Community Land Trusts and Revolutionary Change
By Lydia Lowe. Posted July 2, 2022
After some 40 years of organizing in student, community, labor, and electoral struggles, I transitioned five years ago into working for the Chinatown Community Land Trust in Boston Chinatown. Our Community Land Trust (CLT) grew out of decades of struggle against developers and city government over the community’s demands for democratic control of development.
What’s a Community Land Trust (CLT)?
CLTs are participatory community organizations that acquire and hold land, through 99-year renewable ground leases, for people’s priorities like affordable housing, parks, urban farms, small businesses, or community gardens. The country’s first CLT, in rural Georgia, grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and focused on planning for an independent and collectively owned Black farming community. Today, there is an explosion of CLTs in urban centers where working class neighborhoods and communities of color are confronting gentrification and displacement.
New CLTs are popping up across the country, with a focus on local governance, participatory democracy, and resisting displacement, particularly in urban areas. But as community organizations that try to institutionalize local control within a system and real estate market rooted in oppression, speculation, and extraction, how can CLTs play a role in working for revolutionary change?
Leading with a Vision
First, the central principle of a CLT is that it creates a way for communities to hold and steward land for its human use-value, rather than focus on its extractive dollar value. This approach liberates our minds to think about the vision and community we strive for, even while we struggle with all the challenges of acquiring property and asserting community control within a profit-driven system.
In Boston Chinatown, the city’s lowest income neighborhood that became its hottest real estate market, we are working to preserve small properties as permanently and deeply affordable homes, create new park or community garden space, plan for a historic and cultural district that anchors immigrant working class families, and develop a locally controlled energy microgrid that increases resilience and use of renewable energy.
CLT projects offer hope at a time when many people are feeling beaten down by the pandemic, worsening racial and economic inequality, and the rapid rise of right wing and white supremacist groups. But the contribution of the CLT model is more than just a feel-good, community-building approach to organizing and involving Chinatown residents.
Organizing for Power
Acquiring land and developing housing or community spaces requires that we learn about, understand, and confront all the challenges in how development works, from zoning laws to land speculation to local and state government powers. A CLT can play an important role in developing broad popular education, involving people in strategic thinking, and building the organized strength of the community.
When our Chinatown CLT began in 2015, one of our goals was to purchase brick row houses that had housed immigrant families for generations and preserve them as permanently affordable homes. But we quickly found that aging owners or their children were selling to speculative investors who treated the homes as cash cows, turning them into full-time Airbnbs. We spent the next few years organizing with a community-labor coalition for an ordinance that limited short-term rental activity to owner occupants or specially permitted businesses with short-term stay needs. After we won the Short-Term Rental Ordinance, we fought zoning appeals that would allow investor owners to demolish or substantially expand the homes. We built local political power through year-round civic action. So, it was only through organizing to change local conditions that we were able to finally acquire our first properties and preserve seven low-income homes.
But displacement and land speculation are even more intense today. So, as we try to acquire other small properties, we are organizing for a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would give tenants the right to make the first offer or match another offer when the owner wants to sell a multi-family building. We are demanding zoning guidelines that can help us curb extreme speculation and using our organizing power to mobilize public and philanthropic resources.
As an organizer, I have generally been motivated by anger at the injustice around us. Righteous anger is a big motivator, but working in a CLT also challenges me to think very concretely about what we want instead and how we are going to get there.
Models vs. Scale
CLT work provides an avenue to develop different community ownership models. Because we focus on community governance and long term stability, the CLT brings additional ongoing support to work with residents, whether tenants or owners, whether on day-to-day building issues, neighborhood quality of life, or broader policy and planning. We are trying to develop different approaches to resident-controlled housing, such as condos on a CLT, cooperatives, rent-to-own housing, or tenant-governed rental housing. We are working on a community-ownership model for our local energy microgrid.
Funders and policy makers like to talk about “scalability” and broader impact, but CLTs cannot significantly broaden their scale without the power of a strong mass movement. If we become too focused on the numbers, we run the risk of duplicating the role of Community Development Corporations, some of which think too much like a developer and not enough like a social change activist.
But CLTs can and do have impact, particularly at the local level. At this time, I think the value and impact of CLTs is less about numbers and more about offering examples that point us toward a different way of doing things. The greatest value of a CLT is in its ability to advance revolutionary change by combining popular education that questions the system, organizes for power, and involves people in participatory governance.
Author’s Bio: Lydia Lowe is a former member of I Wor Kuen and the League of Revolutionary Struggle. She is currently the executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust.
Here are links to a 2-1/2 minute animated video produced by Lily Xie to help people understand the purpose of the Chinatown Community Land Trust.
Lily Xie (she/her) is a Chinese American artist and educator who facilitates creative projects, working with local residents and grassroots organizers, with a focus on public space, housing, and racial justice.