Land, Housing, and Racial Justice

Posted by John Krinsky and Gregory Jost
June 29, 2020

At the tail end of the civil rights movement, a new community rose up in rural Albany, Georgia. Fighting back against the physical and economic violence of Jim Crow, a group of Black leaders and organizers who were tired of being evicted by their white landlords, fired by their white bosses, and constantly harassed by white police officers built their own refuge in a communal land ownership structure. Charles and Shirley Sherrod along with Slater and C.B. King worked with Ralph Borsodi to organize the nation’s first community land trust. New Communities Inc. acquired thousands of acres of land to steward on behalf of their community of former sharecroppers. In this model the community would agree together upon the best commercial, agricultural and residential uses of the land. They faced repeated attacks by the white establishment – they were denied residency permits, shot at, and turned down by discriminatory local offices of the Department of Agriculture — but through relentless determination they survived and celebrated their fiftieth anniversary last year. The community land trust model they developed has become an increasingly powerful tool in urban settings to preserve and protect thriving Black, brown and mixed race neighborhoods from the violence of speculative investment, displacement and wealth extraction.

In recent years, states around the nation, including New York, have seen an explosion of interest in community land trusts. While Cooper Square Community Land Trust on the Lower East Side had been the only functioning CLT in the city for nearly 30 years, community residents and organizations have recently formed more than a dozen across the city. Like New Communities, these new trusts combine land ownership with old-fashioned community organizing. Neighbors meet each other and engage in the hard but often joyous work of fighting for better lives through collective decision making about the best use of their land for their communities.

COVID has exposed the deep inequalities present in our city. Neighborhood death and infection rates closely align with rates of poverty, overcrowding, and housing precarity. The economic toll of lost work and wages further reveals the extent of violence our most vulnerable communities face. The utterly inadequate state-level housing relief means that these same majority Black and brown communities full of essential frontline worker-heroes, will likely be subject to the violence of long-term debt, hardship and evictions.

The horrific police violence and culture of impunity that disproportionately target Black men forms a mirror image to the violence of eviction, which typically targets women-headed households; as the sociologist Matthew Desmond has written, Black men get locked up and Black women get locked out.

Community land trusts produce new, democratic ways of responding to the state-sponsored violence of the real-estate market—the speculative investors, lenders and landlords whose business models explicitly seek to push out lower-income tenants — and the City and State government agencies that enable these strategies through developer-friendly rezonings and tax abatements. Last year, organized tenants won landmark legislation limiting landlords’ ability to raise the rents on rent-regulated tenants and fuel runaway speculation. To fully protect tenants, we need to go a step further and move as much control over housing and land-use to democratic, participatory structures at the community level. Community Land Trusts offer a way forward.

While COVID has devastated so many, the housing emergency it has created provides a critical opportunity. With housing and land prices falling, the time to invest in this model is now. Last year, the City Council allocated funding to groups around the city to increase their organizing capacity for getting the land trusts off the ground. These groups are deeply rooted in their communities and are on the frontlines responding to COVID.

The City must renew and expand support for community land trusts in this critical moment. By reducing the budget of the NYPD and reallocating those funds to community uses that fight violence and build up working class communities of color, we can build a more just city. Community land trusts act as “stewards” of the land for future generations, so the benefits will last generations. In the wake of COVID, it will be important to ensure that housing in low-income neighborhoods is not snapped up by the “vulture funds” of corporate private-equity firms that violently extract wealth and displace tenants in order to boost the value of their assets.

Community land trusts build community infrastructure, get neighbors involved, and understand that shared economic security does not lie in profiting off land. The city’s support for CLTs must continue, not so that a few people will get rich, but so that the many will have justice.

John Krinsky is the Director of Community Change Studies at CCNY and a NYCCLI board member. Gregory Jost is an Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Fordham University and the Policy and Campaigns Consultant for Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association.