Those who seek social transformations by virtue of changing the forms of ownership in society must recognize that these forms of ownership—on their own—are not anywhere near enough…The political content of work in communities comes from a myriad of sources, of which the form of ownership is just one. A transformed political economy requires a transformed set of understandings of society; not (just) a transformed set of organizational forms in society.
“On the Transformative Potential of Community Land Trusts in the United States,” by James DeFilippis, Olivia R. Williams, Joseph Pierce, Deborah G. Martin, Rich Kruger, and Azadeh Hadizadeh Esfahani
Last month, Shelterforce, a leading community development journal, published two articles that took a careful look at flaws in two leading forms of community-based economic development. One was an interview by editor Miriam Axel-Lute of Ed Gorman from the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), which chides community development financial institutions (CDFIs) for not taking on enough risk. The other, authored by Olivia Williams, an economic geographer, asks whether the “C” (community) in “CLT” (community land trust) remains meaningful as the sector has grown—and says it too often has not.
Both authors are friendly critics. Gorman acknowledges that NCRC, among other functions, actually launched a CDFI years ago, one that is not exempt from the criticisms he makes. Williams, for her part, acknowledges that CLTs can, if employed creatively, promote transformative change. But, broadly speaking, both contend that the system-changing potential of community-owned institutions often takes second fiddle to funding exigencies.
These criticisms should surprise few of us. Certainly, any organization that operates in today’s economy, no matter what its social justice or political vision may be, must act in what is often a hostile environment. Back in 2004, INCITE! sponsored a conference with the theme of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, which laid bare the many contradictions that social justice nonprofits in particular face in achieving their missions.
The tensions between day-to-day operations and long-term vision, in short, are common among nonprofits, and indeed all mission-based organizations, whether or not they are legally structured as 501c3s. This is not to excuse every compromise made, but it is to acknowledge the challenge inherent in any work that seeks to promote even modest structural economic change.
Both CDFIs and CLTs—especially CDFIs—have grown rapidly in recent years. Indeed, as NPQ has noted, CDFIs as a sector have rapidly expanded from controlling a few billion in assets two decades ago to $185 billion today, a point Gorman acknowledges.
“CDFIs, just judged by the total capital being invested, are a remarkable success over the last 25 years,” Gorman says, “but I think everybody knows we could all do better.”
Essentially, Gorman’s complaint is that CDFIs, to be successful and achieve that growth have held back on how much risk they will take on. This is good for the economic bottom line, but less good for their social mission. As Gorman explains:
It takes roughly the same amount of time to close a small business loan that’s a microloan as it does a larger loan. You’re going to have to do a hell of a lot of volume to make up for the size of the loan. There’s more technical assistance needed, because the relative sophistication of the borrowers is lower, at least from a business standpoint. All of those things add up to a more difficult hill to climb, and you’re pretty much guaranteed [some] loss. That’s tough stuff.
So, when we wonder why we’re not seeing enough money make it into the hands of moderate-income [folks] and folks located in low- and moderate-income census tracks, it’s pretty clear why.
Williams makes similar observations about CLTs. CLTs, she notes, are not economically self-sufficient because the fees they collect only cover some of their expenses, thus requiring generating income from grants and the development of new housing.
“The focus on grant writing and housing development,” Williams writes, “means that CLTs often become highly professionalized affordable housing organizations with staff-focused operations and boards that prioritize the involvement of lawyers, housing developers, and sometimes public officials and direct funders. The increasingly competitive nature of most grants and the high price of land and housing development means that CLTs sometimes struggle to make ends meet.”
The existence of tensions is not surprising. But can they be overcome? Both Gorman and Williams identify possible routes for doing so. Gorman outlines two main strategies. The first involves identifying more risk-tolerant investors; Gorman contends that you need CDFI leaders who tell investors up front that “you need to want what I’m doing because, if what I’m doing is successful in an impact way, you may lose a little bit more money, but you’re going to make a bigger impact.”
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Gorman’s second strategy is advocacy. As he puts it, “Our view is, if you don’t refresh the root of the tree of CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act], then you won’t get the fruit of the tree. Folks need to be aware that a vibrant dialogue combined with advocacy around CRA is actually in many ways probably more responsible for the funding that they’ve gotten than even their own good, subsequent works.”
For her part, Williams emphasizes that community land trusts should be considered only one component of a larger constellation of organizations that are promoting economic justice and community control. Williams also emphasizes the importance of ongoing cultural organizing to build a strong sense of community agency: “Maintaining a culture of participation and collective support must be both an ongoing goal and practice of any community-owned land initiative, through social organizing, co-learning, inclusive leadership, and community-building activities, not unlike successful political or labor organizing efforts.”
An academic paper published in Antipode this year titled “On the Transformative Potential of Community Land Trusts in the United States,” in which Williams is a coauthor, provides more detail regarding the challenges and potential for economic justice organizing. Williams was part of a six-author research team that examined eight Minnesota-based CLTs. The research team—including lead author James DeFilippis of Rutgers University, Williams, Joseph Pierce of the University of Oklahoma, Clark University professor Deborah Martin, and two Clark graduate students (Rich Kruger and Azadeh Hadizadeh Esfahani)—spoke with 112 people associated with the eight CLTs, including staff, board members, residents, and public officials.
In framing their research, the team apply a framework developed by political theorist Nancy Fraser to distinguish between “affirmative remedies”—that is, “correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them”—and “transformative remedies” which seek to restructure the underlying framework. The research team elaborates:
Affirmative remedies are beneficial in that they create more equitable outcomes within existing structures; those of us centrally concerned with issues of social justice should not minimize the importance of getting low-income people into decent, stable housing when they would otherwise be excluded from it. But we are most interested in exploring if there are moments of transformation, which we see as building blocks toward other worlds.
In the field, superficially, the research team found almost an exclusive focus on the former. In fact, they write, “Staff and board members actively downplay any overt political content of their work.” In short, the goal is affordable housing provision, period. Of course, as the authors point out, housing stability for low-income people in the US is political. “But,” they add, “it is a goal…which individualizes remedies at the household scale and reaffirms the existing model of homeownership as a (perhaps the) strategy for improving the lives of poor people.”
Unsurprisingly, funders and public officials, the research team finds, generally share this perspective. For many of the beneficiaries—those who buy homes on the land that the nonprofit owns—the CLT too is “primarily a way to get a decent home that they could afford to buy.”
And yet—if you dig deeper, as the team did, the story changes. Not long ago, my colleague Cyndi Suarez wrote about the work James Scott has done on uncovering “hidden transcripts.” The researchers in Antipode do not use this term, but they are effectively engaged in this deeper work. On the surface, the CLT may seem to be just an efficient way to promote permanent housing affordability. That is certainly how CLTs often describe themselves to funders, officials, and researchers—but it is not the whole story.
The transformative potential of community land ownership can be seen in resident discourse. The authors, for example, note the ubiquity of what they term a “pay it forward” philosophy, a marked contrast from what we see on reality television homebuying shows.
As the authors put it, “The willingness of homeowners to forgo some of their own appreciation of wealth to pass on the subsidy to the next homeowner shows their embrace of the subversive…economics of the CLT model.” They quote one CLT homeowner who noted that the “lack of appreciation, in a way, means, the next person gets an even better deal…It’s like, you can’t quite wrap your head around what that means, but it’s, I mean, imagine if everything worked that way.” Of course, as the authors point out, if everything worked like a community land trust, that would require a “large-scale societal shift in systemic power dynamics.”
And it’s not just the residents. One executive director emphasized the CLT’s distinctive economic vision to the authors, noting, “We treat housing like a commodity instead of shelter more in this country….We definitely see it as shelter first.”
The authors write that, “a variety of actors in the CLT field choose not to emphasize the marketized aspects of the model…While changing subjectivities and piecemeal subversion of economic power are not in themselves transformative enough to cultivate wholly new worlds, we see these moments as necessary building blocks toward a horizon of political transformation.” The CLT, they add, can be a building block “of different ways of thinking, doing, valuing, and acting.”
This transformative potential is mostly latent, but not entirely. The authors highlight an art installation opening sponsored by the City of Lakes Community Land Trust. Titled “This House Is Not for Sale,” the show celebrated the CLT model and served as a de facto critique of real estate, something the authors note “is not without meaning or political significance.” In Saint Paul, the authors add that the board and staff of Rondo Community Land Trust, located in a Black neighborhood, supported a mixed-use (housing and commercial) development to provide “affordable retail space for small Black-owned businesses,” despite the opposition of funders and city leaders, who wanted the CLT to focus exclusively on housing.
The bottom line comes back to a theme that Gorman raised—the need for advocacy to create space for economic organizing, even as ownership itself may create a base for that advocacy. In short, it’s not one or the other. It is both.