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Community land trusts score crucial funds in city budget

The $750,000 will go toward fostering a city network of land trusts

The budget funds will help foster community land trusts across the five boroughs.
Max Touhey

The latest city budget includes $750,000 to grow an underutilized housing model that creates affordable homes in rapidly gentrifying communities—a major win for housing advocates.

The funds will go toward incubating community land trusts (CLTs), or community-based nonprofits that sell housing or other buildings on property but retain ownership of the land. Elected officials and housing advocates tout the unique model as a way to create permanently affordable residential and commercial spaces, but a lack of funding can be a barrier to getting CLTs off the ground.

Now, with the injection of dollars from the City Council, newly formed and existing CLTs will have sorely needed support. Manhattan councilmember Carlina Rivera, who is among a coalition of elected officials advocating for CLTs, said the budget win is a “great first step” toward recognizing and investing in the value of CLTs.

“We have to use every tool in the tool box and I think this is one that has been dreadfully underutilized for decades,” Rivera told Curbed. “We’re not saying it’s a silver bullet—it’s one of the many things we have to do to address our affordable housing crisis.”

By separating ownership of land from what is built on top of it, CLTs ensure that buildings cannot be sold for profit, thereby curbing speculation and serving as bulwarks against displacement and homelessness, advocates say.

“We really are looking specifically for neighborhoods that may unfortunately be a part of the next gentrification wave—places like the South Bronx, Brownsville, Staten Island’s north shore,” said Rivera. “What we want to do is plant the seeds for these CLTs to grow.”

The effort also has the backing of councilmembers Donovan Richards, Helen Rosenthal, and Mark Levine.

The budget funds won’t go toward acquiring property for CLTs, but instead for the technical assistance, educational outreach, and organizing that must occur beforehand. Currently, there are 11 organizations with CLT projects across the five boroughs in neighborhoods such as Harlem, Edgemere, and Cypress Hills. Some incorporated recently are in the process of acquiring land, like the East Harlem El Barrio CLT, while others are in the midst of forming; Chhaya CDC, a nonprofit dedicated to the South Asian Community in Queens, aims to create a CLT in Jackson Heights.

CLTs have a long history across the country and New York. The city’s oldest, the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, dates back to 1991 and is located in Rivera’s district. To date, it has expanded to some 400 apartments and 20 small businesses.

Over the years, councilmembers have invested in land trusts in their districts, but the $750,000 will foster a network of CLTs, allowing many of which are in the early phases to mature together. It’s a significant moment, according to Deyanira Del Rio, the board chair of the New York City Community Land Initiative and the co-director of the New Economy Project, which will coordinate the initiative.

“It’s really the first of its kind in terms of citywide funding. For us, this feels like a huge step forward—like a leap forward,” said Del Rio. “It’s the first time a lot of these groups are going to have dedicated funding for their CLT organizing work, so it’s pretty powerful.”

This is the second bid to fund the initiative. Organizers asked for some $735,000 last year but were unsuccessful. This budget season, advocates pushed for $850,000 to fund the entire program.

The NYC Community Land Trust Initiative’s short-term goals include conducting education and organizing sessions for tenants and homeowners; providing technical assistance to emerging CLTs; and formalizing CLT incorporation and partnerships in all five boroughs. The chief long-term goal is to create thousands of units of affordable housing and commercial space for hundreds of small and cooperatively-owned businesses. This is often done by utilizing vacant city land.

The model has again gained momentum in New York City in part due to a $3.5 million bank settlement negotiated by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2017. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development distributed a $1.65 million grant from the settlement toward fostering CLTs, and this year, Attorney General Letitia James secured an $8 million bank settlement that will also go toward CLTs.

Organizers hope the latest round of funding will give the city’s CLTs the shot in the arm needed to gain ground in the five boroughs.

“We hope it signals the tide change,” said Del Rio. “We have these institutions forming—let’s make sure they can acquire property and have a real presence in their neighborhoods.”