20 C
Tuesday, June 6, 2023


Common ground between the housing and farm crisis

A community garden which is part of the Southside Community Land Trust in Southside Providence, RI.
A community garden which is part of the Southside Community Land Trust in Southside Providence, RI.

A parliamentary petition seeks to solve the growing problem of access to farmland, and the ongoing affordable housing crisis.

Good ideas can make for interesting alliances.

That is how I would best describe a Parliamentary petition to have the Canadian tax code allow tax exemptions from capital gains for lands donated to Community Land Trusts. In other words, the petition named — e-4155 (taxation) — is pushing for the same tax exemptions allowed for donations of land to ecological reserves to be applied to donations of land for Community Land Trusts.

Parliamentary petitions can be initiated by any Canadian citizen, but must be sponsored by a Member of Parliament. In this case, while initiated by a citizen, the sponsor is Conservative MP for Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, Frank Caputo. The petition closes on February 28, and already has more than 700 signatures. Most petitions garner far fewer than this one. If you hurry you can add yours.

Community Land Trusts are not a new idea, but one that is gaining momentum in various parts of the world. In the case of this petition, the thinking is clearly related to the housing crisis and how common lands might help support more affordable housing and stem some of the speculation created by ownership of private property.

But there are many types of Community Land Trusts – and increasingly CLTs are being seen as an alternative to the growing crisis in accessing farmland. Community Land Trusts are a direct challenge to private ownership of land. CLTs are leading the way to renewed interest in community housing models, but also in land tenure and agrarian reform. There are examples of successful CLTs around the world.

In Canada, family farms are dwindling rapidly. In 2016 the average age of a family farmer was 55 (StatsCan), and so it is well-known that in the next decade many, many, family farmers will retire. Intergenerational transfer of farmland has long been an issue for family farmers since many farmers depend on the sale of their land to fund retirement. And those wanting to pass their land to a younger generation — if in fact they have that option — are wary of saddling the next generation with insurmountable debt. And there are also those who want to leave their lands in the hands of the community — but are stymied by unfriendly policies. There is also a small but mighty league of young people interested in living on the land and farming, but who do not have access to land. And in parts of Canada land concentration has led to severe rural depopulation and shrinking communities. Could CLTs be a way forward for all of these groups?

The issues are complex — and empathetic agricultural policies at both the federal and provincial level are often late in coming, if at all. As farmers retire, increasingly private investors are grabbing productive farmland to further their aims and profits, as outlined in previous rabble columns.

At the same time, urban landscapes are encroaching on productive farmland everywhere. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) recently launched a campaign called Home Grown which among other initiatives is encouraging the signing of a petition to support local food production and local farms and farmland. So concern regarding loss of farms and farmland appears to now, finally, be mainstream.

Given all of these issues and much-needed policy reform, the National Farmers Union (NFU) recently flagged the Parliamentary Petition noted here as worthy of signature — noting that CLTs could provide an alternative to our current model of agriculture in some communities.

The NFU’s recent release provides a gateway for discussion about agrarian reform in Canada. It states:

“Community land trusts (CLTs) help provide a way forward. CLTs are non-profit corporations created to acquire and hold land for the benefit of a community. First developed by black farmers in the US in the 1960s, CLTs have evolved to help with many issues in the real estate, farmland and housing markets. We see great potential for Canadian CLTs to also secure and preserve farmland and to create avenues for farmland succession. The Agrarian Trust/Commons in the US is a great example, showing how CLTs can better manage equitable farmland leases and support longer term ecological best practices by separating ownership of housing from land ownership, and building a community of farmers with a long-term commitment to working together.”

In the United States, the Agrarian Trust is paving the way for a new model of ownership that is supporting community ownership of housing as well as farmland. The organization was launched in 2019, and is already providing opportunity, hope, and a way forward. The organization has supported the creation of 12 agrarian commons since inception, and has provided educational information and guidance on how to create a CLT in that country. It has committees operating nationally as well as in ten states.

The Schumacher Centre for new economics, also in the United States, helps to provide a historical perspective on how black farmers, the civil rights movement and other groups collaborated in the 1960s to advance community land rights.

In Canada the movement is younger, but it too has good examples. Many CLTs in Canada are based around urban land and aim to provide affordable housing in perpetuity. But increasingly the discussion is leading to how CLTs can provide opportunities for intergenerational transfer of farmland, and ways for a younger generation to practice farming. The Foodlands Cooperative of BC is one such organization, promoting cooperatives and farmland trusts. It also provides educational material and linkages within the BC agricultural community.

There are also remarkable examples globally.

In Scotland, with the support of its national government, and no doubt a movement of organizers and activists lobbying for change, more than 1 million acres — which is huge for that country — has been designated for community ownership. Through the evolution and passage of three pieces of land reform legislation in 2003, 2015, and 2016, rural Scotland is seeing a significant change in land tenure and community rights. While there are of course many challenges, it is clear that there is a movement that has garnered government support to create a pathway away from a model of private property rights to one that favours human, community and environmental rights. Rural re-population is part of the vision in Scotland. This NFUniversity webinar, Land Reform Lessons from Scotland presented by Kirsten Shields, helps to explain the trajectory of Scottish land reform and new community rights to owning land.

So bit by bit, the sharing of ideas, and discussions on new models, can make a difference.

While petitions need signatures, this is also a story of why changes in tax law can remove barriers to justice, and in this case open the door to community land rights. It also shows that unusual alliances and actions can forge the beginnings of change.

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute.

Lois Ross
Lois Ross
  Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Latest Articles

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x