New York used to be a place where an average Joe could come to make it in the big city, but these days the average New Yorker struggles just to make rent.
In the face of rampant financial deregulation, austerity-driven social disinvestment, and vast income inequality, working-class New York families are often priced out of both the rental and mortgage markets, while gentrification eclipses blighted blocks with empty luxury towers. But now housing-justice activists want to seed the city with a new kind of urban homesteading: Community Land Trusts (CLT)—a model of collective ownership of housing on community-owned land.
Designed to encourage long-term social stability and foster political self-determination on the urban commons, CLTs develop property through a community-run organization, which is generally run by representatives from the community, sometimes along with the local government, and the private sector, independent of conventional government-based funding streams or commercial financing. The City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development recently launched a major new grant program, with over $1.6 million in seed funding for community-based organizations, to grow the Big Apple’s newest crop of CLTs.
Though CLTs have historically been associated with suburban regions, cities are beginning to adopt the concept as they strain against overcrowded and hyperinflated real-estate markets. By expanding place-based, community-directed development, a democratically governed CLT could pool public resources to enable residents to chart local development as owner-members.
The first major grants—which are the byproduct of the state’s legal settlement with large financial institutions over their role in the Wall Street crisis—will go to the East Harlem–El Barrio Community Land Trust, Interboro CLT, and Cooper Square CLT. The NYC Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), founded by the advocacy group Picture the Homeless and the New Economy Project, received a grant to coordinate a learning exchange for several emerging local CLT programs, while also serving as a citywide alliance that supports and promotes CLTs generally. Its development plans are remarkably diverse, including family-owned homes, low-priced rental units, and non-residential projects like a community theater or youth recreational center. All these paths steer residents toward building collective equity and resisting displacement.