by Rebekah Zablud Azen

We are arriving at a juncture in history where old land-tenure arrangements are no longer working and must be replaced by new arrangements. Though there is probably nothing more sacred in the Western psyche than private property, it is truly a Pandora’s box of unforeseen consequences. This reality has not yet dawned upon the general consciousness but the warning signs are abundantly clear, and the cost of housing is just one flashing red light. In 1955, Peter van Dresser bought a home on Canyon Rd. for $850. Today, my monthly rent exceeds that amount. If nothing else, Americans are beginning to realize that the “American Dream” of owning a home is a dream; it is simply out of reach or requires such an extraordinary sacrifice that it is not worth pursuing.

Ironically, what began as an alternative land tenure model for low-income, poverty-stricken, disenfranchised communities has become the model for what everyone needs access to today, affordable homeownership. The Community Land Trust (CLT) movement has grown exponentially in the last forty years and there are now over 241 CLT’s across the US according to the National Community Land Trust Network. Unquestionably, the primary objective of the modern CLT movement is to provide affordable homeownership and its ability to deliver on that promise is most impressive. As small as this movement is, it has not gone unnoticed. Local government community planning agencies and affordable housing offices around the country are paying considerable attention to assisting emerging CLT’s because they have discovered that public subsidies for permanently affordable homeownership are best utilized and retained with the CLT model.

In NM, we have three CLT’s. Sawmill Community Land Trust in Albuquerque, Tierra Madre Community Land Trust in Sunland Park, NM, and the Jacona Farmland Trust near Pojoaque, NM.

The Sawmill Community Land Trust, founded in 1997, is most consistent with the classic CLT model because the land is wholly owned by the nonprofit, the residents have direct democratic control, and they have instituted a land use plan. Sawmill has built over 56 affordable homes and is planning a commercial site, community center, neighborhood park, and community garden. Sawmill is considered one of the most successful CLT’s in the country.

Tierra Madre Community Land Trust was founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1998 to serve low-income, Spanish-speaking, Mexican Americans in Sunland Park near the border of Mexico. The community has nearly 50 units of passive-solar, straw-bale housing, built largely by the co-operative effort of member families. Homes are sold for an average of $23,400. The CLT holds a 99-year long-term lease with the State of NM, and homeowners in turn lease land from the CLT for about $100 per year. Because of this unusual arrangement, Tierra Madre is not a true CLT because they don’t presently own the land, but perhaps that will come.

Jacona Farmland Trust was founded by Helenty Homans, a Czech native who immigrated here at age twelve to escape WWII Europe. In 2004 she donated her 3.8 acres with agricultural land and three homes to the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust to ensure affordable housing to future generations. Jacona is not a true CLT either because it is managed by the Housing Trust, but is a big step in the right direction. Said Homans, “My motive – again, it’s a tiny little thing I’m doing – is combining the intent to have affordable housing, open space, and to preserve agricultural uses, because New Mexico has been a real second home for me, after my homeland.” Jacona Farm is a model for future development in rural NM.

The Town of Cochiti Lake is not a CLT or any variation thereof, but it is worth mentioning because 400+ people live on long-term leased land owned by the Pueblo of Cochiti, thus homes are considerably less expensive than elsewhere.

Community Land Trusts are often confused with other arrangements so it’s important to clarify what they are not. Real Estate Trusts are private trusts for private purposes, organized for specified beneficiaries and/or financial gain. Land Conservancy Trusts preserve land and protect it from development. The preservation of land is their sole aim and they are not intended for human uses. Agricultural Trusts are similarly organized, to preserve farmland from the encroachment of development, but they also aim to keep farmland usable for agricultural activity. Communes and intentional communities are typically organized as private trusts created by and for people with a shared philosophic outlook. Limited equity cooperative members own shares of a co-op’s assets. A CLT is not any of these but will typically collaborate with conservancy and agricultural trusts, and lease land to co-ops.

A CLT is designed for human uses, for improvements to the land for mutual benefit. A CLT is not designed for land preservation but for land use (though land preservation can be an incorporated as an objective). The land must be put to use to benefit individuals and communities.

Besides the main benefit of affordable housing, there are also many incidental benefits that naturally arise from this new land tenure arrangement. CLT’s are naturally insulated from the devastating effects of private property, free of land concentration, land speculation, and absentee landlordism. CLT land cannot be sold and land cannot be used for any purpose other than what the community deems an appropriate, sustainable use. Because of these factors, CLT’s naturally restore individual and community interests and balance those interests so that individuals and communities get their needs met both today and tomorrow.

Both individuals and communities have valid and legitimate interests in land tenure and land use. Individuals want and need affordable homes that cannot be pulled out from under them for long-term security and generational continuity. True communities are built from this basis with all members of the community being housed equitably, affordably, and securely.

The community wants and needs to maintain continuous access to its land for all its members for housing, a sustainable local economy, and social well-being. Communities also want and need to retain whatever value has been created collectively such as communal resources and amenities, and a stable and healthy community character. And like individuals, communities want and need to pass on a sound inheritance and legacy to future generations.

The equation noted above should be commonplace; the primacy of individual and community interests with a balance between the two, but surprisingly, it does not presently exist. Present day private property arrangements stealthily but assuredly erode and finally topple individual as well as community interests.

To put this in perspective, NM provides a fine case study. The federal government owns 41.8% of land in NM and the State of NM owns 12% of the land (private/corporate interests control much federal and state land for mining, gas, oil, ranching, and forestry). Native American tribes own a little less than 10% of land in NM. Adding up these figures, it appears that federal, state, and Indian lands account for about 64% of land in NM, so private land must amount for about 36% of the state. Ted Turner, the renowned “green” land speculator/grabber, alone owns 4% of the land in NM, about 2 million acres, leaving 32% or less of privately held land in NM. Of that 32%, 90% of that land is held by just 5% of the populace/corporations (1983 NM survey). That leaves just 4% of all the land in NM for 95% of the population of NM (or in other terms, Ted Turner owns as much land as 95% of the population of NM). In sum, a very small minority of private/corporate interests are controlling 86% of the land in NM (10% of land is held for Indian reservations), so just 4% of land in NM is available for virtually the entire population of NM.

It is absurd, given our present context, to talk about individual and community rights and interests. They have been shredded. The reality is that a minority of private/corporate interests control and dominate individual interests as well as community interests. The consequences of this arrangement can be noted at every level of society, from the local to the national and international levels. We surely wouldn’t be in the position we’re presently in with corporate monopolies and international financial institutions dominating our lives if it weren’t for this takeover. Oil Company BP could not be polluting the gulf waters and threatening our entire oceanic life, and the life of our planet, if it were not for private interests dominating and usurping individual and community interests. Private property arrangements exacerbate gross imbalances of power and create untenable conditions for people and the planet.

The growing crisis of affordable housing here in Santa Fe is a perfect example of a community having lost control of its land base and its fundamental rights, as individuals and families, the foundation of communities, are held hostage to this situation, left landless and homeless, deep in debt and struggling daily to make ends meet. What security, what rights, what sovereignty, what sustainability, what community, what local control, what local economy, and what well-being do individuals and communities have left? Less and less as time goes on. Democracy is usurped at the economic level long before it ever reaches the political level.

A sense of place and a sense of security are so vital to individuals and communities, which are constructed of individuals forming larger social organisms that are lost and adrift without this cohesion. The two are inextricably bound. It’s uncanny that we place such little value on these fundamental conditions for human and societal well-being. We seem largely anesthetized to the fact that these things even matter, and substitute a flimsy proposition that a good job, a family, and “success in life” (i.e. economic prosperity), should suffice. But our condition, underneath it all, and in spite of the bravado, is incredibly unstable, insecure, and anxiety-ridden.

The insecurity that people un-naturally endure is real and a consequence of economic conditions generated by inequitable land tenure arrangements. And the angst is real as well and generates real social consequences. The threat of unemployment due to job cuts, illness, and economic conditions that we have no control over, is like an ever-present alarm in the back of our head. There is no home to turn to for most of us that is truly safe, stable, and secure, where we are assured that our needs will be met for as long as we need refuge. Even the birds have refuge and are given sanctuary. Why is it that the concept of refuge is an anachronism in today’s society?

Notwithstanding an earthquake or political coup, a Community Land Trust provides a blueprint for restoring individual and community security. First of all, a CLT home can be had so much less expensively than a typical home that it can be paid off much more quickly, leaving behind years of labor and the vicissitudes of fortune or fate. The land can be acquired by donation, leaving its members free of creditors immediately; or if purchased with all hands contributing, the land can be paid off quickly. That a community holds the land in perpetuity, and not privately for short-term profit provides another layer of protection. And the community itself, the people of the CLT, are invested in the land and place collectively, for long term benefit. One needn’t struggle alone, and help, collective labor, camaraderie and other benefits can be procured. A CLT is here to stay; that is its mission. The people and the land are re-bound and re-united.

Even more security can be infused into a CLT by creating self-sufficiency so that the homes are not dependent on outside life support systems and neither are its inhabitants. CLT members can build their own local economy to the best of their ability. The Pueblo communities and the villages of northern New Mexico were completely self-sufficient and independent for centuries, producing their own foodstuffs, shelter, and all other necessities for comfortable living. A farm, pasturage, hunting, fishing, orchards and a commons served a small community well.

Right here at home we have an extraordinary model for what this can look like. The Pueblo of Tesuque is presently engaged in re-building self-sufficiency through their farm project, the Tesuque Agricultural Initiative. They grow traditional Native foods of corn, beans and squash, as well as vegetables and fruit. They also have goats for milk and cheese, chickens for meat and eggs, and bees for honey. Their aim is to feed the entire Pueblo of 600 people. The Pueblo of Tesuque, just like all the other pueblos, never privatized land so they are in the envious position of having land and being able to designate it for local needs such as food production.

Re-establishing the self-sufficient rural village is not so far-fetched and we’re certainly not the first generation to be thinking about local self-sufficiency and local economies. In 1974, Peter van Dresser, the decentralist, solar pioneer, and community visionary, wrote a 17-part series in the New Mexican describing in detail how to resurrect New Mexico village life.

In contrast to the Pueblos, the city or county of Santa Fe would have to purchase land they don’t have, which costs a fortune today, to even think about providing food production for the residents here. Santa Fe Canyon Ranch, recently acquired by Santa Fe County for $7 million, is located in the La Cienega Valley. There are 470 acres of which a substantial proportion is prime agricultural land. Will this land be used for agriculture and affordable housing in equitable CLT arrangements to serve our local community or will it be privatized as is the usual course of events and the entire public investment lost almost immediately?

The fact of the matter is that we no longer have control over our food production just like we no longer have control over housing that is affordable. What is known as the “farmland crisis,” the inaccessibility of land for small farmers, is as severe or even more severe than the affordable housing crisis. Should the economy be disrupted or fail, even temporarily, we will see a major tragedy unfold. It is estimated that just 3% of our food is grown locally, and it’s very probable that much of that food is grown on land that is not owned by the farmer. His tenancy is as unstable as our own. And the farmers that do own land? What guarantee is there that they won’t be forced to sell their land, leaving for jobs in the city when they can no longer remain financially solvent, a problem that has been plaguing farmers for well over a century.

The “land problem” is multi-dimensional and circuitous; our land is held hostage, unavailable for housing or food production, the two major necessities of life.

The Community Land Trust can reverse not only the problem of affordable housing but can return land to the people for local food production. The importance of this dual function, this potential of a CLT, cannot be overstated. There are very few community land trusts today that recognize the patterns of the overall land tenure picture, incorporating both of these elements into their land use plan, returning affordable housing and local food production back to the people, but it will and must come.

Individual and community rights and interests can be restored but the key is that people regain control and sovereignty over their lives. The CLT model in whatever form it takes makes this possible, whether it be affordable housing or an effort at complete self-sufficiency. Whatever a CLT community wants and needs is possible. Local control over housing and land-use decisions are inherent, indivisible, and indefinite. The organization is democratically organized with open membership, inclusive governance, and direct accountability to the community it serves. Security, safety, a sense of place, and a refuge are just some of the many beneficial byproducts. This is local control at its finest.

The Community Land Trust is unique and its benefits immeasurable. Anyone can start or participate in forming a CLT and there are no legal impediments to its formation. It does not require an Act of Congress, a “transfer tax” or any redistribution of wealth, does not require a bloody uprising, a Che Guevara leader, or turn our economy into socialism or communism. It restores the integrity of individuals and communities, and puts control back into the hands of people. It is ancient. It is modern. It is ethical. It is time.

The Community Land Trust model will continue to evolve and incorporate more and more of the sustainability movement, beginning with better methods for building truly affordable, green homes; energy conservation and use of renewables; farmland and wildlands preservation; and local economic self-sufficiency. The CLT movement is growing and with it comes more and more land to be reclaimed by the people, for the common good. The Community Land Trust model can take us in the direction we must turn as we confront the impasse before us; enlivening community, reclaiming democracy, respecting the Earth, sharing our inheritance, re-learning independence, self-sufficiency, and sovereignty, and re-connecting with life.

* 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 5 will investigate non-polluting and non-extracting, affordable green building for self-sufficiency. 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 rebekah@cybermesa.com.