Community Land Trusts

Since the 1960s, the Community Land Trust was developed as a support for affordable housing in the United States. In the housing sector, the CLT model combines two basic innovations in governance of land. The first innovation is to split the ownership of a home from ownership of land on which it sits. A homeowner in a CLT holds title to her home, while the title to the land is held by the nonprofit CLT, which then provides a ground lease to the homeowner. This allows CLT homeowners to build limited equity in their home itself, while ensuring affordability to subsequent homeowners by limiting the amount which they can increase the sales price of the land. The second innovation is the tripartite structure of the CLT board, whose members are generally split evenly between homeowners, members of the neighboring community who are not part of the CLT, and the types of community leaders (representatives from other non profits, credit unions, etc.) that one typically associates with a nonprofit board. This board structure ensures that the CLT remains committed to balancing the interests of its members and those of the community in which it exists.

In recent years, CLTs have come to take on three main roles in support of urban agriculture. First, some CLTs formed to support affordable housing have come to hold land for community gardens and urban farms. Second, some of these housing-focused CLTs have provided programmatic support for urban agriculture, other than taking on ownership of land. And a few organizations have been founded as community land trusts that are exclusively focused on urban agriculture, adapting some of the techniques for community-focused governance from the CLT model developed in housing. Here we focus on two CLTs. (1)  the Athens Community Land Trust, which was founded with a mission to create affordable housing, but has begun to provide programmatic support for urban agriculture; and (2) the Southside Community Land Trust, which  focuses on preserving land for community gardens and urban farms.

Athens Land Trust

The Athens Land Trust, in Athens, Georgia, is a dual-mission housing and open space land trust. Rather than taking ownership of land for growing, the Athens Land Trust has engaged in urban agriculture exclusively through program assistance. It opted for this role because of the high holding costs associated with Georgia’s property taxation policies. These assesses land owned by the CLT at its unrestricted market value, rather than at the value of land that is restricted to agricultural use.

The Athens Land Trust  provide support for local agricultural projects by partnering with public and private sector landowners. For example, when a new pastor arrived at Hill Chapel Baptist Church in Athens, he was concerned about the health issues affecting the African American community, including hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. He became an advocate for more nutritious food opportunities and a healthier food culture. The Athens Land Trust’s staff worked with the church to design a community garden located on church-owned land, and helped arranging for testing and tilling the soil, coordinating workdays, providing plant materials, and teaching gardening workshops. Similarly, at the West Broad Market Garden, the Athens Land Trust designed and constructed a community garden on the site of a former elementary school. Today, the site houses several programs managed by the Athens Land Trust, including a commercial agricultural garden, a produce stand, and a community-supported agriculture program. The Athens Land Trust plans to add a farmer’s market component in the near future.

As a dual-purpose land trust, the Athens Land Trust is particularly well qualified to conduct agricultural projects. They have also secured funding necessary to advance their urban agricultural program by partnering with a local university to create, maintain, and expand a total of 15 community gardens and 20 school gardens.

Southside Community Land Trust

Southside Community Land Trust (Southside CLT) holds title to 16 community gardens in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the Athens Land Trust, Southside CLT provides programmatic support (such as arranging for bulk purchases of organic fertilizers) for these gardens as well as the 25 gardens in its network that are owned by other organizations. Southside differs from other community land trusts in that it only holds land for gardens and farms, rather than for affordable housing. However, like traditional CLTs, it has built community representation and engagement into its governance structure. Fifty-one percent of board members must be elected directly from gardeners.

Southside has drawn on land conservation tools developed in suburban contexts in order to raise revenue and provide additional levels of protection for its community gardens. It sold the development rights to a number of its gardens to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and used revenues from the sales to help offset the cost of acquiring land. Selling development rights to the state also helps to increase security, since a developer would need to acquire both title to the garden and the development rights. The use of a state open-space bond to finance the purchase of the development rights further restricts potential land uses, and adds to security of tenure.

In addition to protecting land for community gardens, Southside CLT also manages two commercial farms. City Farm is a ¾-acre commercial urban farm in south Providence, begun in 1986. Urban Edge Farm is a 50-acre farm located eight miles from South Providence in Cranston, Rhode Island. The mission of Urban Edge Farm is to support seven new farmers, who collaboratively manage the land.  The land for Urban Edge was purchased by the state in 2002, pursuant to the state’s Open Space Preservation Act.  The site, which was formerly a dairy farm, is now owned and protected by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which leases it to SCLT for $1/year.  About 20 of the 50 acres are cultivable.

Southside CLT initially operated its own CSA farm at Urban Edge Farm, but within a few years it became clear that production would not cover the significant staffing costs. Through Urban Edge Farm, Southside CLT now teaches farming practices to new farmers, rents them farm equipment, provides compost and fertilizer, and plows the land once a year.  After going through training, these beginning farmers can rent up to two acres of land at below-market rates. These farming businesses are owned and operated by individuals who had some prior experience in farming, but who weren’t able to buy or rent land on their own at market rates. They sell through CSAs, directly to institutions, and through growers’ cooperatives. The terms of Southside CLT’s lease with the state are meant to prevent competition with nearby farms, and thus bar on-farm sales or non-farm businesses. Two of the seven farmers are a couple that immigrated from Laos; two of the remaining five worked previously with Southside CLT, having received the opportunity to farm the land after being laid off from the original CSA operation.