Community Land Trusts: Combining Scale and Community Control

Pitting the straw men of scale and community control against one another does the field more harm than good.

July 28, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By LM_Ortiz


Place It Workshop

A tiny house workshop with LATCH Collective, pictured in 2017. / James Rojas

"This is no longer my neighborhood.”

Too often, communities of color that experience new investments report that the changes are detrimental to their lives and a benefit to newcomers, who tend to be more affluent and often predominantly white households. Residents of color can experience social and cultural alienation and a loss of political influence.

The community land trust (CLT) model attempts to address both the perception and the reality of these shifts in power and culture by placing the residents of homes located on the CLT’s land in key leadership and decision-making positions and by putting the needs of low-income residents at the center of the CLT’s mission. Importantly, most CLTs are membership based, with the membership electing the board and having direct say over land disposition.

A major debate among CLT practitioners and advocates involves the tradeoffs and tensions between "going to scale" with the housing portfolio and enacting "community control." People on one side of this debate make the case that increasing the number of homes held in trust is necessary, both for the financial sustainability of CLTs and for the production and preservation of mixed-income communities. The other side argues that ever-increasing scale may inevitably erode the community’s and local residents’ control in decision making—a vital part of the CLT governance model. 

Making straw men of scale and community control and pitting them against each other does the field more harm than good. Instead, we at Grounded Solutions support reconciling and balancing the two goals to create more comprehensive CLT-based approaches that advance racial justice and inclusive community development. 

Meet the Straw Men

In the debate over whether CLT practitioners and advocates should focus on community control or scale, one side says that getting too big in certain ways, especially expanding across geographies bigger than a couple of neighborhoods, is antithetical to community control. Grassroots groups taking this position tend to minimize efforts to build the resource systems and infrastructure that CLTs need to develop and grow their impact (e.g., enabling public policies, a pipeline of real estate assets, and financing) because these activities are perceived as removed from the communities the groups are trying to serve.

On the other hand groups that focus solely on scale tend to minimize community organizing and planning, resident empowerment, community ownership, and authentic place-based leadership of the CLT, often claiming that the time and processes needed to cultivate real community control are a barrier to achieving scale.

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