Clad in bright yellow t-shirts and holding signs that said “our land, our homes, controlled by us,” and “public land for public good,” several dozen members of New York City’s community land trusts (CLTs) held a rally at City Hall on April 14. They were pushing for Mayor Eric Adams and the NYC City Council to add $3 million for CLTs to the city budget for the 2023 fiscal year. They were joined by elected officials, including city council members Carlina Rivera, Tiffany Caban, Sandy Nurse and Carmen De La Rosa, as well as comptroller Brad Lander.
“Many of our neighborhoods are being gobbled up by these private equity backed LLCs and corporations,” council member Sandy Nurse said at the rally. “This is a tool that we have and a tool that we need and we need to fund it,” she said.
Hannah Anousheh is the only person on staff at East New York CLT, which was formed in the early months of the pandemic, when the recession was heightening foreclosures in the neighborhood. “As we like to say, we were birthed through the fire,” Anousheh told Next City.
The community land trust model keeps ownership of land in the hands of a nonprofit. The nonprofit typically enters into a 99-year ground lease with the residents, who then join a board where they have say over the rules of the CLT, like admittance criteria, maintenance fees and resale values. Residents can also build equity while paying the ground lease, but that equity is limited because the resale value of the home is typically capped in order to keep it affordable for the next resident.
Anousheh says each of the city’s CLTs got around $98,000 in the 2022 fiscal year. That was not enough to hire multiple staff members while also covering other administrative costs. This is why last Thursday’s rally asking the city to double its CLT funding brought out representation from four of the city’s five boroughs, including the East Harlem El Barrio CLT and the Cooper Square CLT, the city’s first.
They also include Western Queens CLT, which is looking to reappropriate a building originally slated to become Amazon’s headquarters in Long Island City. The Department of Education-owned building could be a hub for local businesses, manufacturing jobs and low-cost artist space, Western Queens CLT members argue. Rally attendees also included the Bronx CLT, an offshoot of the nonprofit Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). Bronx CLT is working to acquire the vacant Kingsbridge Armory, among other spaces.
“The CLT efforts actually came out of tenant organizing efforts to ensure that we’re not just fighting back, we’re thinking about ways we can gain control of buildings,” Edward Garcia, a community organizer with NWBCCC, told Next City.
Anousheh says that the East New York CLT has not yet acquired any land but has participated in actions intended to acquire more properties for the land trust, including the Cancel the Tax Lien Sale campaign, which pushed for tax-delinquent properties to be acquired by nonprofits. (While legislation authorizing the city’s tax lien sale for another four years was not renewed, Adams has not committed to transferring indebted properties into land trusts, as East New York CLT had wanted.) With additional funding, Anousheh says they could hire more administrative staff, including an organizing director and an operations director, to get more neighbors interested in CLTs.
“For each CLT group to be able to independently hire one staff person, we need this,” she told Next City. “This is on par with other organizing coalitions.”
Carmen De La Rosa is a council member representing District 10, which covers Marble Hill, Washington Heights, and Inwood in upper Manhattan. She told Next City that many of the predominantly Latinx long-time community members in her district are hungry for solutions that will stabilize their neighborhoods, which face ongoing displacement risks. She says that risk was heightened by a controversial 2018 rezoning of Inwood, one of nine neighborhoods across the city that had been rezoned during the mayoralty of Bill de Blasio. That rezoning was meant to increase housing production by permitting developers to build taller apartments in exchange for a mandate that 25% of all units remain affordable. But a report from the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development found these types of neighborhood-wide rezonings were not producing as high a ratio of affordable units as non-rezoned neighborhoods.
“One of the things that is really palpable to me is the lack of affordability, especially when rezonings come into play,” De La Rosa told Next City. “So I support the community land trust model because I believe that we are returning ownership to our communities.”
While there is sometimes skepticism of community land trusts from communities that have been cut out of formal means of wealth-building like homeownership, De La Rosa says people in her community are more focused on the near-term project of stabilizing their neighborhoods.
“The conversations that are more pronounced in my district are conversations about displacement and gentrification, and not necessarily the conversation about generational wealth-building,” De La Rosa says. “Most of the people in our community are severely rent-burdened and can’t even think past their homes. They can’t even afford the apartments that they’re living in.”
The rally occurred on the same day that Councilmember Carlina Rivera introduced legislation meant to support community land trusts. Among those bills was the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, citywide legislation that would alert nonprofits when buildings are being sold and give them the first opportunity to purchase them. Another bill would exempt CLTs from a requirement to advertise in the city’s affordable housing portal, a mandate that has been criticized as costly and burdensome. Because of a 2018 law, units that aren’t registered with the housing portal within 18 months are subject to fines of $2,000 a month.
“Local Law 64 has imposed a ‘one size fits all’ admissions process that is expensive, punitive and incompatible with CLTs,” Dave Powell, the director of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, said in a statement in support of Rivera’s bills.
Last year, the city’s CLTs asked for $1.5 million to be added to the 2022 fiscal year budget, which they received. While $3 million would allow the city’s CLTs to scale up their staffing significantly, that money would not be set aside to acquire new properties. Advocates are hoping to increase their requests in future budgets. Councilmember Charles Barron, whose district covers East New York, said at Thursday’s rally that the real ask should be $1 billion, to chuckles and agreement.
“I think we should at least start off with $10 million. After we get the $10 million, then the $1 billion. And we can do it because there’s a $104 billion city budget, a $220 billion state budget,” Barron said. “Damn it, you can give us a billion dollars.”
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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.