Community Ownership and Land Trusts: Power-building Solutions for America’s Housing Crisis
In June 2019, Neighborhood Funders Group's Democratizing Development Program joined grantmakers and community leaders from across the country for a three-day convening in Santa Fe, NM, at the “Nuestro Corazón” People’s Assembly, hosted by Chainbreaker Collective and Right to the City.
As part of the convening, a funder track brought together key allies in philanthropy interested in taking a deeper dive on alternative land and community ownership housing models. The funder track was an impactful opportunity to engage colleagues, hear from community leaders, and discuss concrete opportunities to support the movement for community control of land and housing.
Community Visioning for Health, Housing, and Local Community Land Trust
The convening kicked off with Tomas Rivera, Executive Director of Chainbreaker Collective, providing local context for Santa Fe. He shared that Chainbreaker's local organizing strategy initially focused on transportation, climate change, economic justice, and voter engagement. As they saw how much transportation costs affected their members' ability to afford housing, the organization evolved to address local housing protections.
In one of the communities Chainbreaker organizes in, Hopewell-Mann, residents face the greatest risk in the city of being gentrified out of their neighborhood. Residents in nearby communities also lack key resource investments to support health, well-being, and sustainability. Chainbreaker, in collaboration with Human Impact Partners and the Santa Fe Community Foundation's Health Equity Partnership, researched demographics and public resource allocations in Hopewell-Mann compared to other neighborhoods. The resulting report, Equitable Development and Risk of Displacement, found that Hopewell-Mann is the poorest neighborhood in the city, with a median income of $21,000 and historic disinvestment; there are virtually no parks or open spaces in the neighborhood despite its large youth population. Recent upscale private development indicate the neighborhood, with its majority Latinx population and high rate of housing cost-burdened residents, is in danger of gentrification and displacement.
Community residents and leaders are seeking to change things. Adjacent to Hopewell-Mann is a vacant 64-acre property owned by the City of Santa Fe. The site has been an underused community eyesore since 2009, when the Santa Fe University of Art and Design broke their lease. Keeping in mind that the lot is 1.1% of the total land in Santa Fe, neighborhood residents asked themselves in community meetings, “What would we do if we could control the land? What would we do if we could control the narrative?" Their goal is to work with the City of Santa Fe and turn the site into a community-controlled land trust.
Given how the community land trust model is an appealing mechanism for maintaining and expanding the stock of affordable housing, the People's Assembly convening funder track created more space with funders to galvanize support and resources for community organizing, planning, and technical assistance for land trusts. Community leaders also plan to leverage this financial commitment to get support from the City of Santa Fe.
Perspectives from the Field
The rest of the convening also featured a powerful slate of speakers from community groups around the country working to organize support from local and national philanthropic institutions. The organizers spoke to how coordinating with funders to invest in local housing solutions takes time, relationship building, networking, and trust. They described how it also takes deep meaningful alignment, savvy funder organizing, and proactive alignment strategy to move resources to community partners. Unfortunately, gentrification and displacement are happening faster than foundations can come together to co-invest in campaigns, strategies, and local solutions.
- Shoshana Krieger, Project Director of Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), works on securing tenants rights in Austin, TX, where low-income communities and communities of color have higher percentages of renters, similar to most cities that have over 50% renters. Shoshana spoke about the lack of funding in the South for tenant organizing among residents who are harrassed, bullied, and neglected by apartment management. Despite little funding and limited eviction protections, BASTA has built a strong base working with regional partners in twelve cities and nine states.
- Breonne DeDecker, Program Manager at Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI) in New Orleans, LA, shared a compelling story about the systemic impacts of the permanent displacement of 100,000 Black residents from the city after Hurricane Katrina. In response to growing housing needs, JPNSI has focused on developing community land trusts and permanent affordable housing to create sustainable, democratic, and economically just neighborhoods and communities in New Orleans. According to Breonne, JPNI has struggled to attract funding as foundations saw affordable housing as the government's responsibility and did not see enough return on their investment.
- Jennifer Arnold is the Director of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice, or IX), a new organization founded to build community power to change the local housing system in Minneapolis, MN. She explained how their class action lawsuit against a negligent landlord won $18 million for his tenants in June 2019. Now that the landlord is beginning to sell off his properties, IX is trying to secure funding and a purchase agreement to buy the properities and set up a housing cooperative.
- Nola Miguel, Director of Globeville Elyria-Swansea Coalition and associated with the Colorado Homes for All chapter in Denver, CO, highlighted something we always ask: “Housing is accessible, but for whom?” The city is planning a large redevelopment project in Nola's community, setting it up for real estate speculation, gentrification, and increased housing costs. While the Globeville Elyria-Swansea Coalition secured a $2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation to develop a member-led community land trust project, Nola noted that it is still not enough to truly address the city's housing crisis.
- Cynthia Strathmann, Executive Director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) in Los Angeles, CA, shared that tenant protections are not actually easier in blue states. With California being such an expensive place to live, land acquisition is very difficult. In response, SAJE worked with their members and coalition partners to develop The People’s Plan: A Community-Centered Approach to City Planning. The plan calls for city leaders to create policies that would protect South LA residents and ensure they have equitable access to healthy opportunities.
Right to the City's Malcolm Torrejón Chu highlighted the differences and similarities between these stories around organizing, tenant protections, and housing solutions from across the country. Malcolm said of the Right to the City (RTTC) Homes for All campaign, ”We were tired of fighting one house at a time, so we are building a trans-local movement infrastructure to create the transformation we want to make.” The coalition's power was evident when SAJE and BASTA joined RTTC and Chainbreaker in Santa Fe to canvass 10,000 households, totalling 80,000 people. RTTC’s vision is to build a national federation of groups to reclaim and take control of 1 million acres of land and move millions of dollars to community-driven and community-led investment to ensure that everyone has a safe, dignified, and affordable home.
Mantra or Motto: “Moving Resources to Support Our Organizing”
The People's Assembly convening was an extension of years of funder organizing work to move more resources in support of local housing justice solutions and tenant protection efforts. Working with place-based and national funders on housing justice is critically important for leaders sharing strategies, lessons learned, funding gaps, and the benefits of investing in community organizing.
One of the main gaps highlighted at the convening was the need to figure out how to better leverage the investment side of philanthropy for housing solutions. Philanthropy has limited impact investing for housing at scale because the sector is working from a different set of assumptions of risk tolerance. How might funders invest in supporting a local land trust through impact investing? How can national funders be useful in a local context, and how can our networks be useful to advance investments in local projects?
Nwamaka Agbo shared her Restorative Economics framework and raised other important questions for the sector, including, “How do we move money in ways that allow those at grassroots level to have power and authority?” Philanthropy should consider investing deeper into community stewardship projects that could result in self-determination, community sovereignty, and building power. Building political power to defend the right to housing takes shifting the conversation from charity to wealth-building.
Philanthropy not only needs to listen to and take the lead from grassroots communities to reshape their grantmaking practices for their 5% tax deductible giving, but also immediately divest its endowment from investments that continue to exacerbate harm to marginalized communities.
We can no longer have foundations that claim a commitment to social and racial justice values give grants to criminal justice organizations with their right hand while investing in private prisons with their left hand. We cannot have philanthropic partners that support environmental and environmental justice organizations but invest in "clean" coal and fracking.
The call to action for philanthropy in this political moment is to move resources into the democratic control of local communities at a scale commiserate to addressing the systemic harm and economic impacts of policies and practices that have extracted from and exploited low-income, immigrant, black, brown, trans, and indigenous communities.
In short, it's time to #MoveTheMoney.