May 7, 2024

Self-governance as community control: From the roots of the Community Land Trusts model to the first CLT in Germany

Author: Bettina Barthel

The model of Community Land Trusts (CLT) was created in the 1970s in the context of the US civil rights movement in order to give Black farmers access and control over land. In the 1980s, the concept spread from rural areas into urban areas focusing on housing. The characteristic ‘tripartite governance’ structure of the trusts’ board involves residents, neighbors, and representatives of a wider community. Involving a wider community was motivated initially by the need for allies in a context that was often hostile to Black community activities. In recent debates, this governance structure is valued because of its capacity to incorporate wider publics in democratic decision making, serving as a counterbalance to inward-looking collective ownership models (see Thompson 2015). Self-governance is seen as a means of community empowerment as well as for the decommodification of housing. This way, self-governance as community control is tightly connected to urban property relations.

A CLT is a non-profit legal entity as a landowner, with the purpose of decommodifying land and giving it in leasehold to residents. A core feature of CLTs is a membership structure open for the residents in a geographically defined area, including neighbors who are not leaseholders. Since the first CLT was established in 1969 in Albany, Georgia, over 225 CLTs have been established in 46 states of the USA, with an estimated number of 12,000 individual ownership units and 25,000 rental units by 2016. The model is spreading to various countries worldwide—especially to Great Britain, with more than 250 legally incorporated CLTs. In 2023, a European CLT Network was founded. 

>This article retraces the genesis of the CLT model as a traveling concept, keeping or changing form and function while being translated and adapted to new contexts. It will take a look at historical roots and recent developments of the CLT movement, with a focus on forms of self-governance and ideas about property relations.

From property to 'trustery'

The people who started the first CLT in the 1960s and 1970s were activists of the peace movement and the civil rights movement (see Davis 2010 and Swann, R. S. et al. 1972). The problems which motivated them to develop this model were the concentration and monopoly in landownership on the one hand and impoverishment of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the Southern United States on the other hand. Furthermore, Black American farmers had been forced off lands in part because of their involvement in the civil rights movement. When anti-war groups and civil rights groups met, they discovered that many were thinking of how to go beyond protesting, into what Ghandi called the ‘Constructive Programme’. How could achievements of struggles be secured and a new society built within the old, in a nonviolent way? While discussing land reforms and self-sufficiency, the initiators took inspiration from various movements and reform ideas that can be broadly categorized as Western and Nonwestern.

One of the main references is Henry George’s critique of private property in the 19th century. George saw the monopolization of land as the main reason for poverty (in contrast to Marx, who understood private property of the means of production in general as the problem and criticized George on that basis). George was influential for the Garden Cities movement early 20th-century Great Britain which proposed that the Garden Cities should be developed on land that was leased from a municipal corporation, and where “men of probity” would serve as the “trustees” for this municipally owned land (Davis 2010, 6). These ideas were implemented in the USA as preforms of today’s intentional communities, amongst others by Ralf Borsodi, another follower of Henry George. He was convinced that what cannot be produced by labor cannot morally be owned. So, land should be treated as a trust, he concluded, and to differentiate it from ‘property’, he called it ‘trusterty’. Only built structures such as houses should be treated as property. Also influenced by George and inspirational for the CLT activists was the Jewish National Funds, which started in 1901 to acquire lands and to organize collective production units in the kibbutzim.

The CLT activists also took inspiration from various 20th-century postcolonial land reform movements and models like the ejido system in Mexico, the ujamaa vijijini in Tanzania, and the Indian gramdan movement. Those approaches were products of their time and built in an inherited colonial property order, but oriented towards pre-colonial forms of land governance that were communal and durable (Kruger et. al. 2020). The Mexican ejido-system, for example, established after the Mexican revolution of 1910, replaced landlord control with community control. Land was redistributed by the state if a certain amount of people having owned less than a minimum of land organized themselves into an assembly, signed a petition and selected an executive committee to represent their claim. The government then conceded land to villages, and peasants received use rights without individual titles and without the right to sell. During the Indian gramdan (meaning ‘land gift’) movement, land was given to families. But it was noticed that much of the land was quickly lost to moneylenders and speculators. So, the concept changed to ‘village gift’, whereby land was given to villages and held in trust by a village council to avoid seizure. Civil rights and anti-war activists also acknowledged the Native American traditions of stewardship whereby individual ownership and possession of land is unknown and, as some activists believed of Indigenous epistemology, “land belongs to God” (Swann, R. S. et al. 1972: xiii).

In 1969 in Albany, Georgia, New Communities Inc. came into being and installed a leasehold system. The leasehold model was understood to balance individual interests in home ownership and wealth building with securing the interests of future generations. The membership and board were opened up to people from the surrounding communities who neither leased nor lived on the nonprofit’s land. This was a direct legacy of activists’ involvement with Koinonia Farm. Koinonia Farm is an intentional Christian community in which Black and white families had been living and working together since the 1940s. Because of this collaboration, they suffered boycotts by racist storeowners and wholesalers and attacks by the KKK. Many people visited the farm, whose inhabitants continued resisting, and built a national support network. The CLT founders thought that their project might also need ongoing participation of sympathetic outsiders who might never live on the CLT themselves. The CLT concept of community control thus has to be understood as result of Black community members’ efforts.

From 'trustery' to stewardship

Activities shifted from primarily rural projects for housing and agriculture to urban settings in the 1980s, with more cooperative and rental housing schemes emerging. The number of CLTs increased during the 1990s after the legal recognition of the CLT as organizational type in US federal law in 1992. As a consequence of the legal recognition, CLTs became eligible for public funding. While relations between the municipal authorities and CLTs in the beginning were marked by indifference and even sometimes hostility, this changed during the mortgage and financial crisis in 2007/2008, during which CLTs had a very low rate of foreclosures. More and more municipalities supported CLTs during the crisis, and even established their own ones (see Davis 2010, 35ff).

The low rate of foreclosures might also be a result of the broadened understanding of stewardship. The CLT practitioners saw a moral obligation to assist the poor and disadvantaged people in society. Taking residents of low-income areas as their constituency but sticking to the ideal of private home ownership, they identified ‘first-time buyers’ as their target group. Thus, they introduced the ‘resale formula’ to restrict prices and to keep the houses affordable. But CLT practitioners noticed that, without any experience in acquiring property and keeping it, those families needed to be accompanied, to protect them from predatory lending or to teach them how to keep savings for repair and maintenance. Hence, many CLTs now employ a significant number of staff doing social work. This approach seems to be perceived among academics as paternalistic, as Lowe and Thaden (2015) write. Lowe and Thaden instead understand it as a deeper form of stewardship, being more than holding the land in trust. They see this as challenging the conventional private market approach to property ownership. It is widening the understanding of private property embedded within social relations of care.

From grassroots empowerment to professionalization?

While CLTs are growing in numbers—especially in the US and Great Britain, observers problematize a tendency towards professionalization. CLTs are turning into businesses with professionalized board and staff, prioritizing affordability and scale instead of emphasizing grassroots organizing. Debates evolve around the question of whether this trend is resulting in negative effects on community control (see for example Williams 2019, Thaden and Pickett 2020). A certain proportion of CLTs don’t even have elections or resident representation on the board. Furthermore, as most of the CLTs are not financially self-sustaining, there is a high level of dependence on external funding. This leads to bureaucratization and depoliticization, as the funding institutions explicitly do not fund political activities.

Stadtbodenstiftung – The First CLT in Germany

The first initiative to adapt the model to the German context started in Berlin in 2017 (see Horlitz 2019). The idea travelled via expert activists: architects and city planners doing research about tenant movements, affordable housing and CLTs in the United States. When, after the local government elections in 2016, a new Social Democrat-Left-Green coalition was established and an optimistic mood for structural changes regarding housing and land policy permeated the city, a handful of activists formed a group to establish a CLT in Berlin.

The main conceptual shift, compared to the US/UK model, was the decision not to accept individual property condominiums and individual home ownership in the CLT. The main reason for this is that Berlin is a city of tenants, and the conversion from rental apartments into private property condominiums is a severe problem in the city. It is a driver for gentrification because many tenants are not creditworthy and could not take a loan to acquire a flat, even if speculation were inhibited. Leaseholders would, therefore, be cooperatives or associations. To transfer the CLT structure to the German legal system, the group decided to set up a foundation, because this is the legal form for securing perpetuity, considering the challenge of democratizing this structure. The legal restraints required a lot of commitment by the small group of academic-activist-experts who had a significant role in crafting a legal structure and negotiating their ideas with the state’s foundation supervisory and tax authorities over a number of years. Financial support from the district and the federal state level was as crucial during the process as the idealistic and financial support of about 150 people and civil society organisations contributing the necessary amount of €150,000 to start a foundation. In 2021, the foundation was officially established with a governance structure similar to other CLTs. Public funding bodies can get a maximum of one seat on the board, as the structural independence from state institutions is important for the group. To date, the Stadtbodenstiftung has not been successful in acquiring land for a number of reasons, including land prices, lack of funding and, to some extent, its reliance on charity.

The CLT model and property relations

The concept of Community Land Trusts has crafted a legal niche within existing property orders. It can be interpreted as a reformist way of embedding—or enclosing—private property via collectivizing lands on a small scale, restricting resale prices and blending private and public property in the third sector (see Geisler and Daneker 2000). On a practical level, however, it complicates ownership structures via the leasehold system that separates land and buildings. Via the community-governed leasehold system, a structure of shared rights and shared power of disposal of real estate is installed, connecting people and land, lowering exchange values and preventing speculation. Regarding the hegemonic notions and understandings of property, CLTs establish the counternarrative that land should be held in trust. Although relatively small in numbers, they theoretically have the potential to replace private ownership with the concepts of trusteeship and stewardship.