In early November, the People’s Garden of Bushwick Coalition (PGBC) won a $132,000 settlement against the Jones brothers—notorious landlords widely known for their use of predatory tactics to force tenants out of their rent-stabilized units. The Jones brothers made money from a simple scheme: purchasing a building, harassing low-income tenants until they felt compelled to leave, and then reselling the building for a hefty profit. Soon after purchasing a building, they would begin a campaign of violence against those living in rent-stabilized apartments—threatening to sue anyone who refused a buyout, shutting down elevators so elderly tenants were trapped in their homes, hiring superintendents who intimidated and sexually harassed residents, and commencing unnecessary construction projects designed to transform occupied apartments into essentially unlivable environments. As the demand for higher-cost, newly-renovated “luxury” apartments in low-income areas has grown, these practices have become all too familiar for those living in rent-stabilized units. Our settlement against the Jones brothers was a huge victory for their tenants, but litigation is only one solution to the issue of landlord harassment.

Community land trusts are one solution that could help maintain affordability and mitigate landlord harassment . A community land trust (CLT) is a community-run, nonprofit corporation that purchases a parcel of land on which it develops and stewards affordable housing, commercial businesses, and other community-focused projects. Any buildings on that parcel are sold to income-qualifying individuals, nonprofit developers, cooperative housing corporations, or similar entities committed to preserving the building’s affordability, while the underlying land continues to be owned by the nonprofit corporation. When buildings on the CLT contain rental units, the CLT itself might retain ownership and act as landlord.

Although the CLT model has been around for just over 30 years, it is regaining popularity in many US cities because of its ability to preserve long-term affordable housing and give the community more control of their neighborhoods. CLTs typically have place-based membership, which means anyone who falls within their jurisdictions, usually a neighborhood, may seek membership and have a voice in how the land is used and managed.[2] A CLT usually has a board of directors divided into three parts: one-third is comprised of individuals selected by members, another third is comprised of individuals selected by those who live on the trust itself, and the last third is community leaders or individuals from municipal governments and community-based nonprofits. The goal of the tripartite governance system is to ensure that the CLT is responsive to members’ requests and needs—not just the needs of those who live in the building, but also those who live in the area and are invested in the CLT’s success.[3] If our clients’ building in the Jones brothers case had been on a CLT, it’s less likely that they would have been subjected to the kind of dangerous harassment these tenants experienced.

In addition to giving renters a say in the management of their homes, CLTs are exciting because of their commitment to perpetual affordability. If the CLT does not own the building on its land, it still oversees any sales of that building. In the agreement between the CLT and the building’s owner, there is usually a re-sale restriction which states that the building or unit can be sold to allow for a reasonable return on their investment, but with re-sale price limitations to enable other low to moderate income buyers to purchase the building or unit.[4] Similarly in the rental context, CLTs typically cap rents so that they are affordable to low to moderate income tenants.

One existing CLT in New York City that has existed for over 20 years is the Cooper Square CLT. Formed in the Lower East Side, in 1994, the CLT has successfully created and maintained affordable housing for low-income residents. The Cooper Square CLT owns land and several buildings in the Lower East Side and rents out the units at very low rents to residents that are primarily 50 percent of the area median income. [6] The Cooper Square CLT has also converted some of its buildings to cooperatives and sold shares to residents for as low as $250, allowing residents to actually own the apartments they’re living in. Cooper Square MHA plans to expand its network of low-cost units by purchasing other buildings and parcels of land in the area.

Over the next few years, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will marshal funds from the Enterprise Community Partners’ Community Land Trust Capacity Building Initiative to help develop CLTs in the City. In addition to directly supporting the Interboro CLT, Cooper Square CLT, and East Harlem/El Barrio CLT, the funding will also allow the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), along with the New Economy Project, to spearhead a Learning Exchange Program to provide technical assistance to various nonprofit organizations throughout the City that are interested in developing CLTs.

The East Harlem-El Barrio CLT aims to provide housing for extremely low-income families in upper Manhattan, especially those at risk of homelessness. Like Cooper Square MHA, East Harlem-El Barrio CLT will buy land and rental buildings to be managed by mutual housing associations. It was co-founded by Picture the Homeless, a nonprofit led by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. Unlike many CLTs, which often emphasize home ownership, East Harlem-El Barrio is currently focused on making rentals accessible.

Interboro CLT aims to eventually be citywide, which is uncommon for a CLT. It was founded as a partnership of four organizations: the Urban Homesteading Alliance Board, which works with housing cooperatives for low-income shareholders; the Mutual Housing Association of New York, focused on making affordable housing accessible; Habitat for Humanity NYC chapter; and the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which conducts research and provides housing counseling.[7] Because these founding nonprofits work across the city, Interboro CLT should be able to reach members in all five boroughs.

The CLT model is a unique solution to housing insecurity, homelessness, and landlord harassment. We are incredibly proud of our clients’ victory in the Jones brothers’ case, but the money does not erase what those tenants had to endure. In a CLT, low-income tenants are less likely to be pushed out by higher rents. CLTs build communities through common ownership and management, encouraging everyone involved to work together to protect residents and, by extension, the surrounding neighborhood. With the City’s renewed interest in CLTs, and the start of the Enterprise Community Partners’ Community Land Trust Capacity Building Initiative, we hope that the momentum keeps moving to enable low to moderate income residents throughout the city to withstand displacement in the face of rezonings and gentrification.

[1] Burlington Associates, 7-Key Characteristics of CLTs, Rationale and Variations, 1.
[2] Ibid, 2.
[3] Ibid, 3.
[4] Ibid, 4.
[5] csmha.org.
[6] https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/nyc-grants-community-land-trusts-expand
[7] http://gothamist.com/2017/08/04/community_land_trust.php