Public Land for Public Good: How Community Groups Are Influencing the Disposition of Public Land to Help Address the Affordable Housing Crisis

California is facing an affordable housing crisis of epic proportions.  In urban centers across the state, the rising cost of housing is pushing low-income families out of their homes and neighborhoods.1  Affordable housing is scarce, and new housing construction targets the higher end of the market, often to the detriment of low-income neighborhoods.2  This gentrification and displacement leads directly to overcrowded and uninhabitable living conditions, negatively impacts public health, and fuels the unconscionable homelessness emergency that is gripping communities across the state.3

This crisis calls for a critical assessment of the systems and structures that have enabled extreme housing inequality, in order to shape a multi-layered policy response.4  Central to this response is an inquiry into the role and nature of land: Who owns land?  Is the land owned by public entities, like the local government, or is it predominantly owned by private actors? Who has access to land?  How is land acquired and transferred?  How is the use of land regulated by local, state, or federal actors?  The answers to these questions dictate the availability, quality, and affordability of housing.  Consequently, a community’s ability to combat gentrification and displacement hinges on its ability to influence the use and ownership of its land.

There are multiple ways to intervene in the use and ownership of land.  This piece focuses on one particular strategy that is gaining traction in the Los Angeles region.  In the short case studies that follow, we highlight local campaigns that have attempted to influence the use or sale of land owned by public entities such as cities or transit agencies.  These case studies demonstrate the importance of utilizing public land as an anti-displacement and anti-gentrification strategy in response to the failure of the private land market to meet affordable housing needs.5  However, the limited scale of these campaigns also serves as a reminder that public land strategies, alone, will not stem the tide of displacement or solve the affordable housing crisis.  Prioritizing the sale or lease of public land for affordable housing is an important part of a broader and multi-faceted response to our housing crisis.

I. Case Study 1: Affordable Joint Development on Transit Agency Land

Los Angeles is in the midst of an unprecedented expansion of its transportation system—now the single largest public works project in the nation.6  This public investment is catalyzing private development and real estate speculation across the system, which could ultimately transform the built environment in many historically disinvested low-income communities.  In response, community-based organizations (CBOs) have mounted campaigns for equitable transit-oriented development, seeking to influence planning and development practices in communities near the transit system to promote affordable housing and prevent displacement.

Central to this movement for equitable transit-oriented development is the question of how to develop the real estate assets owned by the transit agency.  In addition to creating, maintaining, and operating the transit system, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) owns a lot of real property.  Much of this land is used to stage construction equipment during the build-out of a rail line.  But when the land is no longer needed for that purpose, Metro will often partner with a developer to construct a project on the site—a process called joint development.  As a result, CBOs have centered their campaigns on influencing Metro policy regarding this process of joint development.

In one of these campaigns, community organizers with the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and engaged residents of Boyle Heights helped reform Metro’s system-wide joint development policies and procedures, resulting in precedent-setting affordable housing gains.  After the completion of the Gold Line through Boyle Heights and East LA, Metro held several developable parcels in close proximity to the light rail line.  In 2014, the agency initiated its second round of joint development on several of these sites and originally intended to follow its long-standing internal policy guidance that neither required nor prioritized affordable housing.  However, a number of low-income residents voiced dissatisfaction with the community engagement process, and after a series of public meetings, Metro decided to go back to the drawing board.7

During this time, ELACC began working with Boyle Heights residents to channel this dissatisfaction into model engagement strategies that would capture and uplift the needs of the lowest-income riders. However, as ELACC developed outreach and engagement models, housing prices in Boyle Heights continued to rise and gentrification fears intensified.  These anxieties surfaced in ELACC’s outreach and organizing, and the organization quickly realized that in addition to better engagement practices, Metro also needed to update its policy to prioritize affordable housing on its own land.8

While most residents advocated for affordable housing as a moral imperative, Metro needed to be convinced that prioritizing affordable housing was central to its mission as a transit agency.  To do this, ELACC and other organizations pointed to a volume of research demonstrating that the majority of public transportation users are low-income.9  Studies show that if these daily riders can no longer afford to live near transit, overall ridership may decrease.10 By demonstrating the nexus between affordable housing and ridership, ELACC and other organizations11 made the case that Metro should revise its joint development policy to better prioritize affordability.12

These efforts paid off.  Ultimately recognizing the ridership benefits of affordable housing near transit, and armed with legal analysis to justify the policy changes,13 the Metro Board of Directors eventually approved a series of amendments to its joint development policy in 2015.14  These changes included a new goal of 35 percent affordable housing across the entire portfolio of Metro-owned sites, enabled sales or leases at below fair market value to help facilitate affordability, and created an affordable housing revolving loan fund.15

While these changes are celebrated as a national model for inclusive joint development, efforts to strengthen the policy are ongoing.  The Alliance for Community Transit—LA (ACT-LA) coalition is now actively engaging with Metro in the creation and implementation of the Transit Oriented Communities Policy framework to encourage equity in local transit investments and establish system-wide equity goals.16  Beyond Metro, other public agencies can be encouraged to think critically about how affordable housing may intersect with the agency’s core mission, and adjust their land disposition practices to help stabilize the communities they serve with better access to affordable housing.17

It is also important to note the limitations of a joint development strategy. Although the inventory of public land is significant, the majority of development still occurs on private land.  For its part, ELACC built on the success of its joint development campaign by helping push for corresponding equitable development standards that would apply to all property – not just the sites owned by the agency.  For example, as a member of ACT-LA, ELACC was instrumental in helping advance new inclusive land use standards for transit-oriented development through Measure JJJ.18  ELACC and ACT-LA have looked to leverage public land as one tool in a broader toolbox for equitable community development.

II. Case Study 2: Enforcing the Surplus Land Act to Prioritize Affordability on Public Land

Since its city council’s unanimous approval of the proposal in June 2017 to develop a new arena and sports and entertainment park, the City of Inglewood has been negotiating the sale of city-owned land to Steve Ballmer, billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise.19  At an invite-only promotional event in June of this year,20 Ballmer declared, “This is not a complicated thing . . . I want to build a house in Inglewood!”21  This exclamation was met with cheers by city officials and high-profile team executives inside the event.  But outside the event, low-income Inglewood residents gathered to oppose the proposal.22  Many questioned why, in the midst of this housing crisis, the City would prioritize a new house for a sports team over new homes for rent-burdened residents, especially on land the City already owns.23

Unlike other cities in the region, Inglewood has no tenant protection policies and rents are skyrocketing for the majority low-income renter population.  The median income in Inglewood is almost $20,000 less than the average median income in the region, and over 80 percent of Inglewood households currently qualify for affordable housing.24  Transit expansion and a massive redevelopment project associated with a new National Football League stadium have catalyzed new market-rate and luxury housing,25 but the city remains woefully behind in meeting its affordable housing targets.26  For many, the proposed NBA arena is yet another project that is contributing to, rather than addressing, the growing housing insecurity in Inglewood.  In response, residents and community leaders with the Uplift Inglewood Coalition (Uplift Inglewood) have launched the Homes Before Arenas campaign, in which they call on the city to prioritize public land for public good.27

This simple premise—public land for public good—is the foundation of a growing movement to hold local governments accountable to their obligation to prioritize affordable housing on publicly owned land.  There are several reasons why this is good public policy.  For one, the cost of land in California, especially in the dense urban areas along the coast, constitutes one of the biggest barriers to the construction of affordable housing.28  So public land, when isolated from private speculation and offered at discount prices, is a vitally important tool for local agencies to help increase the supply of affordable housing and reduce displacement.

There are also legal requirements to prioritize affordable housing on publicly owned land. The California Surplus Land Act29 requires local jurisdictions to offer surplus public land to affordable housing developers, park agencies, and school districts before offering it to private developers.30  The law remained relatively obscure for many years, but in 2015, the legislature breathed new life into the statute with a series of amendments.31

The Surplus Land Act has since emerged as an important tool for affordable housing advocates.  In 2015, an Oakland collaborative influenced a proposed sale of city-owned land to a luxury apartment developer in the working-class neighborhood of Eastlake.  Advocates for the collaborative demanded that the public land be used for the construction of affordable housing, citing the procedural requirements of the Surplus Land Act.  Ultimately, the Oakland City Attorney agreed, and the city was compelled to follow the law— a major victory for community advocates resulting in much-needed affordable housing.32

Other CBOs around the state have deployed similar campaigns.  In Inglewood, Uplift Inglewood has invoked the Surplus Land Act in their Homes Before Arenas campaign.  In June 2018, the coalition filed a lawsuit against the City of Inglewood for violating a number of affordable housing policies, including failing to follow the Surplus Land Act when the City entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement to sell public land to Ballmer.33  Uplift Inglewood’s campaign is not anti-development: The group is simply calling for equitable development that will bring benefits to their community without displacing long-term residents.  Prioritizing affordable housing over yet another arena project on limited public land is central to that goal.

Uplift Inglewood’s campaign is a reminder of the state legislature’s commitment to the principle of public land for public good.  It is also a reminder of the need for local advocates to hold cities and agencies accountable to these requirements.  In communities like Inglewood, where extensive development and speculation coincides with a lack of tenant protections, the disposition of public land can be an important bulwark against gentrification and displacement – but only if affordable housing is made a priority.  Prioritizing affordable housing on public land also helps jurisdictions comply with other state laws, such as the legal requirement to plan for the construction of a specified number of affordable housing units.34  For these, and many other reasons, local jurisdictions should take steps to intentionally prioritize affordable housing on public land, and where the political will is lacking, community groups should take steps to compel compliance with state law requirements.

III.  Case Study 3: Moving Public Land to Community Control

Transferring public land to community control can be a powerful strategy to isolate real property from the speculative market, ensuring long-term affordability and community stability in the face of gentrification and displacement pressures.  In particular, the Community Land Trust (CLT) model has the potential to ensure public land can remain a public asset by establishing long-term community control over the land.

A CLT is generally an organization that acquires and holds land off the speculative market, creating community assets and affordable housing for a community in perpetuity.  Housing-focused CLTs retain ownership but often enter into long-term ground leases with individuals or cooperatives that own the housing structures—enabling community control of the land in perpetuity but also homeownership and equity.  Therefore, CLTs not only add to a community’s affordable housing stock, but also provide a mechanism for building wealth for low-income households and individuals who can realize homeownership.  Today, there are hundreds of CLTs across the country.35

To function, CLTs need to acquire property.  But with real property treated as a commodity, CLTs face a competitive disadvantage in acquiring property from the private market at a scale necessary to have a meaningful impact.  Land acquisition is especially challenging in Los Angeles, where the price of land on the private market is well out of reach for a low-income community membership organization.36

However, this same challenge need not apply to public land.  If a government agency made a policy decision to prioritize the conveyance of public land to CLTs at below fair market value (or for no cost, if possible), it could significantly improve the viability of community ownership of land in gentrifying communities.  For example, the Oakland Community Land Trust received city funding earlier this year, helping them secure a mix of single-family homes and mixed-use buildings in the rapidly gentrifying city.37  Further north, in Sonoma County, government involvement is even more explicit – city-funded affordable housing units are transferred to the Housing Land Trust of Sonoma County for sale to low-income families.38  This model has been proven at a small scale in communities across the country.39

In Los Angeles, T.R.U.S.T. South LA has worked to build community control of land as a strategy to stabilize the neighborhoods south of Downtown LA, where increased property values and rents have pushed out many long-term residents.  In several instances, T.R.U.S.T. South LA has sought to leverage the disposition of public land to strategically acquire sites.  In one key example, T.R.U.S.T. South LA acquired a seven-acre site in South LA that was formerly owned by LA’s Redevelopment Agency to develop an innovative community-controlled project that will incorporate affordable housing and new park space together in a community that is starving for both.40

Building on this model, another coalition—Eastside Leadership for Equitable and Accountable Development Strategies (Eastside LEADS)41—is now partnering with LA County to explore strategies for a CLT in the Whiteside area of East Los Angeles.  With lessons and inspiration from T.R.U.S.T. South LA and other efforts, Eastside LEADS will spend the next year reaching out to local residents to assess community needs and to create a community-driven business plan for the creation of a CLT in order to combat displacement in East LA.  This plan includes surveying publicly owned land in the area that may be a viable starting point for a CLT.

The history of T.R.U.S.T. South LA and the emergent efforts of Eastside LEADS suggest that the evolution of the CLT movement in LA will depend, in part, on the strategic acquisition of public land at below market rates.  Local jurisdictions looking for effective strategies to mitigate gentrification and displacement would be wise to prioritize public land for conveyance to CLTs.


The preceding case studies demonstrate a range of strategies to capitalize on public land for affordable housing.  Each campaign represents an innovative and successful intervention in a housing market that is stacked against low-income communities.  But each campaign also reveals limitations in scale – public land is a crucial point of intervention, but not a complete solution in a land market dominated by private ownership.  Even a full commitment from a jurisdiction to intentionally pursue aggressive public land strategies for affordable housing will not alone solve the crisis.  Other strategies are needed to enhance tenant protections, preserve affordable housing, increase funding for affordable housing, promote supportive housing, provide homeless services, end criminalization of poverty, protect civil rights of the unhoused, and create land use programs for inclusive development, to name just a few.

Facing a crisis as daunting as ours, we need every tool at our disposal.  Public land is an underutilized but necessary tool in the toolbox.  Local governments should commit to deploy public land in the fight against housing insecurity, and CBOs and affordable housing advocates should continue to explore new and innovative strategies to ensure that public land is maximized for public good.

[1] See Angela Hart, Think Rent Is High in California? Here’s Why It Probably Will Get Higher, Sacramento Bee (June 19, 2017, 12:01 AM),; Matt Levin & Ben Christopher, Californians: Here’s Why Your Housing Costs Are So High, CALmatters (Aug. 21, 2017) [hereinafter California Land Rush],

[2] California Land Rush, supra note 1.

[3] See, e.g., Causa Justa: Just Cause, Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area 8 (2014),; L.A. Homeless Servs. Auth., Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count: 2018 Results (2018), (reporting that an estimated 52,765 individuals are homeless in Los Angeles County on any given night, including 9,205 individuals who experienced homelessness for the first time this past year, an increase of approximately 14 percent over the prior year).

[4] At a minimum, this assessment should include strategies to stabilize rents and protect tenants from unjust evictions, preserve existing affordable and rent stabilized housing, and produce new social and deed restricted affordable housing.  This incorporates the three P’s of equitable development: protect, preserve, and produce.

[5] One study demonstrates that affordable housing units are twice as effective at reducing displacement as market rate development.  See Miriam Zuk & Karen Chapple, Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships 4 (2016),

[6] In 2016, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure M, a half-cent sales tax that is estimated to generate $120 billion over forty years for transportation infrastructure projects. See Meghan McCarty Carino & Aaron Mendelson, LA Says 'Yes' to Tax Increase for Transportation, KPCC (Nov. 9, 2016),; see also Josh Stephens, L.A. Metro Is Trying to Redefine the Transit Trip, Next City (June 4, 2015),

[7] See, e.g., Kristopher Fortin, Boyle Heights Community, Metro Clash at Meeting Over Development at MTA Owned Property, Streetsblog LA (Dec. 7, 2012),; Sahra Sulaiman, Metro Postpones Approving ENA for Mariachi Plaza, Gets Blasted for Having it on Agenda in First Place, Streetsblog L.A. (Nov. 13, 2014),; Sahra Sulaiman, Planning for Mariachi Plaza Begins Again; How it Will Tie in to Other Area Projects Remains Unclear, Streetsblog L.A. (Mar. 4, 2016),

[8] See Transit Oriented Development, East L.A. Community Corp., (last visited July 27, 2018).

[9] In the case of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), 70 percent of riders using transit to commute to work make less than $25,000 annually according to a 2012 report.  See Reconnecting Am., Preservation in Transit-Oriented Districts: A Study on the Need Priority and Tools in Protecting Assisted and Unassisted in the City of Los Angeles  3 (2012),

[10] See Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone & Chase Billingham, Maintaining Diversity in America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods 1–4, 24–26 (2010), (finding a “stunningly high incidence of disproportionately rising rents and housing values” in transit rich neighborhoods when compared to metro areas, and that new transit stations can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users—such as renters and low income households—are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting); cf. Amanda Gehrke et al., Creating Successful Transit-Oriented Districts in Los Angeles 20-21 (2010) (finding that disproportionate numbers of low-income families in Los Angeles currently live near transit and these households will be vulnerable to displacement as housing prices and development increase around transit); Cal. Hous. P’ship Corp. & Transform, Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit Is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy 3–4 (2014), (“Lower income households drive 25–30% fewer miles when living within ½ mile of transit than those living in non-[Transit-Oriented Development] areas.  When living within . . .  ¼ mile of frequent transit they drove nearly 50% less.”)

[11] Public Counsel, LA THRIVES, Low Income Investment Fund, the Center for Transit Oriented Development, Enterprise Community Partners, the California Endowment, and the California Community Foundation were all instrumental in advancing research and promoting inclusive joint development policy reform.

[12] See, e.g., Geeta Rao, A New Paradigm for California Transit: Equity, Sustainability, and Housing, Shelterforce (Aug. 30, 2016),  For a comprehensive analysis of the value of affordable housing and equitable transit oriented development for Metro, see Low Income Inv. Fund et al., Incentives to Encourage Equitable Development in Los Angeles County Transit Oriented Districts (2013),

[13] See generally Pub. Counsel, Delivering the Promise of Transit: How Transit Agencies Can Increase Ridership—and Clean Air—by Discounting Land for Affordable Housing (2015),

[14] See Affordable Housing, Metro, (last visited Sept. 18, 2018) .

[15] See L.A. Cty. Metro. Transp. Agency, Metro Board Report: Response to Request for Action Regarding Metro Involvement in Affordable Housing 4, 7 (2015),; see also Rao, supra note 12.

[16] See Laura Raymond, Infrastructure That Uplifts: Affordable Housing Near Transit Is a Win-Win, Medium (June 26, 2018),

[17] For example, just as affordability is central to the success of a transit system, other public agencies that own land as part of their mission, like school districts, should consider the intersection of their core mission with issues of gentrification and displacement.  This may be particularly relevant to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as they face shrinking enrollment numbers, and thus, have surplus land due to school closures.  LAUSD has built some affordable housing units on LAUSD property, but does not have a system-wide policy like Metro.  See, e.g., Anna M. Phillips, LAUSD Teachers Earn Too Much to Live in the Affordable Housing Apartments Built for Them, L.A. Times (Oct. 19, 2016, 3:30 AM),

[18] Measure JJJ, approved by voters in November 2016, established value capture land use standards for the City of Los Angeles.  The initiative included the creation of a Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program (TOC program), which incentivizes higher and deeper levels of affordable housing in projects near transit.  In less than one year since the Measure JJJ TOC program began, over 1100 new affordable housing units are already in progress.  See L.A. Dep’t of City Planning, Housing Progress Report: Measure JJJ and Transit Oriented Communities (2018),

[19] Inglewood City Council Approves Clippers Arena Project, CBS L.A. (June 15, 2017, 2:00 PM),

[20] Warren Szewczyk, No Public, No Problem: LA Clippers Hold Private Press Conference on Inglewood’s Public Land (June 13, 2018),

[21] City of Inglewood, Los Angeles Clippers Press Conference at 6:10:00-6:20:00, YouTube (June 12, 2018),

[22] Szewczyk, supra note 20.

[23] See Sid Garcia, Clippers Brass Gathers in Support of Proposed Inglewood Arena, ABC (June 13, 2018),; see also Amy Powell, Inglewood Residents Speak Out Against Proposed Clippers Arena, ABC (Mar. 13, 2018),

[24] City of Inglewood Planning Div., Housing Element: City of Inglewood General Plan 2013-2021 2-9 (2014),

[25] Hollywood Park Specific Plan, City of Inglewood, (last visited July 27, 2018).

[26] See Press Release, Dep’t of Hous. & Cmty. Dev., Office of the Dir., New Data Released by California Department of Housing and Community Development Increase Transparency of How Cities and Counties Are Meeting Their Housing Goals (Feb. 27, 2018), (select the “5th Annual Progress Report Permit Summary” link to download summary table that includes measurement of Inglewood’s progress towards their allocated housing goals—the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA—and shows that the city had not issued any permits for affordable housing during the reporting period).

[27] Homes Before Arenas—No on SB 789, Uplift Inglewood Coalition, (last visited July 27, 2018).

[28] California Land Rush, supra note 1.

[29] Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 54220–33 (West 2018).

[30] See Cal. Gov’t Code § 54222 (West 2018).

[31] Assemb. B. 2135, 2013–14 Leg. Sess. (Cal. 2014).  After these changes, the Surplus Land Act empowers cities to sell surplus land at less than fair market value to facilitate the development of affordable housing and also requires that if the land is sold to a private developer and there are residential units built on the property, a minimum of fifteen percent must be affordable units.  See id.

[32] See Sam Tepperman-Gelfant & David Zisser, Community Power Wins Affordable Housing in Oakland, 20 Race, Poverty & Env’t. 84, 84–86 (2015),

[33] See Elijah Chiland, Inglewood Residents Sue to Block Clippers Arena, Curbed: L.A. (June 20, 2018),; Jason Henry, Lawsuit Alleges Inglewood Broke Law by Choosing Clippers Over Affordable Housing, L.A. Daily News (June 19, 2018),; Ramona Shelburne, Lawsuit Alleges City of Inglewood Violated State Laws in Clippers Negotiations, ESPN (June 20, 2018),

[34] See Cal. Gov’t Code § 65584.01(c) (West 2018).  Pursuant to this section, the state Department of Housing and Community Development determines how many housing units need to be built, including affordable units, throughout the state of California.  Regional bodies and individual cities are then allocated a share of this need; this is often referred to as the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) numbers.

[35] Overview: Community Land Trusts (CLTs),, (last visited Aug. 15, 2018).

[36] California Land Rush, supra note 1.

[37] Marisa Kendall, A Home You Can Afford: How Land Trusts Are Changing Bay Area Home Ownership, Mercury News (July 30, 2018, 6:00 AM),

[38]  See id.

[39] See, e.g., Slauson and Wall Moving Forward, T.R.U.S.T. South LA: Blog (Feb. 22, 2017),; see also Penn Loh, How One Boston Neighborhood Stopped Gentrification in Its Tracks, YES! Mag. (Jan. 28, 2015), (describing the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s use of eminent domain to acquire land and establish a community land trust in Boston).

[40] Slauson and Wall Moving Forward, supra note 39.

[41] Eastside LEADS, (last visited July 27, 2018).

About the Author

Doug Smith is a Staff Attorney in the Community Development Project at Public Counsel.  Katie McKeon is the Sullivan & Cromwell Fellow in the Community Development Project at Public Counsel.

By uclalaw