Mapping Community Land Trusts; a new approach

The following is a summary of my senior thesis for the Political Science Department at Haverford College. 


In the 1980s the then mayor of Burlington, Vermont, championed a novel non-public sector approach to affordable housing and concerns about gentrification called a community land trust. That mayor, Bernie Sanders, is now a senator and the community land trust he started has expanded its portfolio to support over 2,000 homes. Yet when researching gentrification I was surprised to find that this seemingly successful solution to displacement was rarely mentioned and even less frequently studied. Convinced of the potential of community land trusts, used my senior thesis to establish a foundation for further research on community land trusts, especially as they relate to gentrification.

Community land trusts (CLTs) are non-profit organizations that own and maintain land. Characterized by geographic specificity, land stewardship, and open membership, CLTs hold their land in perpetuity for use by, and for the benefit of, the community they represent and serve, often in the form of private leasing of homes and homesteads. Governance is provided by an elected board comprised of members of a geographic community, users of the trust’s land, and the broader public. While the CLT model has been used for a variety of purposes, my focus was on its potential to provide permanently affordable homeownership. These CLTs lease houses on their land to low and middle income households. CLT leases require that the houses be sold to a qualified buyer (generally a household under 80% of area median income) and cap the price at which the home can be sold. This limits the leaseholder’s equity but assures that houses on CLT land will always be sold to low to moderate income buyers at affordable prices.

Based on analysis of twenty-two interviews with representatives of sixteen CLTs around the United States, in conjunction with data from numerous CLT websites and annual reports, I found that these organizations substantially varied from one another in practice. This variation can be categorized along four axes: first their mission (from providing affordable housing to focusing on community building); second the region they serviced (neighborhood-based or broad-based); third their level and type of political engagement (from minimal to actively building a social movement); and fourth their level of autonomy (from being a side project of a parent organization to being wholly independent).

This typology has three major advantages. First, it provides a framework that allows researchers to think systemically about CLTs without relying on a monolithic, misleading, theoretical model. This is a better reflection of reality and it makes it possible to understand the limits of the model in practice—and how those limits vary across CLTs. Second, it helps practitioners by giving them language to recognize and explicitly discuss decisions they are already making, often unconsciously. Third, this typology facilitates an analysis of the consequences of decisions made by CLTs. For example, neighborhood-based CLTs’ focus on a restricted area hampers their ability to increase the amount of housing they can offer, but they are far more willing and able to help residents actively shape their neighborhoods; in contrast broad-based CLTs can expand to other neighborhoods in need and provide more housing but are less able, and often less willing, to help residents change their neighborhoods.

In my analysis of CLTs I also noted a series of problems in which the nature of the CLT model restricts an organizations’ ability to accomplish its goals. I explored five such limits: homebuyers unprepared for homeownership; CLT’s inability to provide further economic opportunity; rising house prices; the financial burden of reselling houses; and inhospitable markets. Based on where they fall on the typology, CLTs react to these challenges in predictably different fashions. For example when housing prices make acquiring new homes impractical, neighborhood-based CLTs often turn their attention to objectives other than homeownership while broad-based CLTs will expand the area they serve by searching for a new neighborhood to support.

In total, based on a series of interviews with support from a plethora of other primary and secondary sources, I found that CLTs vary from one another in four qualitatively observable ways with predictable results. I organized these variations into a typology that facilitates the comparison and analysis of CLTs. This typology has demonstrated value in explaining and understanding structural limits of the CLT model, and how different organizations have confronted, and overcome, these limits. My hope is that this typology will facilitate strategic decision making by policy makers and practitioners interested in the model and support further research on the impact of CLTs on their community’s and housing markets.

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