense, a new relationship to land and a new relationship to one another. That, in itself, is a rather significant byproduct for human evolution and has important implications to be discussed in the summary.
The official founding of the CLT movement began in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and is largely attributed to Robert Swann who took his inspiration from Borsodi, but was influenced as well by the events of WWII, Gandhi, Henry George and other great minds. There were many other brilliant social thinkers/collaborators as well that joined in the momentum, such as Chuck Matthei and Charles Geisler. Mildred Loomis and Susan Witt (executive director of the EF Schumacher Society since 1980), the respective partners of Borsodi and Swan, deserve belated recognition. The International Independence Institute, which later morphed into the Institute for Community Economics, was an unparalleled think tank for the development of the CLT idea. The groundbreaking publication on CLT’s, authored by Swann and others, came out in 1972 and was titled, The Community Land Trust, A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America.
Borsodi worked with Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Gandhi in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Vinoba and others walked from village to village requesting land from those who had more than they needed to give to their poorer brethren but what he discovered was that without tools and resources the land was soon sold back to landowners and abandoned for jobs in the cities. Vinoba recognized that his approach was failing because the land was given to individuals rather than villages. A village gift system or what was known as the Gramdan movement subsequently evolved and all donated land was held by villagers in common and leased to those capable of working it. The Gramdan movement was the prototype upon which Swann developed the modern CLT model. He and others also studied Native American land tenure arrangements, biblical writings, the Jewish National Fund, which acquired lands in Israel for kibbutzim, the Mexican ejido system, the history of “the commons,” historical religious and intentional communities, and communal land tenure arrangements around the world.
The ancient pronouncements give clear instruction about what is acceptable and what is not. The Book of Leviticus, being just one example, is filled with admonitions about the individual’s right being limited by the interests of the community and future generations. The land belongs to God and is a gift with conditions attached. People must care for the land and not waste it or trade it away for profit, and every 50 years all land must be returned to its original owner at the time of the Jubilee so that a race of slaves and paupers does not arise. “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Lev 25:23)
St. Chrysostom wrote: “God gave the same earth to be cultivated by all. Since therefore his bounty is common, how comes it that you have so many fields and your neighbor not even a clod of earth?” And another early Christian father wrote: “The soil was given to the rich and poor in common. The pagans hold earth as property. They do blaspheme God.”
Pagan, heathen, savage, Indian, wilderness dweller…how the words have switched identities over the centuries. History, that well-preserved cache of gold nuggets that were probably never intended for generations hence, are so very instructive.
Robert Swann worked with Slater King, a cousin of Martin Luther King, to develop the first recognized CLT, New Communities, Inc., incorporated in 1968 in Leesburg, Georgia. New Communities Inc. was founded by people who were concerned with the land issue as it affected the security and opportunities of rural blacks throughout the south during the civil rights era. Swann and others traveled to Israel to study the Jewish National Fund, which was founded in 1901 to acquire land for Jewish settlement. They applied what they learned about leaseholding, legalities, and infrastructure to the new CLT and purchased 5,735 acres, primarily for agricultural purposes and affordable homeownership in order to obtain financial independence and self-sufficiency. They were very successful, and more CLT’s followed, in Appalachia, Maine, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Vermont, California and New Hampshire. The community land trust movement was born.
The National Community Land Trust Network is holding their annual conference in Albuquerque, the week of November 8th, 2010. Anyone interested in CLT’s or wanting to form one should attend.
If anyone has land to donate for an emerging rural, self-sufficient, sustainable CLT, please contact Rebekah (contact info below).
To be continued next month, Part 4 will investigate modern community land trusts and the future of the CLT movement. This article is also available online at The Santa Fe New Mexican website http://www.santafegreenline.com/
Rebekah Zablud Azen is a long-time student of traditional indigenous lifeways, non-revisionist history, economics, and land tenure issues – passports to understanding humanity’s present predicament and enabling us to identify practical solutions for survival and restored balance in a new era. Rebekah can be reached at 505-424-9475 or firstname.lastname@example.org.