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BK's 4 Community Land Trusts Could Revolutionize Affordable Housing, Experts Say

A community land trust is a nonprofit organization that buys land off the private market and gives communities control over its use and development.
Sylvia Morse (right), a program manager at the Pratt Center for Community Development, discussed the report she wrote in April 2023 on the past, present and future of the community land trust movement in New York City.

Community land trusts are expanding across the city, and during a panel at Pratt Institute last week, local leaders in the movement said the trend could mean big things for affordable housing in Brooklyn's communities of color.

Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations that buy land off the private market and give communities control over its use and development. This land can include vacant lots as well as lots with buildings on them. Nonprofits might use community land trusts to create public parks, affordable housing or home ownership opportunities for low-income families and small businesses. 

Community land trusts began during the Civil Rights era and grew in popularity in the 2000s as advocates explored them as solutions to rising housing insecurity and homelessness, according to a recent report by Sylvia Morse, the policy program manager at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

The city has 20 community land trusts, four of which are in Brooklyn: The East New York Community Land Trust, the Brownsville Neighborhood Empowerment Network, Flatbush's Brooklyn Level Up and the Central Brooklyn Community Land Trust.

The community land trusts in New York City. Image: Pratt Center for Community Developmment.

Most of these organizations were formed over the last ten years as the movement gained traction. However, when the East Harlem El Barrio Community Land Trust received four buildings from the city in 2020, it became only the second land trust in the city to own property.

Now, four community land trusts own land, three are in the process of acquiring land and 13 others are still advocating for land. So far, all of the Brooklyn trusts are still in the process of acquiring land. According to the report, the Brownsville community land trust has a land transfer in process. 

"This is a very exciting and important time for the community land trust movement," said Deyanira Del Rio, co-executive director of the New Economy Project, to an audience of around 50 people and over 200 virtual attendees at Pratt. 

The ENY community land trust is also in the process of purchasing its first property — a 21-unit apartment building, which the organization will turn into rent-stabilized housing for its tenants — founding member Debra Ack said. 

Debra Ack at a protest in May 2023. Photo: Miranda Levingston for BK Reader.

"We need to take back our land and give it back to the people of the community and let them control the land," Ack said.

In the meantime, Ack said ENYCLT members can be found on the streets of East New York, surveying residents on their hopes and visions for the neighborhood's vacant lots. 

During the panel, Del Rio and Morse said community land trust advocates have secured multiple forms of support and funding from the city in recent years, which has propelled the movement forward. Community trusts rely on state and local government funding, private investments and donations.

Del Rio said a "near-super majority" of City Council members support key components of the Community Land Act, a set of bills supporting land trusts. City Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development have also provided millions of dollars in funding in recent years, according to Morse's report. 

A group of leaders and advocates in the community land trust movement — including East New York's Debra Ack — spoke at Pratt Institute on Sept. 12. Photo: Brennan LaBrie for BK Reader.

However, there is much room for improvement, Morse said in her report, outlining the three actions she recommended the city take to ensure land trusts can continue to scale.

First, the city must commit more land to community land trusts instead of private developers. Secondly, it must invest more in the operations, programs and development of these land trusts. And finally, the city must adopt a comprehensive plan for connecting community land trusts into broader affordable housing and development plans informed by a dedication to racial justice.

"Why is it that the majority of CLTs are still fighting for land even as the city mentions CLTs as an important model in its current housing plan?" Morse asked the audience.

"We're seeing forms of vocal support, but there isn't a comprehensive approach yet to how the city is looking at building out community land trusts."