The idea that land banks and community land trusts (CLT) might both benefit by working more closely with each other is more than a decade old. Public entities with unique governmental powers, land banks acquire vacant, tax-delinquent properties that are causing harm, improve them, then dispose of the properties to support community goals. CLTs, by contrast, acquire properties for long-term stewardship by holding title to the land and offering long-term (often 99-year renewable) residential and commercial leases to homeowners or other landholders. CLTs ensure lasting affordability and, for that reason, are an important tool for stabilizing neighborhoods and forestalling gentrification.
Back in 2012, longtime CLT advocate John Emmeus Davis wrote in Shelterforce that collaboration between the land banks and CLTs is, to use the hackneyed phrase, an obvious “win-win.” Local government wins because properties are back in productive use, generating taxes. The community wins because there is now permanently affordable housing that can forestall gentrification.
So, why haven’t there been more CLT-land bank partnerships?
One answer is: reach. The number of land banks has grown remarkably, from fewer than a dozen before the Great Recession to an estimated 251 today. The number of CLTs has also steadily increased to an estimated 277 as of 2020. Nonetheless, many communities lack one or both tools.
But there is a broader reason. Too often, discussions of partnerships have remained on a technical level. Of course, understanding the logistics of coordination is important. But so too is articulating the why.
Land Banks, CLTs, and Racial Justice
After 10 years, it’s time for conversations about CLT-land bank partnerships to evolve. The new headline should read, “communities use land banks and CLTs to advance racial justice,” because the end goal of this work is not just productive partnerships, but racially equitable cities, towns, and regions.
Over decades, racist policies and practices, including intentional disinvestment, have shaped our neighborhoods. Land banks can and should play a central role in unwinding this harm.
State-enabling legislation provides land banks with unique powers to acquire vacant and tax-delinquent properties more quickly and cheaply than most local governments or nonprofits. Most importantly, land banks can extinguish back taxes and other liens to acquire clear title. Land banks hold property tax-exempt and can flexibly sell properties (at a discount or on a non-cash basis) to achieve the best community outcome, rather than being compelled to accept the highest bid.
Land banks often work in neighborhoods where vacancies are concentrated. It is no coincidence that vacancy is often highest in Black neighborhoods. Over decades, racist policies and practices, including intentional disinvestment, have shaped our neighborhoods. Land banks can and should play a central role in unwinding this harm. To do so requires working alongside Black residents to support reparative and equitable development.
With roots in the civil rights movement, nonprofit CLTs promote local control and ownership of land while creating pathways to homeownership for Black and other households that have been excluded from the wealth creation opportunities associated with owning a home in this country. CLTs serve many purposes. They develop rural and urban agriculture projects, offer leases for commercial spaces that serve local communities, support affordable rental and cooperative housing projects, conserve land for environmental preservation purposes, and maintain urban green spaces. The heart of their work, however, is the creation of homes that remain affordable over time, providing homeownership opportunities to generations of lower-income families.
Grounded Solutions Network and the Center for Community Progress work alongside local communities to implement land bank and CLT partnerships through the Catalytic Land Cohort Initiative and beyond. We’ve identified at least 25 places where there is likely geographic overlap between an existing land bank and an existing community land trust, and we know of five formalized, active CLT-land bank partnerships across the country. While this is, admittedly, a small sample size, we’ve been able to pull lessons from these partnerships that can inform future endeavors.
Challenges with Existing Land Bank-CLT Partnerships
Land banks and CLTs can work together in many ways based on what is most helpful to their communities. Sometimes, a partnership is transactional—the land bank and CLTs engage with one another through direct property transfers. Other times, the partnership can be codified through a written agreement approved by both bodies. In some places, the partnership involves shared support for a specific program. Occasionally, a land bank or CLT can become a legal subsidiary of the other.
On paper, land banks and CLTs are ideal partners, regardless of the form their partnership takes. So, again, why do so few of these partnerships exist?
- Geographic Mismatch: There tends to be a geographic mismatch between existing land bank property inventories and CLT service areas. While both entities may technically serve the same city or county, they may not always work in the same neighborhoods.
- Misunderstanding and misperception: Land bank and CLT leaders alike may not grasp the mission or purpose of the other party. Some land bank leaders question the need for lasting affordability while some CLT leaders fail to understand the scale and impacts of abandoned properties.
- Different yet complementary objectives: Land banks focus on addressing large inventories of vacant and abandoned properties, while CLTs focus on creating and preserving affordability. While these objectives differ, there is a clear overlap of priorities and opportunities to advance shared equitable community development goals.
- Mutual challenges and constraints: Land banks and CLTs tend to lack adequate capacity and resources and need to acknowledge that tough decisions must be made when contemplating discounts in sales prices and/or prioritizing CLTs as transferees.
Overcoming Partnership Obstacles
Local conversations must center those most impacted by vacancy and disinvestment and build consensus on the tools, policies, and resources needed to re-invest in people and places.
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Moving beyond the barriers named above begins with acknowledging that land banks and CLTs do not operate in a vacuum—they are tools that communities can use to advance racial justice. The real work begins with honest discussions about racism, how it has presented itself historically, and how it continues to shape our neighborhoods—creating massive racial inequities across almost every economic, social, and health index.
From there, local conversations must center those most impacted by vacancy and disinvestment and build consensus on the tools, policies, and resources needed to re-invest in people and places in ways that promote local control and expand affordable housing, especially homeownership opportunities for Black households. With that shared end goal, land banks and CLTs can work together to operationalize racial justice by:
- Incorporating racial equity into their organizational governance structures as well as policies and procedures that outline how the two entities will acquire and dispose of land, procure services, and sell or rent homes to occupants.
- Prioritizing authentic engagement and partnerships that earn community trust and result in accountability. Land banks and CLTs must listen to and engage with individuals and communities most impacted by their actions and demonstrate that they understand the end goal they are working towards and the role they play in realizing it.
- Leveraging each of their unique powers and strengths so that they complement one another and do not duplicate efforts or, even worse, compete against one another.
- Dedicating flexible funding and capital so that each entity is resourced to achieve desired racial justice outcomes. Often, land banks are expected to generate revenue from property disposition to cover operational costs. Community land trusts typically depend on public funding sources to produce housing and community assets. It can be difficult for both entities to move quickly and nimbly in the direction of equity.
Two Promising Examples
The action steps listed above are not just good in theory; they are being enacted. Across the country, land banks and CLTs are moving from conversations about partnerships and racial justice to action. Two promising examples of this are land bank-CLT partnerships in Albany, New York and Columbus, Ohio.
In Albany, the state capital of New York, the Albany County Land Bank (ACLB) has created the Equitable Ownership Program, which focuses on increasing homeownership rates in communities that have historically experienced discriminatory housing and lending practices and policies. The program draws upon the land bank’s flexibility, partnerships, and available resources to eliminate many of the barriers first-time homebuyers face when purchasing real estate in disinvested neighborhoods.
The land bank seeks to reduce the amount of capital needed for lower-income individuals and families to buy homes by: selecting properties that need less rehabilitation; selling the property for 50 percent or less of market value; partnering with a regional community development financial institution to pre-qualify buyers; serving as the lender for both the purchase and rehabilitation financing; and/or providing homebuyers with closing cost assistance. Meanwhile, the Albany Community Land Trust and other local organizations identify eligible program participants and provide them with a scope of work and access to a building specialist to assist with rehabilitation of the vacant building.
The Equitable Ownership Program serves as a model for how land banks and CLTs can leverage their missions and networks to foster equitable development and promote homeownership in disinvested communities. Already, over 20 families have benefitted from the program and the direct transfer of properties from the land bank to the CLT.
Another promising approach is underway in Columbus, Ohio, where the Central Ohio Community Improvement Corporation–Franklin County Land Bank created a legal subsidiary, the Central Ohio CLT, to advance its racial justice goals and advance affordable homeownership. As properties come into the land bank, they are now immediately assessed to determine whether they should be transferred to the CLT, creating a streamlined system for moving land bank inventory to a CLT.
In 2019, the Franklin County Commissioners identified structural racism as one of the greatest challenges facing the region and the land bank and CLT as key partners in addressing the need for affordable housing. Thanks to the CLT-land bank partnership and its alignment with the City of Columbus, Franklin County, and other corporate and private partners, over $150 million has been raised to provide a flexible source of capital and low-cost loans to developers who commit to affordability requirements to preserve and increase the number of housing units in Franklin County. To date, the CLT has received $7 million from the fund and created almost 60 permanently affordable housing units for families in the region.
With interest rates for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage currently well above seven percent, homeownership has been shoved out of reach for many households who were working hard to purchase a home just a few months ago. But by applying the partnership formula in action in places like Albany and Columbus, land banks and CLTs can use their considerable powers to mitigate the harmful impacts of a growing racial homeownership gap and work together to create quality and affordable for-sale opportunities.
Both land banks and community land trusts need to deepen their accountability to Black communities.
For these partnerships to succeed, public land banks must leverage their ability to sell their properties at below-market rates, which creates initial affordability. Cities, towns, and regions can ensure that there are financial resources—commensurate with need—for first-generation homebuyers to further solidify accessibility. By pairing these two community economic tools and ensuring, through a CLT, that the affordability of a home persists across multiple generations of homeowners, communities can redress harm and advance racial justice.
Doing this work effectively, however, requires more than good technical program design. Both land banks and CLTs need to deepen their accountability to Black communities in terms of their governance structures, policies, and partnerships. More broadly, local nonprofits and local governments, supported by national nonprofits like Grounded Solutions and Community Progress, need to support each other so that land banks and CLTs can work in tandem to advance local community housing goals and neighborhood plans.
Community organizing, advocacy, and power building are all needed to achieve these racial justice goals. If the political will is generated, CLTs and public land banks can work together to ensure that Black residents and others excluded from home ownership due to structural racism benefit from quality, affordable homeownership opportunities.