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Monday, July 15, 2024


How to start a community land trust

Photo by Zayn Shah on Unsplash

The land trust movement in the United States has gained notoriety over the past 30 years mainly for its role in environmental conservation. Known as land conservancies, these non-profit organizations—such as The Nature Conservancy—acquire land in what is known as “fee simple”, in order to conserve natural resources by protecting land from development.

A lesser-known type of organization, a community land trust (CLT), uses similar legal tools in a very different way to accomplish very different objectives: the preservation of affordable housing; avoidance of gentrification; and building of community wealth.

According to GroundedSolutions.org, as of 2022, there are 314 community land trusts with Shared Equity programs in 46 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., with almost 44,000 affordable housing units. A majority (87%) of those residents are first-time home buyers, and 45% are people of color.

The CLT model works by purchasing land on behalf of the community and holding it in trust, in perpetuity. The CLT can sell the land and structures on the properties, with the option to repurchase, or enter into a long-term lease, typically a ground lease, during which the tenant can make improvements to the property, and during which time the CLT maintains an interest in maintenance of the structures and property. If the buyer chooses to sell, the CLT retains the right to repurchase the structures for an agreed-upon formula giving the buyer partial equity. The remaining equity stays with the CLT, and the structure is re-sold at below market rate. The cost of the land is forever retained within the trust.

The National Community Land Trust Network provides resources and coordination for CLT’s in the U.S.

Steps for Establishing a Community Land Trust

1. Determine Rationale

When establishing a CLT, one or more of the following rationales are commonly identified:

  • Developing communities without displacing people.
    • Avoiding gentrification and displacement of low-income residents.
  • Perpetuating the affordability of privately owned housing.
    • Avoiding market-rates on housing that was developed intentionally for affordability by public or private measures.
  • Retaining the public’s investment in affordable housing
    • Avoiding market-rates on housing that was developed for affordability with public dollars.
  • Protecting the occupancy, use, condition, and design of affordable housing
    • Ensuring occupancy, stewardship and maintenance of affordable housing over time.
  • Assembling land for diversity of development
    • Assembling land under which CLT tools can be used to develop multiple types of development within the CLT’s service area.
  • Enabling the mobility of low-income people
    • Providing additional routes to housing for lower- and moderate-income people beyond what the market offers.
  • Backstopping the security of first-time homeowners
    • Stepping in to cure defaults and prevent foreclosures, protecting the homeowner, the housing, the bank and the community

2. Determine Sponsorship

CLTs generally get their start from some sort of impetus initiated by one of the following four potential sponsors:

  • Individuals and institutions at the grassroots level (typically faith-based and community organizations.)
    • Advantages of grassroots organizations include:
      • Acceptance by the community being served.
      • Legitimacy in the eyes of lenders and funders.
      • Market insight.
      • A lack of baggage from other organizations.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Challenges in building staffing and financial capacity.
      • Credibility.
      • Competition with existing organizations.
      • Difficulty in selecting beneficiaries.
  • Governmental officials at the local, regional, or state level (typically municipal government.)
    • Advantages include:
      • Access to public community development funds.
      • Staff support.
      • Regulatory assistance.
      • A view of the entire housing non-profit local landscape to establish the appropriate niche for a CLT.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Public distrust of the government.
      • Political tainting.
      • A top-down approach that may be perceived to be out of touch with community needs.
      • Resistance to including community members in the CLT governance structure.
  • Other nonprofit organizations operating within the CLT’s service area (typically community development corporations, social service organizations or housing non-profits, which may convert, spin-off, adopt a CLT as a program, or establish an affiliate organization).
    • Advantages include:
      • Foundational capacity from the existing nonprofit.
      • Increased productivity, credibility, and compatibility within the nonprofit housing network.
      • Diversification and renewal of an existing nonprofit.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Political baggage attributed to the parent non-profit.
      • Difficulty in adjusting leadership and board structure to accommodate the need for a CLT to be accountable to leaseholders and the community.
      • Divided loyalties and lingering control.
  • Local businesses and banks (typically businesses concerned about the ability of lower-income employees to secure affordable housing.)
    • Advantages include:
      • Early capacity and sponsorship.
      • Provision of starter homes for working families.
      • Leveraging private dollars for public funds.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Control and power concentrated at the business.
      • Failure to embrace the CLT model where it contrasts with traditional business models.
      • A tendency to target higher on the income scale (toward working families and above the structurally unemployed).

3. Identify Beneficiaries

The CLT must decide early on who its target beneficiaries are, as this will determine the type and tenure of housing, the amount of subsidy the CLT will need to provide to make housing affordable to the targeted beneficiary, the types of funds the CLT can access, and design of the resale formula, marketing plan, selection criteria, and organizing strategy.

When determining beneficiaries, an assessment of community need revolves around three main decision points:

  • Where on the income scale to begin.
  • Whether future sales should target lower on the income scale (increasing affordability) or at the same level (to maintain affordability).
  • Whether other factors beyond income (families, disability, age, geography of residence or work) be factored into a decision.

Targeting higher incomes will mean challenges with nonprofit incorporation and securing means-tested public funding, greater resistance in lower-income neighborhoods, and less risk of default and maintenance issues resulting in lower administrative costs.

Maintaining affordability may mean a better equity share for sellers; expanding affordability may speed the rate at which a CLT can expand and meet its mission, as resources that would go into subsidy on subsequent rounds of sale can be used instead to acquire new properties.

Advantages of taking other factors beside income into account can include: neighborhood development objectives; broadening appeal; and tailoring developments to meet the unique needs of specific targeted groups.

Risks include: losing out on public funding targeted toward low-income persons; running afoul of equal-protection housing laws; and perpetuating patterns of discrimination based on income and color.

4. Delineate Service Area

CLT’s are place-based organizations and must define the geography within which they will operate and serve. A CLT can operate at the scale of a neighborhood, a city, and metropolitan area, or a state.

  • Advantages of operating over a large geography include:
    • Mobility for low-income people.
    • Establishing a ”fair share” of affordable housing in the suburbs.
    • Securing lower-cost land for development outside of the urban core.
    • A wider pool of applicants allowing increased selectivity.
    • Opportunity to build a broader constituency.
    • Increased opportunities for collaboration and funding.
    • Opportunity to participate in regional smart growth planning and development.
  • Disadvantages of going large include:
    • Increased management costs.
    • Loss of accountability.
    • Perception as absentee landlord.
    • Competition from other organizations operating locally.
    • NIMBY-ism (“Not in my backyard”).
    • Contributing to sprawl.
    • Less community development and organizing.

5. Organize

Key constituencies of CLTs include grassroots community advocates, nonprofits, government agencies, housing professionals, public officials, and private lenders and donors.

The three key organizing principles for a CLT include:

  • Community organizing: Campaigning at the grassroots level within a neighborhood.
    • Advantages include:
      • Early awareness and acceptance.
      • Recruitment, marketing, and fundraising.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Time consumption.
      • Engendering high expectations in the community.
      • Opening up for criticism before the CLT is established.
  • Core group organizing: Approaching influential institutions and individuals to engender support.
    • Advantages include:
      • Faster support and development.
      • Credibility.
      • Borrowing capacity.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • The burden of elitism.
      • Borrowed baggage.
      • Increased market risk.
  • Resource organizing: A few advocates secure resources (funds and/or ands) from donors to seed the fund and staff the CLT, then staff commences community or core group organizing.
    • Advantages include:
      • Acceptability.
      • Early staffing.
      • Leveraging resources.
    • Disadvantages include:
      • Potential guilt by association with a donor who has earlier been perceived to have wronged or neglected a community.
      • Building projects before the organization has time to develop.
      • Too much money at once risking misuse of funds by forcing development into a single direction (possibly a bad one) quickly.

6. Develop or Improve Land

Some options for CLT land development include:

  • CLT-Initiated Projects: CLT acts as developer.
    • Issues include: the role of the CLT, conflicts, capacity, and resources.
  • Buyer-Initiated Acquisition: CLT purchases land and building from the seller and executes a ground lease with the buyer.
    • Issues include: pre-qualification for homebuyers; source and amount of subsidies; neighborhood targeting; types of housing accepted; and inspection and maintenance.
  • Developer-Initiated Projects: Developer approaches CLT and assumes risk during construction.
    • Issues include: protections for CLT and evaluation of projects.
  • Stewardship Projects with Partners Doing all Development: CLT makes parcels available to developer partners, taking an active role in land assembly and stewardship but not developing.
    • Issues include: sources of funding for the CLT of developer fees are foregone; CLT’s role in ensuring quality development; and partnerships.
  • Municipality-Initiated Projects: Municipality conveys land to CLT for a specific purpose (typically for the CLT to develop affordable housing).
    • Issues include: cost of land; allocation of risks; and any reversion clauses.
  • Municipally Mandated Units (Inclusionary Zoning): CLT monitors and enforces inclusionary requirements on behalf of the municipality.
    • Issues include: compensation for services to the municipality and responsibility for units not on CLT-land.
  • Public Housing Authority PHA Divested Property: Land is conveyed from the PHA to the CLT to ensure continued affordability.
    • Issues include: CLT’s role in managing existing tenants; price of land; and post-conveyance services to residents.

7. Secure Funding

CLT’s need funding to pay for a variety of functions related to land acquisition, construction, and subsidies.

Sources of Project Funding include the following.

  • Federal Tax Credits: Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and Historic Preservation Tax Credits
  • Federal Home Loan Bank
  • Private Lending Institutions
  • State Housing Finance Agencies
  • Institute for Community Economics’ Revolving Loan Fund
  • Housing Trust Funds
  • Tax Increment Financing
  • Municipal Real Estate
  • Private Developer Exactions
  • Pension Funds
  • Private Foundations
  • Private Land Donations
  • Development Fees
  • Lease Fees

Sources of Operational Funding:

  • Private Institutions
  • Private Donors
  • Grassroots Fundraising
  • Development Fees, Rental Income, & Lease Fees

Project funding issues include: avoidance of subsidy erosion over time; a CLT seeks to retain the subsidy in the housing stock; acquiring grants to subsidize both land costs and building construction; and strong partnerships with local lending institutions.

Issues in securing operational funding include: competition with other nonprofits; surviving foundation fads; and staffing levels.

It takes about three years for a CLT to establish itself within a community, which may seem like a lot of work and time, but CLTs offer a lasting, systemic solution for affordable housing.


This how-to is based on the publication, Starting a Community Land Trust: Organizational and Operational Choices, by John Emmeus Davis. It was originally published October 16, 2013 and was updated on March 26, 2024.

Nina Ignaczak
Nina Ignaczak

Nina Ignaczak edits and publishes the Planet Detroit newsletter (planetdetroit.substack.com) and writes and edits stories about all aspects of people and place.
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