Towards the regionalisation of Community Land Trusts (CLTs)

GCHU Intern and MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy student Helena Catalán Busquets investigates the benefits of the Community Land Trust model to address housing problems in the UK.

Helena Catalán Busquets

GCHU Intern and MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy student, University of Oxford

Email: [email protected]

The community land trust (CLT) model is an innovative housing policy, which has its roots in the United States during the 1960s. Specifically, a CLT is a nonprofit entity, with legal status, that owns the land, oversees its development, and then allocates housing rights to private owners (either individuals or institutional investors who can buy or rent through long-term contracts). Hence, its most distinctive feature is the dual ownership structure, as individuals and institutions own the structures built on the land (buildings or property), and the trust owns the land.

To expose the benefits of CLT, I have constructed a three-fold holistic sustainability framework. This social innovation enhances the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the community living in that area.

First, regarding the economic context, the trust guarantees house accessibility for lower-income households, whose income is low, but not enough to reach the threshold for accessing social housing. But… how does a CLT ensure housing affordability? The trust imposes resale restrictions on the structures built on the land. The trust has a preemption right in case individuals and institutions want to sell their property: 70% of the surplus coming from the sale will be used to lower the price of the house for future buyers, therefore reducing its cost. Hence, homeowners agree to sell their homes at resale-restricted prices to keep homes affordable for future generations of lower-income buyers. These restrictions aim to maintain the affordability of the housing for future generations by controlling the resale price, thus preventing the property from being sold at market rates. Another dimension of economic sustainability can be found in the effects of CLTs on the local economy.As these trust promote the development of commercial spaces and businesses to serve local communities, they create economic dynamism, and enable wealth-building that are crucial for neighbourhood revitalisation. Their strength is that evidence shows that this revitalisation does not result in gentrification, forced displacement, or government-forced evictions, as the trust ‘locks in’ the decrease in property prices through the above mentioned restrictions, ensuring perpetual affordability. Finally, by ensuring that marginalised communities have access to stable housing, a CLT contributes to more inclusive and equitable regional development, preserving socio-economic diverse places, which is an important pillar of sustainability.

Second, in relation to the social dimension, the trust has positive impacts on both individual and collective social capital. On the one hand, it builds skills, as it tends to provide support services such as pre-purchase and post-purchase training and financial counselling workshops. Moreover, CLTs are correlated increases individual well-being, as they strengthen ontological security and sense of stability. By providing individuals with a ‘safe base’, it allows them to further their professional and personal development. Individuals, after becoming members of a CLT, have a higher probability of becoming employed, advancing in their education, and pursuing activities that contribute to their self-realization. Moreover, this housing model has also been shown to have individual positive health effects. By creating social spaces, it provides more support for residents to undertake physical activity and healthier eating behaviours. In some cases, living in a community-led project was perceived to slow age-related health decline through actions such as supporting each other to exercise and eating healthy meals together.

On the other hand, as a CLT provides social facilities besides housing (for examples, workplaces, gardens and parks) it encourages the development of new communal relations. There is a positive relationship between CLTs, reduced lonelines, and increased social cohesion.. Moreover, this model, through the provision of community control of land, is also a mechanism to achieve community empowerment. As the U.S. land trust pioneer, Robert Swann, once claimed: ‘local community can gain control of the development process in their own neighbourhoods’. This is the result of two characteristics of this model. First, the community owns the land through the trust, which has the mandate to respond to local community needs. Having ownership of the land provides them with the autonomy to decide how that place can be developed. Second, the trust is responsive to the local community through the tripartite form of governance. In this governance structure, three main actors are represented (CLT residents, professional or public institutions, and general community members), placing the community at the center of decision-making regarding neighbourhood development. This involvement ensures that development aligns with the community’s needs and priorities. This, in turn, avoids the top-down, expert-driven approach of urban renewal that my be completely isolated from community-input and grassroot engagement, resulting in increased community empowerment and sense of agency.

Third, and connected to the environmental dimension, CLTs have two associated benefits. First, the CLT framework contributes to environmental justice. Insecure land tenure is linked to greater exposure to risks, and the negative consequences of climate change and disasters. Low-income communities typically find housing options in marginal, high-risk zones exposed to climate change disruptions. Hence, community-driven collective ownership of land offers ways to reduce this vulnerability, as it provides low-income populations with less-risky and secure housing, creating pathways to environment justice. Second, CLTs tend to adopt measures to prevent, mitigate and adapt to climate change and its consequences. Among others, they conserve and protect land, which contributes to biodiversity preservation, and they develop urban agriculture projects, urban gardening, and green spaces that reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration. They also incentivise green renovation and retrofitting, with a positive impact on local ecology. But,why do they have this environmentalist ethos? Scholars argue that because the land is owned by a trust, not exposed to market interests, it signals the residents a long-term commitment to that area, encouraging them to adopt a ‘stewardship role’, participating in measures that will preserve, protect, and conserve the land in the future as they have a stake.

These sustainability-enhancement effects transform CLTs into a potential solution to the entrenched housing problems that the United Kingdom has endured for several years[1], and into a potential for creating Regional Building Hubs (RBHs). I argue that this model contributes to the following RBHsobjectives:

  • Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole building process for Small-and-medium Builders (SME): CTLs tend to foster public-private partnerships with civil society organisations, public institutions, policy makers, financial institutions (for example, local banks), private donors,and most importantly construction firms. I argue that trusts can also collaborate with SME in a win-win, mutually beneficial relationship.

The benefits for SME are as follows:

o   Providing access to land: CLTs can provide access to land for small and medium builders. CLTs often retain ownership of the land while allowing builders to develop the housing units. Moreover, as CLTs reduce speculative pressures on real estate, this can be particularly beneficial for small and medium builders who may face challenges due to fluctuating land prices.

  • Avoiding local resistance: as CLTs often involve community members in decision-making processes, this can enable SME builders to design construction projects aligned with the community’s needs and values. This ‘local tailoring’ will avoid conflict, resistance, and tensions.These tend to occur with large construction firms that design high-volume, unpersonalised housing projects not responsive to local needs. This local responsiveness can also enable builders to incorporate environmentally friendly practices and design principles, as CLT’s residents often emphasise environmental sustainability due to the long-term ethos of this model.

The benefits for CLTs can be summarised as:

o   Creating positive local economic impacts: partnering with SME builders can contribute to local economic development, providing job opportunities to construction firms that are part of the local economy (as opposed to large construction firms).

o   Delivering mixed-use, mixed income, walkable places that reflect local character: CLTs may work with builders to create diverse housing options, including single-family homes, multi-family developments, and mixed-use projects.

o   Access to funding: CLTs may have access to government funding and grants for affordable housing initiatives. Collaborating with SME builders within the CLT structure can enhance the potential for securing such funding.

  • Promoting the consortium model as the default governance model: because of the tripartite organisational structure that characterises the CLTs, they can popularise this governance structure.
  • Engendering a stewardship model of development with long term social, environmental and economic benefits: as illustrated above through the sustainability model, the CLT is an holistic strategy with multiple benefits that can contribute to the long-term development of a neighbourhood. As it is a place-based oriented model, it has the potential to build a place, creating sustainable urban livelihoods where the community perform a stewardship role.

However, the model is not a silver bullet, and it is important to highlight some of the limitations. First, transferability. As shown in different studies, there is not a one-size-fits-all CLT, as each must be adapted to the specificities of the local political economy (such as differential access to public funding and subsidies, legal frameworks, and partnerships). In other words, the benefits identified in one CLT might not be generalisable to other places with distinct contextual factors. Second, its implementation. Most experts show the difficulty in translating theory, i.e the ideal model, into practice. Two main problems can arise during the implementation phase. On the one hand, it is not always feasible to maintain the participatory nature of the model, excluding the local community from the governance structure, and becoming de facto a top-down elite-driven model. Second, it risks losing its ‘structural transformative’ spirit being co-opted by neoliberal actors such as the state and the private sector. This is related to the dilemma of how to implement a disruptive anti-neoliberal social innovation, opposed to the standard private ownership model, into a neoliberalised world.

Recognising these risks, but being aware of the strong alignment between the CLT model and RBH objectives, I argue that the RBH framework should incorporate this model as a means to achieve its ends,. However, it must ensure that it adapts the standard model to each specific case (to solve the generalisation problems); acts tp promote full community involvement (to avoid problems of elitisation), and devotes resources to investigate how aspects of disruptive social innovation can be reconciled with the market economy, without losing its transformative ethos (and to avoid the risk of co-optation). With all this in mind, it is feasible that this housing model moves from innovative theory to common practice, , becoming a real solution to the housing crisis and neighbourhood decline, and improving the lives of local communities. A reality that I describe as the regionalisation of CLTs.

[1] These problems include restricted access to homeownership due to large discrepancies between house prices and incomes, affecting particularly younger households, an expanding private rented sector which offers limited security of tenure, high rental prices, and poor standard accommodation, and difficulties in accessing social housing due to insufficient supply.