Blog #38 – Community Land Trusts: Empty, Moderate, and Full-bodied.

Community Land Trusts – Empty, Moderate, or Full-bodied?

Community land trusts,[1] as a legal form of ownership of land, can come in three different forms: empty – available to any group for any purpose; moderate – to deal with serious but limited problems for a limited group, or full-bodied – handling both immediate problems but with a broad social justice perspective pushing transformative content and actions.

The differences are significant. Community land trusts can simply be an expanded form of co-operative ownership used by those protecting an already strong position in the housing market, insulating its members from outside influences by exclusion. The legal form of land trust is available to all, and ”community” can be interpreted restrictively by the well-to-do as easily as broadly by less well-off users. Thus, community land trusts as an empty form.

At the other extreme on a scale of social justice, community land trusts have the potential to play a transformative role in our housing systems, favoring lower-income households and all those ill served by existing markets, including poor households, the homeless, African-Americans and ethnic minorities, many women, households diverse by gender relations, age, and background.  -justice focused community land trusts can whittle away at the dominance of the private market as a method of allocating housing. Community land trusts can be models of democratic governance, both internally and at a larger scale of governance. And they can help in the political processes by which public resources are allocated to establish and implement a meaningful right to housing for all. Thus, necessarily, full=bodied community land trusts .

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz. having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

In between these two extremes lie a wide variety of variations in form and content. The exclusionary use of community land trusts would presumably be rejected by most. There is a danger of co-optation by interests posing community land trusts  as an alternative to public housing or rent regulation or subsidies or favorable tax treatment for those in need. Presumably, also, a formal commitment to principles of social justice and serving those in need would be part of any mainstream moderate position. But how sharply to focus their immediate goals, how widely or narrowly to devote their energies, how to use limited resources, with whom to ally and who to confront in adversarial fashion, how far and in what manner to be politically engaged, are all matters in which strategy as well as principle. Compromises will be inevitable. Thus, moderate community land trusts.

Where in this spectrum of possible community land trusts  a given effort stands seems to me to depend on three factors.

  1. How seriously is “community” taken? Community land trusts can be simply a legal form of holding title, used for tax and financing purposes, but in daily use essentially a management company, negotiating with utilities, contractors, maintenance staff, etc. Or it can be seen as a part of an effort for form and maintain a communal level of social interaction, involving not only collective democratic decision-making but a sharing of activities, of information, of social responsibilities, of political involvement. It can affirmatively work on positive relationships with its outside neighboring community, having not only neighborhood representatives on it boards but helping integrate its residents in its community, more widely defined, sharing facilities, activities, information, as circumstances suggest. Likewise, it can affirmatively look to achieve and make use of a diversity of residents, including both levels of recognition and of assimilation comfortable to each.
  2. How, and how clearly, is the constituency of the community land trust understood? A community land trust has control over who its members are, can have processes similar to those of cooperatives in interviewing potential new members. But there are general principles that must be established, and they will influence not only who is in the community land trust but what its relations with its outside community and government will be. Specifically, income levels and household composition can be defined as criteria.
  3.  If the principles of social justice are followed, it also becomes more likely that the community land trust will operate as a full-bodied trust.
  4. How does the community land trust see its political role? Every community land trust except an exclusionary one of the well-to-do faces the reality that many to whom it would like to be open cannot afford even the non-profit real costs of decent housing. The need may go from an immediate need for help even with basic costs or special needs to an on-going concern about rising costs or changed incomes limiting what a household can afford.  That inevitably means a concern with governmental subsidies, levels of taxation, utility costs, building codes, public services, public facilities. But the problems community land trusts  face are shared by a large part of the population as a whole. If the community land trust sees itself as part of a broader movement to achieve social justice in the provision of housing, perhaps as part of a broad right to housing movement, it will be more and more a full-bodied community land trust both in its inception and its ongoing daily activities.

A note on the ideological and economic aspects of community land trusts:

The idea of community land trusts resonates with an old theme in economics: that of land as a common natural resource, one not the product of human efforts, and therefore not to be appropriated by individuals for their private use, but to be shared among all. Community land trusts can be seen as an implementation of that view, at least on a small scale: no individual has the legal right to dispose of his or her interest in a community land trust for personal gain. Yet, theoretically, the ability to sell an interest in a building built on land in a community land trust at a price for that building fixed in a private market will take into account that that interest is made more attractive by its ground lease. Thus a likely profit can in fact ensue to the seller of a community land trust unit, amounting to an ability to make a private profit from a natural resource,. The market value of a building or unit in a community land trust building is technically the price of a commodity.. The land itself may be decommodified, but the right to use it is valuable, and could be realized by a sale of what is on the land and benefits a private owner from its common ownership. The land is decommodified, but not necessarily the building on it, to which the value of participation in the community land trust accrues.

What makes the typical community land trust radical is not the separation of land from building and its character as natural resource, but rather the restrictions that the classic community land trust, moderate to full-bodied, imposes on those leasing the right to occupy from the trust. Those restrictions typically regulate the price at which a housing unit in a community land trust can be sold. In these community land trusts , the leases to occupant members either prohibits the occupant from selling the unit except at a price established by the board of the trust, or gives the trust itself the right to buy at a fixed and limited price if the unit is put up for sale. . In this way community land trusts operate as would a limited equity co-op; the separation out of land ownership is simply another way of controlling collectively the price of units in it, as well usually as the characteristics of new buyer occupants. It is the restrictions in the permitted sales of units in a community land trust which make it an ideologically radical idea, and the terms of that restriction set the extent of the radicalism. If limited to an original price, originally set not aiming at a profit, and usually increasing only to the extent of the occupants own investment of money or labor in the unit, that makes it radical, for it effectively takes the unit out of the housing market and eliminates its use as a provider of private profit. A resident of a classic community land trust has virtually all the rights of a home owner, except the right to sell at a profit.  It turns housing into a set of use values, rather than of exchange values.[2]

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz.having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

All this has two implications. One is that such a community land trust cannot be seen as a “creator of wealth.” The opportunity to benefit from a speculative increase in the value of land is denied the owner. That may make a community land trust less attractive to some, but may be welcomed by others, and should in any event be clear in the use of the community land trust form of ownership. The other implication is the need for thoughtful consideration of how permitted sale prices are established. While the principle of non-speculation is clear, its definition is not quite. Specifically: typically, the seller is allowed to recover his or her purchase price plus investments. But usually that purchase price is adjusted by some formulae, such as changes in the cost of living, benchmarked to some measure of the rate of inflation, at least on the up side. That means it has some characteristics of an investment that does have market advantages: it is protected from erosion by inflation. It has the additional market advantage, the more full-bodied the community land trust is, of having collective backing against personal misfortune; foreclosure is technically impossible and eviction for non-payment of rent is handled more humanely than it is in the market, again to varying degrees. That benefit is of course realized to some extent in directly market terms when it comes to financing; a bank is likely to recognize the stability provided by the collective responsibilities and spread out risk inherent in the community land trust form as opposed to conventional single-family home ownership.

So “decommodification”  is not complete, but is certainly ideologically challenged by the use of the community land trust form, and its extent will vary with the details of the trust instrument and the leases given pursuant to it.

And if the above economic analysis is right, it provides some solace for potential participants in a community land trust that, while they may not accumulate speculatively-driven wealth by participation, they do achieve definite economic advantages in terms of security, both of occupancy and of return of original investment.

My own take, again if the above analysis is correct, on implications for community land trust practitioners:

Be clear who your constituency is. (Point 1 above.)

  1. Stress the “community” in community land trusts when presenting them. (Point 2
  2. Be clear and up front where you stand on the importance of social justice in the spectrum between moderate and full-bodied community land trust.  (point 3)
  3. Be politically active in coalition formation with other social justice oriented organizations and actors, and join with them both in obtaining the necessary support and subsidies for community land trusts  and in supporting other housing rights organizations program proposals for governmental action in the housing field, particularly on financing and rent regulation and affirmative non-discrimination. (Point 4.)
  4. Be up front about community land trusts’ impacts on wealth accumulation (minimal) and its other economic advantages: security of tenure and investment.  (Note on ideological and economic aspects.)  Blog#38.

[1] A community land trust is a legal form in which the ownership of land is held in the form of a trust and separated from the ownership of any structures that may be on it, which are privately (often in the form of a co-op or mutual housing association) built, occupied, and managed, subject to the term of a land lease from the trust. The trust is typically controlled by a board in which the actual users of the buildings on it are the primary members, together usually with representatives of the neighboring community and/or relevant government representatives. The leaseold interest with the users of the building have can be sold  subject to the provisions of the lease from the trust, which typically limits its resale price and must approve the buyer. An excellent fact sheet,  which also contains further useful links,.is at,,

[2] The myth that home ownership per se is a reliable way to accumulate needs to be dispelled. Home owners accumulate wealth only through two aspects of home ownership: one is savings, the other is speculation. The savings are essentially the forced setting aside of money to pay off a loan, the mortgage. Alternate investments of savings might do even better, and be subject to less risk. The other source of additional wealth creation from home ownership lies in the possibility of capturing the increase in the value of the house, which is fundamentally of the location on it is built, for the physical building itself depreciates. Again, that’s a speculative investment, and not always a safe one, as today’s economy shows. And see the historical experience recounted in Sclar, Elliott, Matthew Edel. and Daniel Luria. 1984. Shaky Palaces: Home ownership and Social Mobility in Boston’s Suburbanization.  New York Columbia University Press 1984.

4 thoughts on “Blog #38 – Community Land Trusts: Empty, Moderate, and Full-bodied.

  1. > A community land trust has control over who its members are, can have processes similar to those of cooperatives in interviewing potential new members

    What about people who are rejected by the land trust co-op? Are they essentially victims of socialism for not being popular/likeable enough?

    1. They’re victims of the unfortunate propensity of individuals not to like all of their fellow human beings equally. We regulate by law on what basis a person may NOT be rejected for given benefits: race, religion, sexual preference, disability, age. otherwise, basically rejection can be arbitrary. As in any co-op, or any friendship or love affair.
      In some corners of the law you must have reasonable grounds for rejection, as in defending against a charge that rejection was based on race. Most co-ops, and many community land trusts, require a rejecting board to provide a reason for a rejection.It’s difficult to formulate meaningful rules, though.

  2. Excellent post, Peter. As the co-founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust I find these basic categories correct. I’ll add that CLT’s can often exhibit characteristics of all three at once. For example, a CLT can be politically active with a social justice perspective, and also not have overcome barriers to the internal contradictions posed by subsidies, anti-cooperative behavior on the part of some residents, etc. It’s a never-ending process to build an anti-speculative project in a neo-liberal city, but worthwhile.

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