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Community land trusts

What is it?

A community land trust (CLT) is a non-profit organization that acquires and manages land to guarantee housing with lasting affordability and community control of land. CLTs differ from traditional housing non-profits in that they separate the ownership of land from the ownership of housing and are governed directly by community members. In the classic CLT model, the CLT acquires land, through purchase or donation, to develop affordable housing and other amenities, such as community centers or gardens. The CLT sells homes at below-market rates to low- and moderate-income families, while the CLT leases the land to the owner on a long-term basis. In exchange for purchasing homes at below-market rates, CLT homeowners agree to resale price restrictions that limit the amount of appreciation they will receive in order to maintain the affordability of the home for the next lower-income buyer. Many CLTs also provide affordable rental housing. Today, there are an estimated 220 community land trusts in the United States that provide between 10,000 and 15,000 homeownership units and close to 20,000 rental units.

CLTs can promote equitable development in different neighborhood contexts. In hot markets, CLTs can provide long-term affordability to address gentrification and prevent displacement. In weaker markets, CLTs can be a tool for neighborhood reinvestment and stability. Studies have found CLTs provide stable homeownership and wealth-building opportunities for lower-income households. CLT homeowners are 10 times less likely to default on their homes than their private-market counterparts. Critics argue that CLT homes are a form of "second-class" homeownership because the resale appreciation is capped, but when operating as intended, CLTs offer housing stability and wealth-building opportunities for low-income households that would otherwise be locked out of market-rate homeownership.  

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, see Grounded Solutions Network, Democracy Collaborative, Lincoln Land Institute, and Homes For All for more information about community land trusts.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can provide resources and funding to support CLT formation and expansion, donate or offer discounted sales of public land, and link developer land donation mandates and inclusionary housing programs to CLT programs.
  • Lending institutions, banks, and other property owners can offer supportive financing and priority in the acquisition of foreclosed or abandoned properties.
  • Community-based organizations and other advocates can organize to create CLTS in their community and educate public officials and lenders on the structure and benefits of CLTs.
  • Affordable housing developers can partner with CLTs to share their development and property rehabilitation expertise.

Key considerations

Successful CLTs usually leverage public, private and philanthropic financing for land acquisition, effectively recruit residents by educating community members on CLT ownership, establish democratic governance structures, and develop additional community assets. Local governments can provide critical support throughout the process. Here are some key policy considerations:

  • Scope and mission. Some CLTs serve entire metropolitan regions while others focus on a single neighborhood. For new CLTs, these determinations will depend on founder interest, the nature of local housing needs and market, and the existence of other community-based organizations.
  • Determine housing needs. CLTs can offer both affordable homeownership and rental housing options. Their flexibility also allows for both the purchase of land for new construction as well the acquisition and rehabilitation of existing properties to preserve affordability. CLT leadership will need to decide the best strategy for promoting housing affordability and community stability based on local housing needs and resource availability. 
  • Acquire land and housing. Land acquisition is critical for the development and preservation of housing. Cities can support CLTs by either offering donated land, discounting vacant lots or abandoned properties, or otherwise providing acquisition financing support. If they have an inclusionary zoning program, cities can also partner with CLTs to own and/or manage inclusionary units or in lieu fees. Public, private and philanthropic capital can also support CLT efforts to acquire land and homes.
  • Financing. At the organizational level, CLTs need access to funding to acquire, develop, rehabilitate, and maintain affordable housing. Cities can support CLTs by offering them grants and low-interest loans as well as by creating new sources of funding directed towards permanent affordability. At the individual level, lending institutions also need education before they are able to offer mortgages to CLT homeowners. Cities can work with lenders to expand their coverage.
  • Affordable Pricing and Resale formula. CLTs make homes available by setting an initial price that is below market rate and affordable to their target market. To maintain affordability for future homebuyers, CLTs place limitations on the amount of price appreciation and return on investment that a homeowner can capture at the time of sale (also known as shared equity). A CLT's resale formula is often included in the ground lease, along with the income range requirements for new buyers. These conditions should be clearly communicated to any prospective buyer.
  • Resident and community control. A classic CLT is a membership organization, open to all residents in the focus area, and has a tripartite board structure consisting of 1/3 CLT residents, 1/3 other members, and 1/3 public representatives and people with specific technical capacities.
  • Communications and outreach. Given the unconventional ownership structure and the resale price restrictions, CLT homeownership can often be confusing or even concerning to prospective residents and lenders alike. Cities can help educate stakeholders about the merits and unique structure of CLTs.
  • Additional amenities. Though CLTs are often focused on developing housing, they can also include agricultural, nonprofit or commercial space.

Where is it working?

Efforts to foster community land trusts should ensure that organizations have significant public support and access to financial resources. Widespread outreach and education are needed across sectors to build effective supports for the permanent affordability and wealth-building potential that CLTs offer.

  • The Houston Community Land Trust (HCLT) is making homeownership possible for low-income residents in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods. In 2016, the City of Houston developed the New Home Development Program in partnership with the Houston Land Bank and a then nascent HCLT to provide permanently affordable housing options in a rapidly developing and gentrifying city. The City allocated $16 million towards this program. $5 million toward the Houston Land Bank to acquire lots where the affordable homes will be built, $10 million was allocated for contractors to build the housing, and another million was used for the HCLT's start-up costs. HCLT works to find qualified, low-income home buyers to purchase subsidized homes and enter the land trust, at which point Houston Land Bank transfers properties to the land trust. While more traditional affordable housing subsidies often carry an expiration date, what compelled city officials to support and fund the CLT is the permanent affordability and sustainability the model provides.
  • In Buffalo's Fruit Belt, a historically African American community of close to 2,600 residents began facing displacement pressures when the neighboring medical campus expanded. Fruit Belt residents decided to fight proactively against displacement and for community-controlled development through collective ownership. In 2015, they won a moratorium on the sale of city-owned lots that lasted two and a half years, ending with the City's approval of a community-driven strategic development plan for the neighborhood which included the community land trust. Buffalo Common Council agreed to transfer 20 vacant lots to the F.B. Community Land Trust in 2018. The Council plans to transfer 50 lots to the community land trust within five years, which would be a quarter of all city-owned lots in the neighborhood. The Council is also providing homeowners the option to acquire any adjacent vacant lots. The community land trust plans to partner with Habitat for Humanity and Belmont Housing to build its first permanently affordable units.
  • Oakland was hit hard during the 2007-2008 foreclosure crisis, with private investors acquiring thousands of homes in foreclosure and turning them into rentals. Black residents were particularly targeted in the foreclosure crisis, which, coupled with rapidly rising rents, has contributed to massive displacement. Oakland Community Land Trust emerged to stabilize communities across the city through preserving affordability in homeownership and the rental market. OakCLT officially formed in January 2009 and later that April, Oakland City Council authorized a funding allocation from the Federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program to provide OakCLT with funds to purchase homes. Through this first allocation of funding, OakCLT purchased 19 single-family homes, which they rehabilitated and later sold to low-income buyers at the $150,000 range. OakCLT later acquired three multi-unit, mixed-use properties, three additional single-family homes, and 10 parcels of land for community food production and youth job training. OakCLT has also served as a tool for liberation and self-determination for Black and brown queer people of color in Oakland.  In 2017, tenants at Liberated 23rd Ave, a queer and trans people of the color-led social justice center, organized a crowdfunding campaign and partnered with OakCLT to purchase their building and make it permanently affordable. In 2019, advocates successfully won $12 million in the city of Oakland budget to support CLTs and co-operatives. Resident-led community preservation is at the heart of OakCLT's work and they continue to partner with existing residents to preserve both residential and community spaces.