How Community Land Trusts and Housing Co-ops Can Revolutionize Urban Space
Ownership also matters in urban spaces. Communal life in urban areas represents the confluence of entrepreneurial activities, diverse modes of living, collective movements, and personhood aspirations. Densely populated cities are key incubators for thoughts and theories about societal development.
This dynamic calls for mindful urban planning — to ask which lens has been used to organize the commons, property, and urban life? What is happening to our cities? How can we improve them towards the community’s needs?
For example, people try to shorten the distance between their work, commercial, and residential spaces to conserve their most valuable asset: time. When a neighborhood becomes desirable for its attractive qualities, location being a key characteristic, the disconnection between potential value and the current land value sparks high square-foot prices in popular business districts and surrounding neighborhoods.
A part of this microeconomic equation is the hideous gentrification process, connecting local businesses and residents to a macroscale they are mostly not aware of. As the city grows, affluent newcomers gradually replace less wealthy residents in the inner city, pushing them farther away. It is no coincidence that the most densely entrepreneurial cities also have the most intense housing problem.
Money shapes the urban geography of dispossession — i.e., demographic displacement is a direct consequence of market-led wealth concentration and rising real estate values. Real estate capital within a neoliberal urban policy has changed cities’ landscapes, making them unaffordable for most working families. Owning or renting where they live became nearly impossible in the largest urban counties due to housing costs. As the dream of owning a house becomes farther away, displacement also becomes increasingly high among renters.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly included the right to adequate housing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25). According to the UN, most people worldwide live in cities, and the urban population will reach 60 percent by 2030. Sustainable cities and communities are goal number 11 of the UN Sustainable Development agenda, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” If we fail to plan with goals of equity and justice, urban sprawl tends to underscore existing inequities, dragging vulnerable families to homelessness, informal settlements, tent cities, and slums.
The solidarity economy aims to look after the commons, democratic management, and shared ownership — things we need to build sustainable cities with better social-economic impact. Ownership is how wealth has been traditionally accumulated in the U.S., and facilitating ownership amongst low-income families and minorities is a way to repair historical exclusionary land-use laws.
The solidarity lens captures two leading solutions to the effects of increased urban displacement: housing cooperatives and community land trusts (CLTs).
When a person alone cannot afford the property full-price, rather than individually acquiring land or a house individually acquiring land or a home, they can purchase a share of a housing cooperative and become entitled to a unit, sharing the expenses of maintenance and services with other members. The resident gets a share of a nonprofit cooperative corporation which owns one or more properties in town, and establishes an occupancy agreement or proprietary lease to live in a particular location. The co-op shares entail voting rights and compliance with the cooperative’s rules and regulations. Neighbors are like business partners, collectively governing the co-op and electing its management board.
The National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC) lists affordability, financial stability, lower taxes, and limited liability as a few of the many economic advantages housing co-op members enjoy. In the social realm, cooperatives mean democratic community control over their living environment without the interference of landlords. Cultural diversity is another social advantage since membership usually includes shareholders from other cultures and income levels, strengthening the democratic experience.
One notable example of a housing cooperative is the Queen City Cooperative in Colorado. This community‐owned organization purchased a house in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, creating a shared-equity option to share ownership amongst its residents. The cooperative focuses on providing affordable housing in a city renowned for its skyrocketing real estate prices, creating “community wealth through affordable housing for member‐owners; and personal wealth through ownership for people who are historically excluded from the housing market.”
Another option for fighting gentrification is the community land trust (CLT). CLTs are widely spread across the U.S., and work to allow people to purchase a house without owning the land underneath, which remains owned by the broader community at large. In a classic community land trust model, community-based organizations own the land and lease it long-term (typically 99 years) to the residents who live in houses built on that land. These organizations are commonly composed of those who live in the leased housing, those who live in the targeted area, local representatives from the government, funding agencies, and the nonprofit sector.
In a CLT, the land is seen as a common good rather than an individual property. The community-based organizations take land out of the real estate market, therefore lowering housing prices as a strategy to keep low-income residents in place. To protect the affordability of the homes placed on this land, the Land Trust includes a resale formula intended to balance the interests of present homeowners with the long-term goals of the community land trust.
In Colorado, the metro Denver area also provides an example of the CLT model — the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that focuses on developing affordable housing through the community land trust model. It has over 40 partnerships with philanthropic organizations and government entities, including the City of Denver. ULC has eight properties spread across Denver within their CLT, and demonstrates that CLTs properties need not be all in one zone or neighborhood of the city, but they can include separate parcels of land.
These options are promising strategies toward creating more affordable housing. However, both housing co-ops and CLTs also have some drawbacks. Housing co-ops are not strong wealth-building tools, since co-ops co-share owners only build equity over their share price and not on monthly fees. On the other hand, CLTs allow some equity building over the home value, but typically require households to qualify for conventional mortgage financing or specific income requirements, which can rule out “unbankable” households. In addition, these models are still functioning within the conventional real estate market. Nonetheless, they are a step forward in challenging the private property system.
The first major change needed to be seen in the U.S. is the practical recognition of housing as a human right and not subject to the whims of the market. This may seem radical, but it is so only in the U.S, as many industrialized countries already think that way. We invite urban planners, policymakers, real estate investors, and community organizers to embrace the solidarity lens when envisioning the future of our urban landscape.
Resources for further study:
- Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, Verso, 2019
- P. E. Moskowitz, How to Kill a City, Bold Type Books, 2018
- National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC), “Buying into a Housing Cooperative”
- SPARCC, “Community Ownership Collaborations for Resilience and Impact,” 2021
- United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals”
- United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948