On Monday advocates for a community land trust in Buffalo gathered on a vacant lot on High Street, across the street from the Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church. There they held a “community congress” and cookout to celebrate another step forward toward establishing a community land trust (CLT) in the Fruit Belt. That step, announced on Monday, was the awarding of a $25,000 land acquisition grant – think of it as seed capital – from foundation sources.
Residents of the Fruit Belt, concerned with escalating housing costs in the face of increased development pressure from the adjacent BNMC. The Buffalo News has a good read about that here. To fight back, the Fruit Belt Advisory Council joined forces with progressive groups like Open Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo, and the Partnership for the Public Good to form the Community First Alliance, which for over a year has been working toward the creation of what would be Buffalo’s first CLT.
Residents who spoke to celebrate this step forward recounted that naysayers told them that the community land trust would never happen, the City would never go for it, etc. But in addition to this week’s signs of progress, the CLT is also receiving attention in articles like this one.
With wind in their sails from this startup funding, the Community First Alliance will be looking to form a board for the CLT, and also work toward developing a vision for the neighborhood. That vision will be essential to determining the highest and best uses for the 200+ city-owned parcels of land in the neighborhood (sales of which are currently frozen). One desire of residents, discussed Monday, is a community center.
Former Common Council President Jim Pitts has also taken an interest in the community land trust. Earlier Monday, while speaking at the Cross-Border Post-Keynsian Conference on economics at Buffalo State (here and here), he cited the community land trust as an example of the kind of heterodox economics the conference was organized to discuss.
Pitts’ interest in the Fruit Belt is personal: it’s where he grew up. At the time, he told the symposium, it was economically vibrant, full of stores and businesses. But then he saw changes, not necessarily for the better, imposed on his neighborhood. His interest in government began when his mother could only explain these changes as decisions made by “those people downtown.” He wanted to find a way to help his community take some control of its destiny. That same concept that is the essence of a community land trust.
At the conference, Pitts as speaking at a session organized by Dr. Curtis Haynes, another former Ellicott District councilman and a professor of economics at Buffalo State College. Haynes’ own research builds on that of his mentor, Lloyd L. Hogan, who developed a heterodox theory of economics based on the unique experience of the African-American community. According to Haynes, Hogan’s work points to the need for households, businesses, and neighborhoods to take greater control of their own destiny. Again, that same concept is the essence of community land trust. But how does a CLT do that?
Perhaps the best way to explain community land trusts is in comparison to land banks. Land banks, like the one formed by Erie County in partnership with the City of Buffalo and several other municipalities, are important tools for dealing with distressed properties. A fundamental tool they share is that ability, granted by law, to intervene in the municipal bid (in-rem) process to break the downward cycle of problem properties being churned or flipped from one owner to another. Land banks then work to see the properties reused in a way that improves, rather than degrades, the community. For more background, I’ve been told that this is the definitive article on our local land bank.
Like a land bank, a community land trust is organized around acquiring, holding, and disposing of property. But a CLT does not have a land bank’s “superbid” legal authority. And in contrast to a board of directors like that of our local land bank, made up primarily of “ex-officio” members representing local governments, a CLT is more likely to have a board made up primarily of leaders and residents of the specific community or neighborhood it is organized to serve. For more, delve into this great read about CLTs.
The Community First Alliance also has a short video about the CLT here.
Tying back to this week’s economics conference, both land banks and CLTs could be considered heterodox economics tools that operate outside traditional (“neoclassical”) capitalist models. Unlike those models, they make serving the needs of people paramount, as opposed to profit. As Buffalo State’s Haynes espoused in his conference presentation, in a world where, as he sees it, enough can be provided to everyone, this is the direction economics will go. “The biggest industry in the 21st Century will be the human being. What’s really important is not what we produce, but what we become,” he told attendees.
Monday’s announcement came the same day as a major Buffalo News cover story about many low-income residents in Buffalo being caught in a housing squeeze between affordability and availability. Given the number of public officials taking these issues seriously, and the community support behind the CLT, there is a very real possibility this will become a reality.
Should that happen, look for community land trusts to join other efforts such as development subsidy reform and inclusionary zoning in Buffalo’s efforts to fight gentrification.