Overview: Community Land Trusts (CLTs)

Community land trusts are nonprofit, community-based organizations designed to ensure community stewardship of land. Community land trusts can be used for many types of development (including commercial and retail), but are primarily used to ensure long-term housing affordability. To do so, the trust acquires land and maintains ownership of it permanently. With prospective homeowners, it enters into a long-term, renewable lease instead of a traditional sale. When the homeowner sells, the family earns only a portion of the increased property value. The remainder is kept by the trust, preserving the affordability for future low- to moderate-income families.

The length of the lease (most frequently, 99 years) and the percentage earned by the homeowner vary. Ultimately, by separating the ownership of land and housing, this innovative approach prevents market factors from causing prices to rise significantly, and hence guarantees that housing will remain affordable for future generations. Today, there are nearly 250 community land trusts across the United States.

History

After traveling to Israel in 1968 and learning about the success of the Jewish National Fund, which had a long history of acquiring and then leasing land to planned communities and cooperatives, Robert Swann and several southern civil rights leaders developed the first land trust in the United States. Called New Communities, the land trust began on a 5,000-acre farm near Albany, Georgia in 1970.

Community land trusts play a critical role in building community wealth for several key reasons:

  • They provide low- and moderate-income people with the opportunity to build equity through homeownership and ensure these residents are not displaced due to land speculation and gentrification.
  • Land trust housing also protects owners from downturns because people are not over extended; as a result, foreclosure rates for land trusts have been as much as 90 percent less than conventional home mortgages.
  • Most commonly, at least one-third of a land trust’s board is composed of community residents, allowing for the possibility of direct, grassroots participation in decision-making and community control of local assets.
  • In addition to the development of affordable housing, many land trusts are involved in a range of community-focused initiatives including homeownership education programs, commercial development projects, and community greening efforts.


Community-wealth.org houses an extensive collection of resources focused on Community Land Trusts and their role in community wealth building. Below is a glimpse of the rich array of materials you will find as you explore our site:

Our Best Practices section showcases exemplary community land trusts from across the country working to affect positive, sustainable change. For instance, one such organization is Champlain Housing Trust in northwest Vermont. The largest community land trust in the U.S. with over $223 million in assets under its stewardship, the nonprofit also provides homebuyer education classes, offers loans for repairs and energy efficiency work, and develops residential and commercial properties—work, that in 2009 alone, provided 260 construction jobs.

Key Facts & Figures

(based on the latest industry survey)

Estimated number of community land trusts, 2011

242

Housing units, 1991

<2000

Housing units, 2010

9,543

Percent of residents who are first-time homebuyers

79%

Percentage of residents with income less than 50% of area median

82%

Percentage of residents who are non-white

31%

Our Research Resources section highlights web-based resources focused on land trusts. For example, Policy Link’s Community Land Trusts Tool provides a range of resources for those interested in learning more about the model and ways to facilitate its development, including three comprehensive case studies.

Our Articles and Publications section includes links to a diverse selection of articles, reports, papers, and books focused on community land trusts. One such paper is Greg Rosenberg and Jeffrey Yuen’s Beyond Housing: Urban Agriculture and Commercial Development by Community Land Trusts (2012), which demonstrates that community land trusts can go beyond their stewardship role and successfully engage in other community wealth building activities.

Our Toolbox features resources designed to help on-the-ground practitioners working in this field. There you can access the individual chapters of John Emmeus Davis’ 2007 manual, Starting a Community Land Trust: Organizational and Operational Choices, which provides practical guidance for those working to develop new land trusts.

And, lastly, our Policy Guide provides an overview of federal initiatives and programs that can help practitioners leverage resources and increase their impact. For example, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program could be an important source of funding for land trusts working to develop affordable housing.