The Limits of Land Reform: A Comment on Community Land Trusts


In recent years, the community land trust (CLT) model of land tenure has drawn increasing attention among members of socio-economically marginalized communities and their allies for holding out the promise of delivering two things that have elided cash-poor people, people of color, and others in the United States, arguably since the colonial conquest of the continent.  The CLT model’s first promise is for security of affordable tenure; its second, participation in making decisions about land use, not just among those who own, but by those who occupy and use the land in question.1  In this piece, I briefly review the key features of the typical CLT and then take up a short case study of a Los Angeles CLT.  My hope here is to begin to show that, while in gentrifying urban areas like South Los Angeles the removal of land and housing from the speculative real estate market does entail an important victory by members of embattled communities over the threat of their displacement and dispossession, the CLT model in practice does not deliver fully on its promise and potential in theory, much less offer a silver bullet for the stabilization and empowerment of people struggling against gentrification.

How Is a Community Land Trust Supposed to Work?

The CLT is a form of real property tenure widely understood to depend on two innovative mechanisms.2  The first is the separation of ownership rights over a parcel of land from the ownership rights over the improvements made on that land.  In a CLT, a nonprofit organization owns the land in question and leases it to users.  Restrictions on the terms of use written into these leases are the mechanism through which the CLT negotiates the collective interests of its community with the individual interests of users.  In the case of housing, leasehold restrictions include formulas for capping the resale value and sharing the equity of a property on leased land.  This is how CLTs provide stable and permanently affordable housing.

The CLT’s second innovation entails the collective control of the land through the nonprofit owner.  CLTs represent the interests of those living on CLT land, as well as of members of the surrounding community and other stakeholders therein, such as local public officials.  These different groups are incorporated into the CLT by way of the organization’s tripartite board, which reserves a roughly equal number of seats to each group.  These seats are filled by a vote among all the members of the organization.  In its ideal form, then, the CLT model envisages a mode of land tenure characterized by affordable stability for and collective control by residents, neighbors, and community members.  Yet, as the following case demonstrates, these ideals are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve even by the most well-meaning CLT landowners when the land in question is situated in a profit-driven real estate market.

How Does a Community Land Trust Actually Work?

When the grassroots community group T.R.U.S.T. South LA. (Tenemos que Reclamar y Unidos Salvar la Tierra, hereinafter T.R.U.S.T.) bought Rolland Curtis Gardens (RCG) from a company representing the controversial real estate mogul Jeff Greene, the residents of the 48-unit affordable housing development were ecstatic.  It was September of 2012 and RCG’s residents had been organizing for over a year to save their homes.  In January of the previous year, when the development’s affordability covenant had expired, the management company working for Greene had reaffirmed its intention to evict the complex’s tenants, raise rents considerably, and lease exclusively to students at the nearby University of Southern California (USC).  But, after months of tenant organizing, legal challenges, and public pressure, Greene instead sold the property to a partnership composed of T.R.U.S.T. and the nonprofit developer Abode Communities.3  Planning against the gentrifying grain, the partners sought to steward RCG as permanently affordable housing by removing its underlying land from the speculative market onto a CLT.

T.R.U.S.T.’s purchase and conversion of RCG was a significant victory for community members and advocacy organizations who had over the past decade been opposing the gentrification of the university district.  As in previous periods of university-led transformation of the neighborhood, public and private investments alike were churning out waves of forcible displacement of long-term, low-income, and mostly nonwhite residents and businesses as landlords sought to maximize returns on property holdings and developers looked to put the land to its most lucrative use.  By allying with T.R.U.S.T., RCG residents fought their impending displacement and sought to secure their homes and their place in the community for good.

The reality of the situation, however, has proven to be less straightforward.  After buying RCG, T.R.U.S.T. and Abode quickly determined that the most feasible future for the development would entail replacing rather than rehabilitating the existing forty-eight units of rental housing.4  T.R.U.S.T. then set out on a protracted participatory planning process, from which ultimately emerged a proposal for a new RCG comprising 138 units of affordable rental housing, a community health clinic, and an additional small-scale retail space.5  Overall, the new plan sought to open up RCG to its community and to embrace a livelier, more well-rounded vision of how to live on the land than its utilitarian predecessor design.

Yet the new design to be enjoyed by future RCG residents came at a cost to current ones.  Since the sweeping changes to be made on the land required demolishing the existing housing complex, its residents would be at least temporarily displaced.  The difficulty of making any such displacement painless became unavoidably apparent in the fall of 2016, when Abode issued its tenants notices to vacate.  At the time, Abode was offering just $1375 per household in relocation assistance, the legally mandated minimum amount.  Such an amount barely covered moving expenses for some families, not to mention deposit or first-month rental costs in the market into which RCG residents were thrust.

But RCG residents did not passively accede to the new landlords’ terms, and through a combination of tenant pressure, legal intervention, and media attention, they were ultimately able to secure an additional $7000 per household from T.R.U.S.T. and Abode.  Still, some felt betrayed by their onetime allies, and the irony of being pushed out of their homes under such conditions, and by organizations committed to housing affordability and neighborhood stability no less, did not go unnoticed.6  Still, T.R.U.S.T. staff worked with relocation consultants to find tenants new homes and have kept in touch with them over the intervening years.7

Along with the physical and programmatic redesign, RCG’s financial structure was also changing.  The original RCG had been publicly funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) of Los Angeles and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Once complete, the development’s newly formed management company worked with HUD to enroll the development in the project-based Section 8 housing program.  As such, housing in the original RCG was available to all but the very poorest of the community, with a minimum monthly rental amount of $50 up to 30 percent of a low-income household’s adjusted income.8

The new RCG, however, would not be supported by public subsidies, without which Abode needed to adjust the project’s affordability guidelines upward in order to balance its books on the project.  Once complete, the new RCG would be available at publicly pegged fair market rates to households earning between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area’s median income.9  While still affordable relative to most of the recent residential development in the area, RCG’s balance of occupancy shifted in favor of higher-earning households.  As such, not all residents of the existing development would necessarily qualify to live in the new development.

For this reason, T.R.U.S.T. and Abode did not offer a straightforward right of return to all residents.  Instead, they promised to give qualifying residents priority consideration in the application process and to establish lending circles among lower-income residents in order to help them build credit and enhance their chances of making it into the new development a few years down the road.10  But, by the spring of 2018, as T.R.U.S.T. staff continued working to understand the changing nature of their partnership with Abode, as well as the terms of the management company’s applications for tenancy at the new RCG, the land trust stewards abandoned the lending circle idea and went back to the drawing board to imagine new ways of supporting former RCG residents’ applications for housing in the new development.11  And even if the lending circles had come to fruition, there would have been another hurdle to clear: reconciling former residents’ desires to return to RCG with the reality that Abode still may have been financially pressured to turn down some households’ applications.


The brevity of the case study above cannot do justice to the complexity of the long and nuanced story of Rolland Curtis Gardens and T.R.U.S.T. South LA.  But the abbreviated version offered here nevertheless can offer an object lesson in the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of fully realizing in practice the theoretical benefits of the CLT model.  For one thing, the rising affordability standard of the new RCG, relative to the original, suggests a critical caveat to the promise of permanent affordability offered by CLT advocates.  The RCG case shows that, under prevailing conditions, the nonprofit model of affordable housing provision cannot be expected to offer the same degree of accessibility as publicly subsidized or publicly owned affordable housing.  As such, CLTs might be better understood as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, traditional public housing.  This also suggests that, in the absence of a robust public housing program, stability of tenure will remain beyond the reach of the most economically marginalized.

The RCG case also sheds light on some of the practical limits of the collective control of valuable urban land.  One such limitation is imposed from the outside, insofar as the conditions prevailing in the local real estate market constrained Abode’s ability to ensure housing to RCG’s former residents, both in terms of supporting tenants’ relocations and in terms of offering a right of return to former tenants in the new development.  Another limitation can be seen to operate within the CLT model, in that the participatory planning process which shaped the vision for the new RCG also provided the impetus for the displacement of the original RCG’s residents.  And while many RCG residents supported the project, it is not clear that any safeguards were put in place to raise up dissenting voices or to protect the most vulnerable RCG community members.

At the same time, though, it is worth repeating that the removal of RCG from the speculative real estate market onto CLT land represents an important win for those fighting to preserve the character – both social and economic – of the neighborhood where RCG is located.  Because the land is now held in trust, there are no more affordability provisions to expire, meaning that there need be no more threats of eviction, displacement, and dispossession of those who reside on the land by those who own it.  Moreover, the number of households able to live securely on that land will have more-than-doubled by the time the new RCG development is complete.  In sum, then, though the CLT model may not ensure unqualified security of affordable tenure for or collective control by low-income communities, those of color, or anyone marginalized by the depredations of a profit-driven and still-colonial real estate market, it nevertheless offers an important improvement upon and a path away from the worst of such conditions.  As such, its adoption should be considered anywhere people are struggling against gentrification, dispossession, and banishment from their community.

[1] On the growth of community land trusts (CLTs), see Emily Thaden & Jason Webb, National Community Land Trust Network: 2015 Member Report (2015),  On the colonial origins of socio-economic injustice in the housing market, see K-Sue Park, Money, Mortgages, and the Conquest of America, 41 L. & Soc. Inquiry 1006 (2016).

[2] This section synthesizes John Emmeus Davis, Origins and Evolution of the Community Land Trust in the United States, in The Community Land Trust Reader 3–47 (John Emmeus Davis ed., 2010).

[3] T.R.U.S.T. South LA, A Report to City Planning Department on Rolland Curtis Gardens Entitlements Outreach and Engagement 1 ( 2014) (on file with author).

[4] Id.

[5] Letter From Jim Ries, Craig Lawson & Co., LLC, to Councilmember Jose Huizar, Planning and Land Use Management Comm., L.A. City Council (Dec. 2, 2014) (supporting the Zoning Change and General Plan Amendment request by Rolland Curtis Partners, LLC) (on file with author).

[6] Ben Poston & Doug Smith, Told to Vacate, Low-Income Tenants of Complex Near USC Feel Betrayed by Nonprofits, L.A. Times (Oct. 22, 2016),

[7] Interview with T.R.U.S.T. South LA Staff (May 2018).

[8] 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(a).

[9] Elijah Chiland, Major Affordable Housing Development Underway in Exposition Park, Curbed: L.A. (July 3, 2017, 2:21 PM),

[10] Interview with T.R.U.S.T. South LA, supra note 7.

[11] Id.

About the Author

Danny Foster is the Community Development Associate at the Mt. Vernon Manor CDC in Philadelphia. His interests include the political economy of urban development and social movement organizing.

By uclalaw