Community land trust

Community land trust

A community land trust is a nonprofit corporation which acquires and manages land on behalf of the residents of a place-based community, while preserving affordability and preventing foreclosures for any housing located upon its land.


Key features

The community land trust (CLT) is an equitable and sustainable model of affordable housing and community development that has slowly spread throughout the United States during the past 40 years. The CLT model was originated in the United States by Ralph Borsodi and Robert Swann, drawing upon earlier examples of planned communities on leased land including Garden Cities in England, single tax communities in the USA, Gramdan villages in India, and moshav communities on lands owned by the Jewish National Fund in Israel. The prototype for the modern-day community land trust was formed in 1969 near Albany, Georgia by leaders of the southern civil rights movement seeking a new way to achieve secure access to land for African American farmers.


According to the E. F. Schumacher Society website: "Swann was inspired by Ralph Borsodi and by Borsodi's work with J. P. Narayan and Vinoba Bhave, both disciples of Gandhi. Vinoba walked from village to village in rural India in the 1950s and 1960s, gathering people together and asking those with more land than they needed to give a portion of it to their poorer sisters and brothers. The initiative was known as the Bhoodan or Land gift movement, and many of India's leaders participated in these walks.

Some of the new landowners, however, became discouraged. Without tools to work the land and seeds to plant it, without an affordable credit system available to purchase these necessary things, the land was useless to them. They soon sold their deeds back to the large landowners and left for the cities. Seeing this, Vinoba altered the Boodan system to a Gramdan or Village gift system. All donated land was subsequently held by the village itself. The village would then lease the land to those capable of working it. The lease expired if the land was unused. The Gramdan movement inspired a series of regional village land trusts that anticipated Community Land Trusts in the United States.

The first organization to be labeled with the term 'community land trust' in the U.S., called New Communities, Inc., was founded with the purpose of helping African-American farmers in the rural South to gain access to farmland and to work it with security.

A precursor to this was the Celo Community in North Carolina, which was founded in 1937 by Arthur Ernest Morgan.[1]

New communities: Robert Swann worked with Slater King, president of the Albany Movement and a cousin of Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and individuals from other southern civil rights organizations in the South to develop New Communities, Inc., "a nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities".

Their vision for New Communities Inc. drew heavily on the example and experience of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in making land available through 99-year ground leases for the development of planned communities and agricultural cooperatives. The JNF was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Ottoman Palestine (later Israel) for Jewish settlement. By 2007, the JNF owned 13% of all the land in Israel. It has a long and established legal history of leasing land to individuals, to cooperatives, and to intentional communities such as kibbutzim and moshavim. Swann, Slater King, Charles Sherrod, Faye Bennett, director of the National Sharecroppers Fund, and our other Southerners traveled to Israel in the 1968 to learn more about ground leasing. They decided on a model that included individual leaseholds for homesteads and cooperative leases for farmland. New Communities Inc. purchased a 5,000-acre (20 km2) farm near Albany, Georgia in 1970, developed a plan for the land, and farmed it for twenty years. The land was eventually lost, but the example of New Communities inspired the formation of a dozen other rural community land trusts in the 1970s. It also inspired and informed the first book about community land trusts, produced by the International Independence Institute in 1972.

Ralph Borsodi, Robert Swann, and Erick Hansch founded the International Independence Institute in 1967 to provide training and technical assistance for rural development in the United States and other countries, drawing on the model of the Gramdan villages being developed in India. In 1972, Swann, Hansch, Shimon Gottschalk, and Ted Webster proposed a "new model for land tenure in America" in The Community Land Trust, the first book to name and describe this new approach to the ownership of land, housing, and other buildings. One year later, they changted the name of the International Independence Institute to the Institute for Community Economics (ICE).

In the 1980s, ICE began popularizing a new notion of the CLT, applying the model for the first time to problems of affordable housing, gentrification, displacement, and neighborhood revitalization in urban areas. From 1980-90, Chuck Matthei, an activist with roots in the Catholic Worker movement and the peace movement, served as Executive Director of ICE, then based in Greenfield, MA and now located in Springfield, MA. ICE pioneered the modern community land trust and community loan fund models. During Chuck's tenure, the number of community land trusts increased from a dozen to more than 100 groups in 23 states, creating many hundreds of permanently affordable housing units, as well as commercial and public service facilities. With colleagues Chuck guided the development of 25 regional loan funds and organized the National Association of Community Development Loan Funds, later known as the National Community Capital Association. From 1985-90, Chuck served as a founding Chairman of the Association and from 1983-88 he served as a founding board member of the Social Investment Forum, the national professional association in the field of socially responsible investment. Chuck also launched an effort in the early to mid-1980s to address many of the legal and operational questions about CLTs that were arising as banks, public officials and others encountered the growing effort to create such community based organizations around the country.

The first urban CLT, the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati, was founded in 1981 by an ecumenical association of churches and ministries created to prevent the displacement of low-income, African-American residents from their neighborhood. During the 1980s, the number of urban CLTs increased dramatically. They were sometimes formed, as in Cincinnati, in opposition to the plans and politics of municipal government. In other cities, like Burlington, Vermont and Syracuse, New York, community land trusts were formed in partnership with a local government. One of the most significant city-CLT partnerships was formed in 1989 when a CLT subsidiary of the Dudley Neighborhood Initiative was granted the power of eminent domain by the City of Boston.

There are currently over 250 community land trusts in the United States. Fledgling CLT movements are also underway in England, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Kenya and New Zealand. In 2006, a national association was established in the United States to provide assistance and support for CLTs: the National Community Land Trust Network. Also established that year to serve as the Network’s training and research arm was the National CLT Academy. Similar country-wide networks for promoting and supporting CLTs have recently been formed in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

Additional characteristics

Since 1992, the defining features of the CLT model in the United States have been enshrined in federal law (Section 212, Housing and Community Development Act of 1992). There is considerable variation among the hundreds of organizations that call themselves a community land trust, but ten key features are to be found in most of them.

Nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation A community land trust is an independent, not-for-profit corporation that is legally chartered in the state in which it is located. Most CLTs are started from scratch, but some are grafted onto existing nonprofit corporations. Most CLTs target their activities and resources toward charitable activities like providing housing for low-income people and redeveloping blighted neighborhoods, making them eligible to receive 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS.

Dual ownership A nonprofit corporation (the CLT) acquires multiple parcels of land throughout a targeted geographic area with the intention of retaining ownership of these parcels forever. Any building already located on the land or later constructed on the land is sold off to an individual homeowner, a cooperative housing corporation, a nonprofit developer of rental housing, or some other nonprofit, governmental, or for-profit entity.

Leased land Although CLTs intend never to resell their land, they provide for the exclusive use of their land by the owners of any buildings located thereon. Parcels of land are conveyed to individual homeowners (or to the owners of other types of residential or commercial structures) through long-term ground leases. This two-party contract between the landowner (the CLT) and a building’s owner protects the latter’s interests in security, privacy, legacy, and equity, while enforcing the CLT’s interests in preserving the appropriate use, the structural integrity, and the continuing affordability of any buildings located upon its land.

Perpetual affordability The CLT retains an option to repurchase any residential (or commercial) structures located upon its land, should their owners ever choose to sell. The resale price is set by a formula contained in the ground lease that is designed to give present homeowners a fair return on their investment, while giving future homebuyers fair access to housing at an affordable price. By design and by intent, the CLT is committed to preserving the affordability of housing (and other structures) – one owner after another, one generation after another, in perpetuity.

Perpetual responsibility The CLT does not disappear once a building is sold. As owner of the underlying land and as owner of an option to re-purchase any buildings located on its land, the CLT has an abiding interest in what happens to these structures and to the people who occupy them. The ground lease requires owner-occupancy and responsible use of the premises. Should buildings become a hazard, the ground lease gives the CLT the right to step in and force repairs. Should property owners default on their mortgages, the ground lease gives the CLT the right to step in and cure the default, forestalling foreclosure. The CLT remains a party to the deal, safeguarding the structural integrity of the buildings and the residential security of the occupants.

Community base The CLT operates within the physical boundaries of a targeted locality. It is guided by – and accountable to – the people who call this locale their home. Any adult who resides on the CLT’s land and any adult who resides within the area deemed by the CLT to be its “community” can be-come a voting member of the CLT. This “community” may encompass a single neighborhood, multiple neighborhoods, or, in some cases, an entire town, city, or county.

Resident control Two-thirds of a CLT’s board of directors are nominated by, elected by, and composed of people who either live on the CLT’s land or people who re-side within the CLT’s targeted “community” but do not live on the CLT’s land.

Tripartite governance The board of directors of the "classic" CLT is composed of three parts, each containing an equal number of seats. One third of the board represents the interests of people who lease land from the CLT (“leaseholder representatives”). One third represents the interests of residents from the surrounding “community” who do not lease CLT land (“general representatives”). One third is made up of public officials, local funders, nonprofit providers of housing or social services, and other individuals presumed to speak for the public interest ("public representatives"). Control of the CLT’s board is diffused and balanced to ensure that all interests are heard but no interest is predominant.

Expansionist acquisition CLTs are not focused on a single project located on a single parcel of land. They are committed to an active acquisition and development program, aimed at expanding the CLT’s holdings of land and increasing the supply of affordable housing (and other types of buildings) under the CLT’s stewardship. A CLT’s holdings are seldom concentrated in one corner of a community. They tend, instead, to be scattered throughout the CLT’s service area, indistinguishable from other owner occupied housing in the same neighborhood.

Flexible development There is enormous variability in the types of projects that CLTs pursue and in the roles they play in developing them. Many CLTs do development with their own staff. Others delegate development to nonprofit or for-profit partners, confining their own efforts to assembling land and preserving the affordability of any structures located upon it. Some CLTs focus on a single type and tenure of housing, like detached, owner-occupied houses. Other CLTs take full advantage of the model’s unique flexibility. They develop housing of many types and tenures or they focus more broadly on comprehensive community development, undertaking a diverse array of residential and commercial projects. CLTs around the country have constructed (or acquired, rehabilitated, and resold) single-family homes, duplexes, condos, co-ops, SROs, multi-unit apartment buildings, and mobile home parks. CLTs have created facilities for neighborhood businesses, nonprofit organizations, and social service agencies. CLTs have provided sites for community gardens and vest-pocket parks. Land is the common ingredient, linking them all. The CLT is the social thread, connecting them all.

See also


  1. ^ Hicks, George L. Experimental Americans: Celo and Utopian Community in the Twentieth Century. University of Illinois Press: 2001.


  • The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New System of Land Tenure in America original 1972 book authored by Robert Swann et al. in pdf form
  • The Community Land Trust Handbook, authored by the Institute for Community Economics and published by Rodale Press in 1982.
  • Street of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, authored by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar and published by South End Press in 1994
  • Starting a Community Land Trust: Organizational and Operational Choices, a 2007 publication authored by John Emmeus Davis and available on line at
  • The City-CLT Partnership: Municipal Support for Community Land Trusts, authored by John Emmeus Davis and Rick Jacobus and published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in 2008.
  • The Community Land Trust Reader, edited by John Emmeus Davis and published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in 2010.



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