Chapter 4 – Roots of the Community Land Trust

Chapter 4 – Roots of the Community Land Trust


Welcome to Roots of the CLT, Chapter Four. I’m John Davis, the producer and narrator
for this presentation, commissioned by the National CLT Network. Previously, we reviewed the defining features
of the “classic” CLT and traced the development of the model’s distinctive approach to ownership
and organization. In Chapter Four, we’re going to look at
the “T” in CLT, examining the origins and evolution of the model’s distinctive
approach to operation — who the CLT serves and what it does with the lands and buildings
entrusted to it. Three operational commitments are common to
nearly every community land trust. They were introduced in Chapter One. Let’s see where
they came from. The authors of the 1972 CLT book had chosen
“trust” for the name of their new model to emphasize Borsodi’s idea of “trusterty.”
Remember, for him, land was not to be treated as individual “property.” It was part
of the commons, a shared resource to be owned and managed on behalf of what Bob Swann and
his colleagues called the “community of all mankind.” This emphasis on common ownership held great
appeal for a back-to-the-land-movement that was gathering steam at the time. Homesteaders
and middle-class communards established a number of intentional communities on leased
land and called them “community land trusts.” They were clearly inspired by the book that
Swann had helped to write, but they embraced neither the open membership nor the inclusive
board he had advocated. Swann himself referred to these collectives of like-minded individuals
as “enclaves,” refusing to call them “community land trusts.” By the beginning of the 1980s, however, a
new crop of nonprofits began to emerge that incorporated both the leased-land structure
of ownership and the community-based structure of organization of the “classic” CLT.
At the same time, they pointed the way toward operational features that had been missing
or muted in the 1972 book, nudging the model in a new direction. For these new CLTs, the “community” for
whom land was being held in trust was not “all mankind,” but a disadvantaged subset:
people excluded from the economic and political mainstream. In the language of the liberation theology
of that era, there was a “preferential option for the poor.” Increasingly, the “T”
in CLT was conceptualized and operationalized in ways much closer to Gandhi’s notion of
“trusteeship” than to Borsodi’s notion of “trustery.” One of the first organizations to take the
CLT in this new direction was the Woodland Community Land Trust. It was founded by a
former nun, Marie Cirillo, who had moved to the coal fields of East Tennessee in 1967
to work as a community organizer. She soon saw that the only way that her Appalachian
neighbors were going to improve their lives was to gain control over some of the land
in their valley, almost all of which was in the hands of absentee corporate owners. Twice,
she helped to bring Bob Swann to East Tennessee to talk about community land trusts, but he
failed to spark much interest among people with a healthy skepticism about land leasing.
After all, many of them were already living on land owned by a land company or coal company,
an experience marked by exploitation and insecurity. But Marie persisted, eventually persuading
her neighbors to give the CLT a try. When the Woodland CLT got going at last, it purchased
land, built its first houses, and did something different than the intentional communities
that were calling themselves “land trusts.” Woodland opened its board to people not living
on its land and imposed resale controls on its newly constructed houses. Around the same time, a Carmelite nun named
Lucy Poulin was helping to create another CLT in northern Maine. She and several other
Sisters had moved to Hancock County in 1968, supporting themselves by sewing shoes for
a local manufacturer. When the company closed, over 30 women, including the nuns, were suddenly
out of work. In response, the Sisters helped to form a sewing cooperative, selling crafts
to tourists through a storefront they opened on US 1. They established a school and day
care center for the co-op’s members. And they began Project Woodstove to deliver firewood
to the elderly. Their next project was affordable housing.
Sister Lucy took the lead in forming Self Help Family Farms in 1978, along with the
Covenant Community Land Trust. Each family was sold a newly built house on a 10-acre
leasehold. Priority was given to the rural poor of Hancock County. One of my favorite pictures of Sister Lucy
is this one. Nuns with chainsaws . . . probably not the image you had in mind on hearing that
these first CLTs were led by women with ties to religious communities. The first urban CLT was the Community Land
Cooperative of Cincinnati, started by the West End Alliance of Churches and Ministries.
The two Alliance members playing the largest role in organizing this new CLT were Maurice
McCrackin, a Presbyterian minister, and Barbara Wheeler, a Dominican Sister of the Sick Poor. The Community Land Cooperative was created
to be a bulwark against gentrification in a low-income, African-American neighborhood
on the edge of the Central Business District. Its foresighted founders realized that removing
land from the market would not go far enough. For the CLT to succeed in stopping speculation,
preventing displacement, and preserving affordability, the buildings must be insulated from market
pressures as well. From the beginning, therefore, the Community Land Cooperative imposed durable,
contractual controls on the resale price of all its homes. The person who introduced the CLT model to
the Reverend McCrackin — and to many others — was Chuck Matthei. He spent nearly 30
years traveling back and forth across the country in a series of beat-up, second-hand
cars, speaking about community land trusts to any audience he could find. He convinced
hundreds of people to stop talking about the CLT and go start one. If Bhave was the “Walking
Saint” of the Gramdan Movement in India, Matthei was the “Johnny Appleseed” of
the CLT Movement in America. Matthei grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago.
A brilliant student, he was accepted at Harvard. But he got sidetracked by reading a newsletter
published by a group of anti-war activists in Cincinnati, known as the Peacemakers. The heady blend of civil rights, economic
justice, and pacifism highlighted in the Peacemakers’ newsletter, was a moral concoction that Matthei
found quite intoxicating. Graduating from high school in 1966, he hopped on his motorbike
and headed to Cincinnati to meet the people he’d been reading about: Ernest and Marion
Bromley; Wally and Juanita Nelson; and Mac McCrackin. To the fury of his father, he never
made it to Harvard. Instead, following in the footsteps of his
heroes in Cincinnati, Matthi became a lifelong pacifist and social activist. He lived for
a while at the Catholic Worker house in New York City, becoming a personal friend of Dorothy
Day. He later got to know Sr. Lucy in Maine and became involved in her efforts to establish
the Covenant CLT. In 1978, Matthei joined the board of the Institute
for Community Economics. One year later, he was made ICE’s executive director, accepting
the princely salary of $300 per month. He moved the Institute from Boston to Greenfield,
Massachusetts and began building a sizable staff, all of whom were paid the same salary
as their executive director. The people attracted to ICE and to the fledgling
CLT movement of the 1980s brought a new set of sensibilities to the work. Some had ties
to the Catholic Worker or to other faith-based organizations. Some had developed or financed
affordable housing. Many had experience as community organizers. Matthei believed that a new generation of
CLT activists must have its own blueprint for building a community land trust. He pulled
together a 12-person team to produce a book that would update the model that Bob Swann
and his colleagues had proposed a decade earlier. The Community Land Trust Handbook was published
in 1982. Drawing on the experience of newer CLTs like
those in Cincinnati, Maine, and Tennessee, while paying homage to the on-going experiment
at New Communities, The CLT Handbook proposed several organizational and operational refinements.
Especially important was the emphasis placed on urban applications and the elevation of
stewardship as a central concern of the CLT. The CLT Handbook was also quite explicit about
who this model should serve — namely, those who Sister Lucy had described as “people
who have never been accepted or had value in the larger community.” What was new, as well, was an acknowledgement
of the inevitable tension that exists between the legitimate interests of individuals and
communities, especially on matters pertaining to security, legacy, and the allocation of
equity, some of which is created by individual effort and some of which is created by the
investment and development of society, as John Stuart Mill and Henry George had pointed
out. The CLT was extolled as a mechanism for effectively and equitably balancing these
interests for the long-term benefit of individuals and communities alike. By 1982, therefore, all of the pieces had
been put in place for the model of tenure . . . . . . that we know today as the “classic”
CLT. An experimental hybrid was now ready for wider cultivation. From this point on, the number of CLTs in
the United States began to grow, taking a steep turn upward in the 1980s. With a new emphasis on producing housing,
preserving affordability, and addressing the plight of the poor, the CLT began to be adopted
in a number of cities. Indeed, urban CLTs were to form the leading edge of CLT expansion
in the coming years. Many of these CLTs were organized in opposition
to municipal plans that threatened the displacement of low-income people. But, here and there,
CLTs got going with the direct support of city government — starting in Burlington
and Syracuse. CLT development continued outside of cities
as well, with many of these rural CLTs staking out a service area much larger than their
urban counterparts. (Pictured here are several scenes from the CLT on Orcus Island, including
a picture in the upper left of one of OPAL’s founders and first leaseholders, Michael Sky.) The 1980s also brought heartbreak. After struggling
for 15 years to hold onto its land in the face of harassment and hardship, New Communities
lost everything to foreclosure. This bold experiment in community ownership
had had a lot going for it. It was blessed with leaders who were visionary and skilled.
It was founded on a conceptual, political, and legal foundation that was to be replicated
in most of the successful CLTs that followed. What was missing was money. Grants promised
by the Office of Economic Opportunity were torpedoed by Lester Maddox, the racist governor
of Georgia. The leaders of New Communities were forced to encumber their land with debt,
turning reluctantly to the Farmers Home Administration — whose local administrator had declared
that New Communities would get a loan “over my dead body.” FmHA finally did loan them
money, after damaging delays, but years of drought pushed New Communities and many other
farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. Farmers Home foreclosed and the land was lost. But New Communities did not go away. Charles
and Shirley Sherrod, in particular, did not go away. They joined a class action suit against
USDA, alleging that their farming operation had been harmed by the discriminatory practices
of the Farmers Home Administration. Ten years later, a federal judge agreed. New Communities
was awarded $12 million in damages. So what did the Sherrods do with that money?
They went looking for land. And in 2011, they found it: A plantation outside of Albany that
had once been owned by the richest man in Georgia — who was also the owner of a hundred
slaves. In more recent decades, Cypress Pond Plantation had been a game reserve, where
wealthy gentlemen would come out to the country for a weekend of hunting and fishing on 1600
acres of land and spend the night in an antebellum mansion or in one of five luxurious guest
houses. Today, the descendants of slaves are the owners
of this plantation. They are converting it back into a working farm: laying irrigation
pipe and planting hundreds of trees, growing pecans and oranges. They are drafting a master
plan for the use and development of the land and buildings. What they end up creating here may turn out
to be quite different from what was envisioned for the “first CLT” over forty years ago,
but the dream hasn’t died. In one guise or another, New Communities is coming back. As a young woman, newly graduated from NYU
in 1971, Mtamanika Youngblood had moved from New York City to Southwest Georgia to work
at New Communities. She later made a life for herself in Atlanta, helping to lead the
effort to revitalize the King Historic District among many other accomplishments. Today, she
is the executive director of the new New Communities and a recipient of the highest honor bestowed
by the National CLT Network, an award named after Bob Swann and Chuck Matthei. She has spoken eloquently of the rise, fall,
and recent rebirth of New Communities, drawing on one of Martin Luther King’s favorite
quotes. New Communities still has a long way to go.
So does the CLT, as a model and movement. Unconventional ideas like community ownership
of land, the stewardship of housing, and a preferential option for the poor run against
the grain of dominant ideologies and interests. We are likely to have a lengthy wait before
the CLT is allowed to sit in the front of the bus in seats presently reserved for more
privileged forms of tenure. But take heart, more improbable things have
happened. Today, a city park in Albany Georgia is named for an outside agitator who came
to fight for civil rights and never left town. The federal courthouse is named for a local
attorney who rarely won a case before the white judges and all-white juries of his day,
but never backed down. The arc of the moral universe is long, but
it bends toward justice. This concludes the final chapter of Roots
of the CLT. My thanks to the National CLT Network and to Kate Vickery for helping me
to bring it to you. I hope that I’ve managed to whet your appetite
to learn more about the remarkable cast of characters whose ideas and efforts gave rise
to the community land trust. There is more to be learned on another front
as well. I’ve given you a glimpse into how the CLT got born. Equally important is the
story of how the CLT grew up, as an experimental model matured into a worldwide movement. But that is a tale for another day.

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