Preparing Soil, Planting Seeds: Community Land Trusts for Urban Farms

In Spring 2018, Alice Maggio, David Morgan, Nicole Huang, and Zoë Ackerman partnered with members of the Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust to carry out a Tufts Field Project. The Urban Farming Institute (UFI) of Boston’s mission is to promote urban agriculture through education, farmer training, policy initiatives, and farm site access for farmers. Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust (UFI CLT) is the first organization in Boston whose sole mission is to acquire and steward urban farm sites using the community land trust model. Field Projects is a required course for Tufts UEP MA students, in which they work on projects for the entire spring semester with real world partners. This post discusses the Tufts team’s process of working with each other, our partners at UFI CLT, and several sneak-peeks of the final report.

[Post written by Zoë Ackerman with generous insights from her team members, Alice Maggio, David Morgan and Nicole Huang.]

UEP Field Project team with Urban Farming Institute leaders and Field Project instructor and TA at May 2018 final presentation.

The Urban Farming Institute Community Land Trust tasked our team with a complex question: How can the community land trust (CLT) model be adapted to best support commercial urban farming in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan?

This overarching question brings up several important concepts. Where did CLTs originate and how do they fundamentally challenge the concept of private property ownership? How do the roots of the CLT movement inform how the model applies to urban agriculture? How are other urban farming CLTs grappling with questions of community engagement, land agreements, and governance? What can UFI CLT learn from them?

As we learned more about the CLT and urban agriculture movements–and where they overlapped and diverged–we realized that our field project would resemble, to some extent, organizational development. We prepared for two-way learning: 1) what were UFI CLT stakeholders thinking about their organization’s role? and 2) what could we as a team bring to UFI CLT from practitioners around the country that would inform their path forward? (for background on the CLT and urban agriculture movements see pages 16-20 of the field project report).

(Peyri Herrera, Creative Commons 2.0)

At the beginning of our project, our team took stock of what we each brought to the table. Our knowledge spanned community land trusts and their history, cooperative governance practices, how to build an urban farm, and community engagement across farmers and surrounding neighbors. We spent about six weeks honing our team process and understanding how our strengths fit together. Some of us jumped in with dozens of ideas while others listened and helped prioritize with strategic questions. Some of us possessed deep content knowledge, while others lifted up the voices of our partners, making sure our own backgrounds didn’t cloud our ability to hear other stakeholders. Eventually, we each ended up playing all of these roles. Once we’d found this internal rhythm, and identified the questions outlined above, we felt ready to engage further with stakeholders from UFI CLT.

As we prepared for interviews with stakeholders, we framed our role as “reflectors” or “organizational developers.” We recognized the importance of unpacking key terms like stewardship, management, and governance by listening to a broad range of people involved in the UFI CLT. Our team conducted interviews, participated in the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, and attended Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network activities to get to know a range of stakeholders. In this process, we found, for example, that a part-time farmer, UFI staff member, and UFI CLT board member had similar and different concerns about land management. While everyone agreed that roles for snow and weed removal needed to be appropriately delegated, stakeholders held different ideas about the lease length. Rather than choosing our preferred answers, we reflected the range of interviewees’ ideas back to the UFI CLT board in our report (see UFI Stakeholder Interviews, pages 28-37, for more).

After we synthesized our interviews, we regrouped as a team to grapple with this question: beyond the ideas and needs of various stakeholders, what information could we provide UFI CLT? How could we avoid telling the organization what they already knew? To address this question, we identified key areas for further exploration from other urban and rural agriculture CLTs in the United States. In particular, we wanted to know how other CLTs navigated stewardship, land agreements, governance, community engagement in the context of farming and supporting commercial enterprises. After surveying the field of Community Land Trusts around the country, we conducted interviews with representatives of five key cases from Providence, RI, Anchorage, AK, Madison, WI, Great Barrington, MA, and Roxbury, MA. In our report, the stories of these cases came alive in “vignettes” that illustrated the opportunities and challenges they faced in vivid color (see Case Studies, pages 39-69).

Now that we’d collected the inside and outside perspectives on urban farming via the CLT model, it was time to synthesize these practices as tools for UFI CLT. Rather than forming rigid recommendations, we opted for a “value framework” strategy for conveying our findings. Our team identified fairness, inclusivity, and balancing responsibilities as critical for a successful initiative. From this foundation, we developed tools that the UFI CLT board could use as potential next steps in developing their land agreements, policies, and operational procedures (see pages 72-80 for a description of a Stewardship Compass, a Land Agreement Checklist, and a Governance Checklist). We also provided guides to inform the writing of leases, the development of stewardship plans, and how to adjust these expectations and agreements for farmers at different levels of training–early, beginning, and advanced. Finally, we outlined possible roles for UFI and UFI CLT at each stage of a farmer’s development (see page 81 for Farmer Development Scenarios).

Since finishing our field project in the spring, our team has sent the report out to dozens of urban agriculture and community land trust practitioners. We see the resource as a set of organizational development tools that any CLT or urban agriculture initiative can use to bridge the two movements. The process of creating an urban farming CLT touches on dozens of considerations: how can the model best support farmers at different stages of training? How is adapting the CLT model to housing similar to and different from farming? Who should be on the board and included in the membership? We hope that readers from across the CLT and urban agriculture movements will use our report as a guide to ask themselves the most important questions as they negotiate how to act on their values and implement fair, inclusive, and sustainable practices that fit their particular contexts.

Teaching Democracy: Popular Education Training 2018

By Zoë Ackerman

Teaching Democracy is a train-the-trainers program and web platform for building the capacity of Tufts and community practitioners in popular education and community-based education methods. It was co-created by Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning (UEP) with several of its community partners. These methods arise from community organizing and empowerment practices, particularly with marginalized groups. They support reflection and action in order to transform the world. They break down the rigid separation between teacher and learner—all are learners and can facilitate learning for others.

The workshop was piloted in the spring of 2016 with a group of nine students and 10 members of four partner groups. In the spring of 2018, 30 participants completed the training. About half were from Tufts and half from seven partner organizations. The diverse mix of participants helps to enrich the learning, as well as deepen UEP’s community partnerships. With the support of Tisch College at Tufts, Teaching Democracy will be offered as a one credit hour course starting in spring 2019. The course will be open to both students and community partner members.

The following vignette describes my experience in the 2018 Teaching Democracy program. The scene starts with a practice workshop on the second day of training, which my small group planned and ran for other participants. We were simulating a meeting for public school parents to discuss proposed changes to school start times.

TD March 2018
Teaching Democracy participants discussing approaches to community engagement.

“Welcome to our community meeting on school schedules. Let’s start off with an icebreaker. Please stand up and wave your arms if you’ve attended a meeting with us before!” I said. My team waited for a few seconds, but not a single one of the 10 Teaching Democracy training participants stood up.

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Yeah, and how long is this going to take? I don’t have all night.”

“I don’t really feel comfortable with standing up.”

“No hablo ingles. ¿Alguien me podría ayudar?”

My team had lofty goals during this first practice workshop. Through interactive methods, we aimed to center lived experiences around school schedules and give our participants the tools to collectively plan a campaign. But before our workshop had even begun, we were running into problems. In real-time, we experienced the effects of not establishing trust with our members. By diving right into an interactive and unnerving exercise without introducing ourselves and clarifying our goals for the session, the participants felt reticent to engage.

Through this simulated practice, we learned how popular education methods can result in bottom-up learning and fruitful action plans only when built on a foundation of trust. Most people who attend traditional meetings or classes expect that experts will deposit information in a top-down fashion. Popular education, on the other hand, shifts who is seen as a “legitimate source of knowledge” to include those experiencing direct effects of an issue. Depending on how sessions are facilitated, the environment can feel chaotic or like an intentional exercise in community-building. Learning to walk that line takes practice, and the Teaching Democracy training created space for Tufts and community members working on social justice issues in Greater Boston to explore these methods and learn together.

Over the course of two Saturdays, we were introduced to the principles and values of popular education as well as strategies for effective facilitation. The majority of the training was interactive; only so much can be learned from the books about popular education. One of the most important takeaways for me was learning how to set agendas in a way that allowed a group identify root causes to a problem. I won’t give away how we ran our second workshop, but it involved more transparency and trust-building, centering participants’ complex lived experiences, decentralizing leadership roles, and ending on unexpected and energizing new problem to solve together.

CORE Fellows Summer 2018

Each summer, two Tufts UEP graduate students work with community partners for a 10-week fellowship through the CoRE (Co-learning/Co-education) partnership.  Funded by Tisch College, fellows get hands-on experience in community planning, organizing and development.  And the fellows help to deepen collaboration between  Tufts and its community partners. In summer 2018, Lydia Collins worked with Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s community land trust in Roxbury and Zoë Ackerman was a fellow with Community Labor United. Read their accounts below.

Lydia Collins, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

This summer I worked with the Dudley Neighbor’s Incorporated (DNI) Community Land Trust (CLT). A subsidiary of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), DNI was created to implement and develop a resident-driven comprehensive master plan that guides the revitalization of the neighborhood. As a Tufts UEP CORE fellow, I was placed with DNI for a summer fellowship as part of a larger university-community partnership. The CORE program, “moves beyond the typical one-off project model of community engagement towards a more reciprocal, place-based model in which both university and community partners ‘co-learn’ and ‘co-produce’ knowledge.”

DSNI CORE 3 gen Aug 2018
3 UEP generations at DSNI (from left to right: Lydia Collins, Sharon Cho, Ben Baldwin) with Amethyst Carey at the August Multicultural Festival

During these ten weeks at DNI I engaged in many different activities with a wide range people. I worked on a youth engagement process, a fundraising initiative, multiple mapping projects, and significant community outreach. I spent my days brainstorming with coworkers, watching presentations from developers and municipal planners, and talking with neighbors. The setting of my fellowship stretched from the DNI office in Roxbury to the Tufts library printing room in Somerville to triple decker porches and many places in between.

To provide a richer glimpse into this experience, please join in a day in my life:

9:30AM-10AM: Boston is awake and so am I! I bike from my house in Somerville across city to the DNI office in Roxbury. Depending on the humidity level, some days I find myself nearly swimming down Mass Ave…

10AM: I roll into work promptly at 10 o’clock, sink into my chair, and exclaim how hot it is to my boss and past DSNI CORE fellow, Ben Baldwin, who, as per usual, passed me on his bike 20 minutes earlier. We talk briefly about the day and any upcoming meetings before getting started on work.

10:15-12: Opening my computer, I begin editing a flyer advertising an upcoming “Pop Up” event to showcase DNI’s newly acquired building in Upham’s Corner. I toggle over the (pop)sicle my coworker’s daughter modeled the previous day for the flyer and muse over how creative we are in serving this sweet treat at a pop up. I blow up the word “Pop!”, translate the flyer into Spanish, send a request to community organizer, Jose, for a Cape Verdean Creole translation, and print out copies to get feedback from other staff.

12-12:45: Hungry, I pop up over the cubicle wall and invite my coworker, Amethyst, to grab lunch with me at Nos Casa, a Cape Verdean restaurant down the street. Over couscous and fish, we brainstorm for our upcoming youth engagement meeting at Teen Empowerment.

1PM-5PM: Stomach full, I settle in for the afternoon, which could include a variety of any of the following activities: updating a database of potential urban planning professors in Boston as a fundraising strategy to bring people to the CLT for tours; walking around handing out flyers for an upcoming community meeting; dancing for 2 marvelous minutes when the development team lands a grant; completing surveys in living rooms and on porches with CLT homeowners to improve DNI’s operations; and teaching myself graphic software to update a parcel map.

5PM-6PM: Ready to talk to some teens at Teen Empowerment, Amethyst pops up from her desk, exclaims how we really need a fisheye mirror to make cross-cubicle communication easier, and let’s me know it’s time to mobilize. Twenty minutes later, Amethyst and I are standing in front of 25 young people from the DSNI neighborhood at Teen Empowerment’s summer programming. Fan humming in the background, we take turns explaining the community land trust, the recent acquisition of a new building, and why it matters that young people in the neighborhood have their voices recorded and implemented in development processes. We hand out paper and pens for the teens write down their visions for both the building and the neighborhood. They then stand up and tape their pieces of paper on a large cityscape poster of the neighborhood. We wrap up with a debrief, having them share their ideas with the group.

6:30PM: Buzzing with energy from the youth and the sugar from all the popsicles, Amethyst and I put the feedback in our backpacks and bid farewell until the next day…

I learned so much this summer and attribute much of that to the responsibility my coworkers gave me, exposing- and trusting- me with a wide range of projects and people that the organization interacts with on a daily basis. I grew not only professionally as I began to understand the realities, challenges, and victories of maintaining a community land trust, but also personally as I built lasting friendships and a deeper sense of what it really means to sustain healthy communities.

Zoë Ackerman, Community Labor United

When I think about designing an inclusive public meeting, several considerations come to mind. Is the location close to public transportation? Will there be language interpretation? A meal? Is the room physically accessible? Will there be child care?

Zoe presenting to the Care that Works coalition (photo: Sarah Jimenez)

Before my Tisch CoLearning/CoResearch (CoRE) fellowship with Community Labor United, I’d never considered that child care at public meetings is essential because there is no affordable after-hours child care system in place for families. If parents are unable to find reliable care, they can’t attend meetings, night classes, or accept jobs that operate outside of typical business hours. The dearth of affordable and accessible child care is an underestimated barrier to building a thriving economy.

Community Labor United is an organization based in downtown Boston that strives to bring together unions and community-based organizations around strategic campaigns that advance the interests of low and middle-income working families. In an effort to build a universal child care system—one that serves the needs of both families and child care providers—Community Labor United convened a coalition called “Care That Works.” A short-term goal of the coalition is to make nonstandard care available for union construction and hospitality workers’ children. When I came on board, members were trying to understand the barriers and opportunities for providers to offering nonstandard schedule care. This became my main line of inquiry.

Answering this question was not so simple, however, as conducting a literature review. Very little has been written about child care from providers’ perspectives—and recommendations I encountered also needed to fit with CLU’s values and strategy. Throughout the summer, I worked closely with CLU’s Senior Researcher Sarah Jimenez, Senior Organizer Lindsay McCluskey, and coalition members to understand their previous work and short and long-term goals. After an initial literature scan, we designed an interview protocol and interviewed 15 child care experts to fill in holes in our understanding. Sarah and I continuously checked in about our findings and methods with the base-building members’ experiences and worked collaboratively to establish priorities. By the end of the summer, we had delineated dozens of interconnected answers about how MA could cultivate a child care system that offers affordable care for families with nonstandard schedules. A few highlights of the research process included attending a CLU-sponsored briefing about child care at the State House and presenting at the Care That Works August coalition meeting. In both experiences, I learned strategies for translating dense research into relatable and action-oriented terms.

I can’t overstate how important this summer was for my development at UEP. The project not only laid the groundwork for my thesis and a GIS project, but clarified how I want to spend the rest of my time here at Tufts—learning the tools, methods, and strategies of movement-based research so that I can apply these skills to child care and other issue areas in the future.

A recent conversation with Sarah highlighted how CLU benefited from the partnership as well. In general, the organization seeks to be more intentional and strategic about drawing on existing resources available in higher education. CLU wants to work with more students and develop a pipeline for bringing them into movement research and organizing. The summer fellowship, in particular, is a valuable model because of its “full-time” nature; it’s different than having a student come in for a few hours each week. The organization is also looking to engage with academics to figure out how higher education as a whole can better support movement work. Throughout the summer fellowship, CLU developed a stronger tie with Tisch College and is moving closer to achieving these long-term objectives.

This summer showed me first-hand how a marriage between research and organizing can propel movement work forward. Even though my focus was on child care, I am deeply inspired by movement research, and look forward to applying the methods to other issues in the future: transportation, climate change, energy, housing, and more.

CLU convened a “People’s Field Day” in July 2018 (photo: 617MediaGroup)

Community-Driven Climate Resilience Planning


Environmental Justice communities across the nation are reclaiming planning and driving climate resilience. Check out the new report by Movement Strategy Center: Community-Driven Climate Resilience Planning: A Framework.


From Buffalo to the Gulf South to Minneapolis to California to New York City, communities are reclaiming the planning processes that shape how we live, work, eat, breathe, play, and raise our children. Community leadership in planning increases resilience by putting those most impacted at the heart of our future.

Movement Strategy Center is proud to launch our new report, Community-Driven Climate Resilience Planning: A Framework, along with APEN, Center for Earth, Energy, & Democracy(CEED), Movement Generation, Oakland Climate Action Coalition, Our Power Richmond (see Our Power Campaign), PODER, PUSH Buffalo, Rooted in Resilience, UPROSE, and WE ACT. Also see Communities for a Better Environment, Gulf South Rising, and more featured in the Framework!

Go to the National Association of Climate Resilience Planners website at to download the Framework.  You’ll find principles, practices, and inspiring Spotlights full of wisdom and action from communities who are facing climate chaos by leading our world toward resilience and regeneration.

Co-Learning for Environmental Justice

The New Solutions Journal recently published an article I wrote on “Community University Collaborations for Environmental Justice”. This piece lays out a model for deep, transformative, co-learning between community and university. It is based on the partnerships that I have been building at Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning over the past six years and which has resulted in the Co-Research/Co-Education Partnership (CoRE) model. My thanks go to the Tisch College for Civic Life, which provided me a Faculty Fellowship and a symposium to develop and share this model. The link to the article and the abstract are below.

Loh, Penn. 2016. Community-University Collaborations for Environmental Justice: Towards a Transformative Co-Learning Model. New Solutions Journal, 26(3): 412-428.


Community–university collaborations for environmental justice have pushed the boundaries of the modern research university, yet remain rooted in a research frame. This article lays out a transformative co-learning model, which aspires to cultivate long-term, place-based, reciprocal partnerships where university and community co-produce knowledge and action toward a more just, sustainable, and democratic society. Starting with joint inquiry and planning, community and university integrate teaching, research, and service activities over a cycle of three to five years and, if sustained, coevolve in place over the decades. Co-learning partnerships can anchor transformational learning, support community-based research, address critical community issues, and diversify the university. Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning has recently developed a three-year co-learning partnership model with long-time partner Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Yet, challenges still remain in resourcing community partners, valuing local anchoring, aligning university rewards with co-learning, and ensuring that community benefits are prioritized.


Development without Displacement: UEP Field Project Supports the Formation of the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network

A team of five UEP graduate students, as a part of the 2015 UEP Field Projects, worked with a nascent network of community land trusts (CLTs) in Boston to explore the value and possibilities for CLTs in the Boston area to promote development without displacement. The four partners the team worked with are the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), the Urban Farming Institute (UFI), and the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC). The first two organizations have established CLTs and the latter two were interested in establishing and/or partnering with CLTs in the future. The partners are interested in CLTs to pursue various goals, including creation and maintenance of affordable housing, commercial development and urban agriculture, as well as cultural preservation. The UEP team also conducted research and interviews with other CLTs and advocacy organizations in Boston, Springfield, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Francisco. Along with providing research on CLTs in and outside of Boston, the project also aimed to visualize the potential impacts of CLTs as a means to achieve the goals of the city and the project partners.


The final report, Development Without Displacement: the case for Community Land Trusts in Boston, provides a deeper understanding of what a CLT is, how it functions in the community, how it can be applied in various contexts, and how it can provide benefits at the individual, neighborhood, and city scales. The report also explores ways in which the CLT model can increase community control over land use decisions, allowing the Cities of Boston and Somerville to achieve development goals without displacement. Although the CLT model is adaptable and diverse, and the CLT ownership of land can be an enormous asset, not all communities may determine that CLTs are the appropriate mechanism to address the unique issues they face. The report discusses important challenges and costs associated with financing land acquisition, which are especially significant in the hot housing markets currently experienced by the cities of Boston and Somerville.


The team’s recommendations for fostering the growth of CLTs include:

  • Supporting public education to develop interest in the land trust model for resident buy-in and to attract financing, as well as promote collaboration; municipal support of education and technical support for community groups on the process of negotiating property acquisition and stewardship of public and private lands
  • Establishing a flexible, stable, committed and fast-acting municipal acquisition fund and a line of credit for CLT acquisition and rehabilitation of property
  • Municipalities prioritizing, and creating a pathway for, the transfer of vacant and underutilized public land for CLTs
  • Municipalities working with CLTs to create a pathway for acquiring private properties, including clear notification and awareness of prospective private property sales to CLTs and providing assistance in leveraging public and private funds for purchasing

The report also provides recommendations for the Network to support shared learning and mentorship between CLTs, develop a centralized resource hub, and target outreach to existing affordable housing developers, including community development corporations.

CORE Summer 2015 Fellows Support Community Land Trusts in Chinatown and Roxbury

Editor’s note: Danielle Ngo and Ben Baldwin, two UEP graduate students supported by Tisch College and UEP to work with UEP’s CORE (Co-Research/Co-Education) community partners, report back on their 2015 Summer Fellowship experiences.

Danielle Ngo

Tisch Summer Fellow at Chinese Progressive Association

Danielle Ngo running the photo station at CPA’s first Chinatown Block Party

I was a Tisch Summer Fellow at the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) as part of the CORE community partnerships. I spent my summer in Boston’s Chinatown with CPA, a multi-service organization with a staff of eight community organizers. For their services, CPA works with the Chinese immigrant population of Chinatown, Quincy, and Malden on labor and workers rights, tenant and housing rights, social services, and ESL. I provided additional capacity and research support to the Chinatown Community Land Trust (CCLT), founded in January 2015. The CCLT promotes community control of public parcels in Chinatown, with focus on maintaining the working class and immigrant population in the area through affordable housing.

The CCLT board members are a mix of Chinatown residents, Chinatown business owners, and other stakeholders in the community. Together, they have deep working knowledge about the community and relationships of Chinatown, and have experience working in housing, urban, and business development. I collected basic research on existing practices to establish, finance and protect a community land trust for long-term strengthening of the CCLT. I researched the national registry, local historic and conservation districts, and overlay districts and identified their criteria, legal protections, and financial benefits.

Although a lot was done over the summer, there are still many large steps for the future of the CCLT. The CCLT is currently searching for rowhouse owners willing to consider selling or negotiating a deal with the CCLT before putting their properties on the market.

I also assisted a variety of side projects related to the Stabilize Chinatown Campaign. In July, CPA hosted their first Chinatown Block Party, with the goal of getting residents to know their neighbors and educate the community on tenant rights. For the block party, I created English and Chinese subtitles for Losing Home: Displacement in Boston, a video created by City Life/Vida Urbana. With permanent translations on YouTube, the video can now reach a broader, multi-lingual viewership. I also did some policy research for Boston’s Right to the City Alliance regarding Just Cause Eviction legislation and home repair funds in San Francisco and New York City.

For me, interning at CPA was an invaluable experience in Asian American community organizing. I loved being in a space to discuss and challenge assumptions of the Asian American identity, markers of success, and pathways of progressing our goals. These conversations helped contextualize my work at CPA within the larger movement against chronic disinvestment and misunderstanding of communities. At CPA, it is clear that their work and successes could not be furthered without community-based decision-making, organizers, researchers, cross-sector partners, and inter-generational support.

At the same time, there were many things I could not do for CPA. I was severely limited by not being a Cantonese speaker, which are the majority of their membership. With the CCLT’s work, there are many layers of complexity such as community politics, municipal relationships, and financing challenges that are still not completely addressed. With these limitations, I hope I was able to generate work that the CCLT can build upon to strengthen their case and activity for the future of Chinatown.

My focus at UEP is urban food policy and planning, and so this work in affordable housing and community control was a learning process for me. It advanced my understanding of community organizing and Asian America, two things that are valuable to my personal and professional goals. In thinking about my thesis and career after Tufts, I reflected on which communities are closest to my identity and background, where is the most appropriate place for me to affect change, and where is the most potential for grassroots, community-based development? So far, I am interested in the possibilities of a multi-racial and justice-framework in California’s food and environmental policy, but I still have much to think about after my time at CPA. I am thankful for the CORE Fellowship for sponsoring me this summer. Without CORE, I would not have been able to learn as much as I did during my first summer in Boston, from the vibrant Chinatown community and their deep history, leadership, and organizing success.

Ben Baldwin

Tisch Summer Fellow at Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

Ben Baldwin overseeing Board of Directors elections at DSNI

I applied to be a Tisch Summer Fellow at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) as part of the CORE community partnerships. As a future urban planner interested in community development, creating beneficial interactions with community members will serve as the basis for my work. DSNI was established nearly thirty years ago as a response to the kind of development that has historically come from planners far removed from local people and neighborhoods. Thirty years later, DSNI continues working for a community voice in determining the direction of the neighborhood. Their programs range from education and youth development, to urban agriculture, to affordable housing through community land trusts. The work of my internship was almost as varied as DSNI’s mission. One goal was to assist the nascent Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network in getting off the ground to prevent gentrification, and allow community driven solutions to problems across the city. Another project was managing the creation of an operations manual for the Dudley Neighbors Inc., DSNI’s Community Land Trust. Finally, there was a community organizing component to my work, which included phone-banking, door-knocking, and facilitating meetings for new home marketing and education, the Department of Neighborhood Development’s Neighborhood Homes Initiative, and local neighborhood issues around drug use in vacant lots.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity of working with DSNI as a Tisch Summer Fellow after already having worked on a project with four other UEP students where we completed a report on Community Land Trusts in Greater Boston the previous semester. This fellowship allowed me to continue delving deeper into the CLT movement and apply my knowledge to Boston.

One of the conclusions of the spring semester report my group produced was that there is a need for assistance with CLT financing. This is especially true as DSNI assists new CLTs in acquiring parcels of Boston’s increasingly expensive real estate. I managed to coordinate the beginning of my fellowship with a summer course on nonprofit real estate development finance, which opened up resources for me to understand the finer financial details, as well as giving community groups input from the professor, an experienced non-profit developer. My internship gave me opportunities to use this knowledge in context through finance-specific meetings with the development team of the Coalition of Occupied Homes in Foreclosure. I also created an outline of the myriad of financial tools available for nonprofit real estate development of affordable housing.

Every day I was welcomed by a friendly and inclusive group of staff at DSNI, each of whom was able to combine technical skills around finance and land management with the ability to communicate to neighborhood residents and organize effectively to get the job done. Staff could spend one day talking with homeowners and neighborhood residents about issues, the next meeting with city officials to communicate those issues, then planning with other organizations about how to achieve neighborhood goals. These are skills that must be learned over years of experience, but getting to participate for a summer has set me on the right path to be able to do the same in my career. DSNI was an excellent place to learn and work on these skills.

The summer was not without its challenges. DSNI employees are busy, and rightly so. I was appointed as the project manager for creating the operations manual, but my ability to contribute to the manual itself was limited by my lack of experience. I helped to consolidate previous work and draft new ideas, but nothing could be finalized until the operations manager and consultant had time to look it over and make edits and contributions. Because our meetings were weekly, progress was limited to the 10-or-so weeks of my internship. My time at DSNI was limited, so the end of the summer meant attempting to bridge my work with a subsequent intern to continue writing the operations manual. Having a short-term intern work on a long-term project is not the most efficient way of getting the job done, but it seemed to be the only way considering the limited capacity for new projects like these.

Language barriers represented another challenge in my internship. I have a reasonably good grasp of the Spanish language, but Cape Verdean Kriolu was another story. There was one main organizer for the large Cape Verdean population of Roxbury and Dorchester, so people would come in every day looking for him. When he was not available it meant trying to coordinate with a non-English speaking resident in a combination of Kriolu and Spanish.

Before writing my spring semester report on CLTs in Boston, I expected to be able to provide concrete solutions after only a few months of research. The difficulties facing low-income neighborhoods in Boston are many, and community land trusts are only one solution in a blend of programs that can bring about the development that a community actually wants and needs. There are a lot of folks working on this problem in the Boston context and beyond, and there is no one best solution and definitely no set plan for how to get there. I believe that there will have to be a collective “aha moment” between community members, organizations, and city government. It will need to be creative and will require novel financial approaches. It will require a lot of organizing, but first there needs to be a concise plan and message to organize around. My one summer at DSNI obviously did not solve a citywide problem, but it is part of the process of developing that plan and message.


Land Trusts Offer Houses People With Lower Incomes Can Afford—And a Stepping Stone to Lasting Wealth

Check out this article I wrote for Yes! Magazine looking at the role that community land trusts can play in helping people to build wealth. Many thanks to Joyce Fidalgo, Ron Stokes, and Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup for sharing their stories and to Tony Hernandez and Eliza Parad of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, John Davis of Burlington Associates, and Emily Higgins of Champlain Housing Trust for connecting me to interviewees.

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, we covered a Boston community land trust that’s stopping gentrification in its tracks. Our readers wanted to know, can that model, which limits the amount homes can be sold for, really help low-income people build family wealth? Here’s what we found.

Five years ago, Joyce Fidalgo bought her first home in the lower-income Boston neighborhood where she was raised. Several years out of college and working at a hospital, she was embarking on a well-worn path to the “American Dream” through home ownership.

But as Boston real estate prices skyrocket, Fidalgo won’t be able to sell her home for a hefty gain. The land that her home sits on is owned by a community land trust, a nonprofit entity owned by community members who steward land for long-term public benefit. The trust, which is affiliated with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative community group, limits the selling price so that the home can remain affordable for future buyers. First established in the 1960s, there are now more than 200 such community land trusts across the country. A 2011 survey of 96 CLT’s found that they host almost 10,000 units of housing, including 4,000 ownership units.

While this price restriction allowed Fidalgo to afford her home in the first place, she admits, “I may not benefit as much as if I lived in a market-rate home.” For instance, she would not be able to reap the windfall from selling her home at market price, which went up 30 percent for the median home in her neighborhood in the first quarter of 2015. Still, she says, “The other benefits are more valuable to me now than selling years down the line.”

Perhaps until the foreclosure crisis, owning a home was seen as the surest way into the middle class.

Fidalgo’s story represents one of the key debates over the community land trust model. Do they help lower-income residents to build wealth or do they lock these residents into subsidized housing? Some longtime residents of New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, opposed a community land trust effort because of concerns over whether it would help families build wealth. These residents and others question whether it is fair to offer a “second class” of home ownership that restricts low-income people from building wealth through home appreciation in the same way as conventional homeowners.

There is no doubt over the role of homeownership in building wealth. In 2011, home equity accounted for 25 percent of all individual wealth according to the U.S. census. A 2008 study published by HUD concluded that for low-income households, homeownership is often the only source of wealth and can be a good means of building greater wealth. It allows families to leverage the little equity they do have to reap the benefits of home value appreciation. Perhaps until the foreclosure crisis, owning a home was seen as the surest way into the middle class.

Meanwhile, community land trusts are increasingly touted as a tool for preventing gentrification and securing land for affordable housing and urban farming (see my previous article on this here). And, according to a 2013 study by Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Boston is the city with the most neighborhoods that gentrified between 2000 and 2007, among the largest 55 cities in the United States.

Starter homes

Proponents of the model say that land trust homeowners actually do build wealth. While they may not build as much equity as they would from owning a market-rate home, they note that lower-income people would not be able to afford market-rate homes in the first place.

“When we sold the property, it gave us enough, along with our savings, to buy a market-rate home.”

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup said that when he purchased a condo on the Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont in 2004, “the land trust felt clearly like the best option for a person without significant savings to afford to make a down payment.” Having worked his entire career in the nonprofit sector, he thought that “saving $30,000 for a down payment was impossible.” Without the land trust home, he “probably would have just stayed a renter and not built any wealth at all.”

Instead, he lived for seven years in the condo, during which time he got married and adopted a child. He says that in 2011 “when we sold the property, it gave us enough, along with our savings, to buy a market-rate home.” He gained about $8,000 from the sale, which represented an almost 29 percent annual rate of return on his initial investment.Most land trust homeowners are improving their financial situation to the point where they can afford to buy at market prices.

Studies confirm that Ilstrup’s experience of land trust homeownership as a stepping stone to market-rate home ownership is shared by many others. The Urban Institute evaluated three land trusts that had large numbers of ownership units—and resales of those units—over two to three decades. These studies found that those who sold their land trust homes gained modest proceeds ranging from about $8,000 to $17,500, representing annual rates of return from 22.1 percent to 38.7 percent.

Community Land Trust equity graph

Each of these land trusts allows owners to keep 25-30 percent of any appreciation of the market value of the property. These returns on initial investments far exceed those that would have been possible if they had invested their down payment in stocks or bonds.

Furthermore, 68-78 percent of the sellers went on to buy market-rate homes. Far from being trapped in subsidized housing, most land trust homeowners are improving their financial situation to the point where they can afford to buy at market prices.

Perhaps the best news is that these land trusts were not only able to support homeowner asset-building, but also retained the affordability of these homes for future generations. Ilstrup says that when he sold his condo, he didn’t “begrudge the grant going to the next owner, who was a single mother with a child.”

Thus, the land trusts effectively preserve and recycle the original public subsidy. One study estimates that if the local and state investments of $2.17 million in the Champlain Housing Trust homes was not preserved, it would have taken more than five times that amount in additional subsidies to keep those homes affordable.

“The land trust is looking out for you”

The foreclosure crisis proved that as much as real estate value can appreciate, it can also fall. For lower-income people, these risks may outweigh the benefits of home ownership. As Miriam Axel-Lute of the National Housing Institute notes, “…pushing low-income families into homeownership often backfires. Without any savings in the bank or cushion in their income, these families are often blindsided by maintenance or repair problems they can’t address, or are only a few weeks of unemployment away from defaulting on their mortgage payment. With lower credit scores, they are often saddled with higher interest rates and unsustainable loan terms.”

Most land trust homeowners are improving their financial situation to the point where they can afford to buy at market prices.

One study found that only 47 percent of first-time homeowners and less than 80 percent of those with median incomes still owned their homes five years later.

Community land trusts can help buffer homeowners from these downsides of market ownership. For instance, almost all of the homeowners in the three Urban Institute cases secured affordable, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. Ilstrup credits the land trust’s homeowner education program for helping him understand what is affordable and sustainable.

Similarly, Fidalgo says that the land trust introduced her to a bank that offered her a second mortgage so that she could put down larger down payment and avoid costly private mortgage insurance (which can run a couple hundred dollars a month). Fidalgo was approved for a mortgage large enough to afford a market-rate home, but she says the payments would have been so high that “I’d be living from paycheck to paycheck and getting help to pay my monthly bills.”

But more than just homeowner education and financing support, land trusts also help residents steward their properties. Fidalgo notes that if she needs to make repairs, she can look to the land trust for a list of contractors. She and Ilstrup both believe that the quality of their land trust homes is higher than the market-rate homes they could otherwise afford, which helps to keep maintenance costs down.

This partnership between owners and land trusts also helps prevent foreclosures. A 2011 study found that at the end of 2010, only 1.3 percent of the mortgages held by land trust homeowners were seriously delinquent, compared to 8.57 percent of conventional mortgages. The study attributed these lower rates to the stewardship practices of land trusts, such as retaining the right to address late mortgage payments and buy the property back in case it is foreclosed on. As Ilstrup says, it’s “very positive to know that the land trust is looking out for you and has an interest in the property.”

What the neighborhood can provide

The question of whether and how land trusts contribute to building wealth for lower-income families, though, should be examined in terms broader than just real-estate ownership. Community land trusts promote security and stability for residents simply by providing homes that they can afford. Fidalgo says that this stability has allowed her to “save money to pay for my education. I can travel and do other things and not have to worry about having money just to pay my mortgage.” In fact, she just finished her masters in education this spring.

Ron Stokes, a neighbor of Fidalgo on the Dudley land trust, can attest to what this security and stability means. He has lived in his land trust home for 21 years now. Nearing 70, he is a retired bus driver and raised two daughters with his wife. “We knew what our monthly payments would be,” he says. “As time went along, we were able to put away a few more dollars than we would have. The extra money went towards retirement and education.”

Ultimately, land trust home ownership provides another choice between renting and market ownership.

He believes his daughters, now both health professionals, “are successful because of what this neighborhood could provide.” Both Stokes and Fidalgo point to the added value of community that the land trust brings. In Stokes’ words, “since we’ve moved in, all the neighbors have been here and we look out for one another.” Fidalgo says that on the land trust “you are part of a community and you can interact with people who you might not otherwise know.”

Community land trusts diversify our concepts of property ownership. Conventional thinking now dictates that you are either an owner or a renter. Owners enjoy all the benefits of any appreciation in value. But land trusts are rooted in the idea that land value is not only created by the labor of the owner. Rather its value depends largely on public infrastructure improvements like transit and parks and other collective efforts to build community and economy. The land trust model separates ownership of the land from the human improvements on it and retains the socially generated value for community benefit.

Ultimately, land trust home ownership provides another choice between renting and market ownership. For some, like Ilstrup, it is an interim step on the way to a market-rate home. For others, like Stokes, it is simply a home that provides the comfort and security to pursue other life needs.

Penn Loh wrote this article for YES! Magazine, where he is a contributing editor. Penn is a Lecturer and Director of Community Practice at Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, where he coordinates the Practical Visionaries Workshop.

Land Banking and Community Land Trusts: Strategies for Reclaiming Philly’s Vacant Properties

Philly Land Bank sign

Philadelphia recently established a land bank, an increasingly popular tool for Rust Belt cities to address struggles with post-industrial vacancy. While land banking can help facilitate the process by which vacant land is put back into productive use, it can also perpetuate cycles of uneven development and disinvestment if land only goes to the highest bidders for market rate development. That is why some have been advocating for more democratic ownership and control of land through community land trusts (CLTs). As Philadelphia implements its new land bank, there is the opportunity to partner with CLTs and increase control over development by low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by disinvestment.

Kasia Hart recently completed a case study of the Philadelphia Land Bank for her Masters Thesis at Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning. Her paper based on her thesis recently won the Vacant Property Research Network’s student scholarship award for 2015. This paper clarifies the different functions of a land bank and CLT and explores their partnership potential in Philadelphia.

Download the paper here.

Summary of Paper

Communities facing widespread vacancy know all too well the multitude of burdens associated with abandoned, blighted, and tax-delinquent property. From lost property tax revenue, decreasing local property values, higher crime rates, and rising public health concerns, the consequences of extensive vacancy are cyclical and multifaceted. The real challenge with vacant property lies within historically racist practices that have caused vacancy to fall disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. Framing these communities as blighted and in need of revitalization are not necessarily done in an effort to improve quality of life within these neighborhoods; rather, this framing reveals the systematic marginalization of certain populations, a practice that has fueled urban change in the U.S throughout history.

Fortunately, there are several tools available that can help turn vacant property from a burden into an asset. One strategy that is gaining traction in the Rust Belt, a region in the Northeast and Midwestern portion of the U.S. that is struggling with post-industrial vacancy, is land banking. A land bank is a public authority responsible for acquiring and managing public and privately owned vacant properties, and then clearing title and disposing the property to an entity that will develop the land (Burlington Associates 2014). While land banking has the potential to intervene in the marginalization of specific communities and provide land to organizations that are accountable to the community, it also can perpetuate cycles of disinvestment and neglect if it solely disposes land to the highest bidder for market rate development.

A community land trust (CLT), on the other hand, is a nonprofit organization that takes land out of the speculative market and maintains long-term stewardship of land so that it can be utilized for community benefit (Democracy Collaborative 2014). This model recognizes the inherent use value of land that has been compromised under today’s dominant capitalist economic paradigm in favor of generating the highest exchange value so that land control is retained in the hands of a few elites. Despite the different functions of land banks and CLTs, they are commonly viewed as competing urban land management strategies. The purpose of this paper is to not only clarify the different functions of a land bank and CLT, but also to explore their partnership potential in the context of the newly formed Philadelphia Land Bank.

The following paper details three strategies Philadelphia Land Bank stakeholders can take to strengthen its relationship with local community land trusts and ensure that residents will have fair and equitable access to land from the land bank. The strategies include:

  1. Create a resident advisory committee within the land bank governance structure that acts as a liaison between the residents and the land bank board.
  2. Collaborate proactively with existing CLTs, such as the Neighborhood Gardens Trust and the Community Justice Land Trust.
  3. Consider the role of CDCs in facilitating this partnership.

While these strategies are not a silver bullet to creating a land bank that prioritizes community benefit in all property transfer decisions, reframing thinking using these strategies will help ensure that the Philadelphia Land Bank retains its progressive, community-based identity that was established in its formation. This kind of partnership can encourage development that happens with residents’ best interest in mind, allowing land to be used as more than a platform for market-rate development that drastically alters a community’s character. The Philadelphia Land Bank has the potential to demonstrate how land banks and CLTs can be used in conjunction with one another and support long-term community leadership on local land use decisions.

How One Boston Neighborhood Stopped Gentrification in Its Tracks

The nonprofit Urban Farming Institute of Boston graduated seven farmers from its training program last year. Eight more are graduating this year. “Amassing land for our farm is a first priority,” says Executive Director Patricia Spence, far right. Photo by Paul Dunn.


YES! Magazine posted on its website the article I wrote about community land trusts for its Winter 2015 issue. See it here: