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  • Writer's pictureKristina Villa

A Look at Community Land Trusts: Then to Now

The First Community Land Trust in the United States

The very first community land trust in the United States was an act of Black liberation. It was 1969. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the year before, the Black Panther Party had been declared an enemy of the U.S. government, and many Black and Brown people were actively engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, and were facing unfair evictions, job losses, and racist retaliation for their efforts toward freedom and equality. An incredible amount of land was taken from the Black community through racist lending practices and subsidies and supports from the federal and local governments that were mostly only given to white landowners. New Republic reports, “United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agents refused loans to Black farmers, interfered in elections for county committees that distributed federal funds, restricted the crops Black farmers could grow, and sometimes participated in outright theft.” An example that New Republic goes on to share, and that is understood to have been a widespread practice of USDA agents and white landowners around the country is the story of William Strider and Norman Weathersby. “William Strider, a USDA agent in Mississippi, delayed paying out operating loans to Black farmers who had posted their land as collateral to his friend, Norman Weathersby. Weathersby required Black farmers to put up their entire farms as collateral for loans to purchase farm equipment, so when the USDA farm operating loan failed to come through, and the farmers missed their payment to Weathersby, he acquired the farmland. An AP [Associated Press] report found that Weathersby acquired over 700 Black-owned acres in this way.”

An incredible amount of land was taken from the Black community

Because of these racist systems and discriminatory practices, there was a significant decrease in acres of land owned by Black people from 1910 to 1969. In 1910, Black people owned 15 million acres of U.S. land. By 1969, that number was down to just six million acres (Facing South, “Black Land Loss: The Plight of Black Ownership”).

It was that same year, 1969, that the first community land trust in the United States, New Communities Inc., was formed in southwest Georgia. Inspired by the kibbutz in Israel, which are intentional communities based on agriculture, New Communities was founded as a collective farm. The organization recognized that in order to be independent and safe from racist systems, their community needed ownership of their own housing, farmland and food as a way to ensure long-term security in their homes and their ability to maintain food security and sovereignty rather than to be beholden to white land, home, and grocery owners. During that time, many people were starting to speak about and create action toward the power and independence that came along with having control over one’s own land and food. “If you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family, and nobody can push you around,” insisted activist Fannie Lou Hamer in the late 1960s.

“While working throughout southwest Georgia, we had to develop ways to help families who were threatened with eviction because of their civil rights activities. The idea of building a community grew out of the need for an independent base for survival,” Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities, said.

New Communities, described in the articles of incorporation as “a nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities,” purchased 3,000 acres of farmland and over 2,000 acres of woodland on January 9, 1970. At the time, it was the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the United States.

The organization operated within the framework of shared stewardship of land. The nonprofit, run by a board of highly skilled and experienced people in areas ranging from legal, real estate, farming, and other professions, borrowed money to purchase the land. About 10 families then had long-term, affordable leases from the nonprofit to live in the houses on the land, and many others were part of the organization through committees that were set up to operate and run the farming of the land and the education, health, and other industries of the community.

“Their primary focus was on the farm. They grew peanuts, corn, soybeans, okra, muscadine grapes, flowers, and vegetables, focusing on economic sustainability, productivity, and profitability. They raised livestock, both hogs and cattle, and sold cured meat,” states the Arc of Justice film.

Even with its innovation, collective action, and positive impact on food, farming, housing, community development, and social justice, New Communities still was the target of numerous acts of white supremacist sabotage, violence, racism, and exclusion. Federal funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had been promised to New Communities and was the reason New Communities felt comfortable borrowing money for the purchase of the land, was blocked by the governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, a known segregationist. Next, New Communities faced discriminatory lending practices from the Farmers Home Association, and blatant discrimination from the United States Department of Agriculture.

After several years of crippling debt, droughts, and other struggles, New Communities was forced to sell 1,300 acres in the early 1980s, and then, in 1985, lost the remaining landholding to foreclosure. The nonprofit did not dissolve though, and in 1999, after over 400 Black farmers filed a lawsuit against the USDA and won $375 million in a case known as Pigford vs. Glickman, New Communities filed their own lawsuit against the USDA. In the lawsuit, they “alleged that discriminatory lending by the Georgia office of USDA’s Farmers Home Administration had contributed to the failure of their agricultural business and the loss of its land,” states Roots and Branches. In 2009, a decade after the lawsuit was initiated, New Communities was awarded $4.5 million, and used that money to purchase Cypress Pond Plantation, a 1,600-acre parcel of land that was previously owned by one of the largest enslavers in Georgia.

Despite the hardship of enormously hindering racist acts, New Communities persevered and still continues to support farmers, empower African American families, and advocate for social justice today, five decades after its incorporation.

“You know when you’re talking about land for African Americans, for anybody, land is power,” Bummi Anderson, who grew up as part of New Communities, says in her interview with NPR. “Land is equity. Land is wealth.”

The Evolution of Community Land Trusts in the

United States

Like many great things, the community land trust was created by people of color, and then co-opted by white people.

The second community land trust to be established in the country began almost a decade after New Communities first incorporated. Woodland Community Land Trust formed in 1977 in Clairfield, Tennessee, in an economically depressed community in Appalachia, that according to their website, has a mission to, “acquire a land base that will allow for diversified housing options, sustainable income production, social and educational services, and a cohesive community development effort that rebuilds the landscape and human relationships in a life-building way.”

According to Equity Trust, Woodland Community Land Trust and its sister organizations, Woodland Community Development Corporation and Clearfork Community Institute, have now acquired 450 acres of land and become involved in housing construction, permaculture, small business development, education, and building a sustainable community.

A report published by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps states that there are now over 260 community land trusts operating nationwide, with Burlington, Vermont’s Champlain Housing Trust, started and supported by Bernie Sanders when he was mayor of Burlington, being one of the largest, owning over 3,000 housing units.

Since the inception of the community land trust model with New Communities in Georgia, the community land trust movement has evolved to focus more on housing and the built environment than on agriculture and farmland.

Generally, most community land trusts are committed to maintaining affordability for local residents and are created as 501(c)(3) nonprofits. These nonprofits operate with tripartite boards, consisting of resident, leaseholder representatives (the people who live on the land owned by the community land trust), public representatives (people who are part of the community but not residents of the land owned by the trust), and public representatives (people who are local elected officials, nonprofit leaders, or others who are trusted to speak for the public interest).

These community land trusts are typically hyperlocal to place, focusing on a specific geography, and they own and hold land within the 501(c)(3) nonprofit structure. Land is then leased to local residents. In some community land trust models and structures, local residents can also lease homes or other buildings. In other cases, a ground lease is used so local residents can build and own their home while still leasing the land beneath their house from the community land trust. The framework provided here through the ground lease allows for the leaseholder to own and build equity in their home, while still maintaining the interests of the community land trust. The homeowner can then sell their home to the next resident if they wish, but there are caps and restrictions placed on how much the homeowner can sell it for, which ensures future affordability for local residents.

Most community land trusts are committed to maintaining affordability for local residents

This model has been critically important for ensuring local control of and access to homes and land during times of gentrification and skyrocketing prices, and protecting against corporate and absentee accumulation of land and housing that is extractive and impoverishing to local communities. Community land trusts create a pathway toward affordability which should be accessible to all, but “in 2000, just 13 percent of community land trust homeowners were people of color,” reports the National League of Cities. “By 2018, that figure had increased to 43 percent.”

Community land trusts bring many benefits to people and places by protecting land and ensuring local control and affordability, but as a result of being centralized to place, they often struggle with access to broader resources, capital, and larger networks that could support legal, financial, communication, and other needs that nonprofits, communities, people, land, and buildings all sometimes come to need. With more of a focus on housing instead of farming and sustaining an intentional community as was the goal with New Communities, many community land trusts also struggle with acquiring enough land to support food production to ensure food sovereignty.

Bloomed from the Community Land Trust Movement: The Farmland Commons

The Farmland Commons honors, embraces, and carries forward the principles of justice and the focus on community and agriculture from the founders of the community land trust movement, New Communities, Inc. The Farmland Commons also utilizes many aspects of the classical model of a community land trust, and adapts them to fit the modern-day needs of farmers, farmland, and communities as they work to protect farmland, transition farmland affordably, and ensure regenerative, chemical-free, organic, and biodynamic agriculture.

By creating local landholding entities in the form of 501(c)(25)s and 501(c)(2)s that have boards that are local to place, and by providing 99-year, renewable leases to farmers, stewards, ranchers and growers to engage in active agriculture production, the Farmland Commons is embodying the pillars of the community land trust movement: land conservation, community control, and affordability for local residents.

The Farmland Commons goes a step further than an individual local community land trust which can often be isolated in place, to interconnect each local Farmland Commons from around the country, bringing them into a national network of funding, legal and technical assistance, and communications, awareness, sharing, and engagement support, allowing the localized Farmland Commons’ to be community controlled, and also nationally supported.

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