A fire engulfed an unoccupied two-story house at 2275 Loring Place N., in December 2007, reducing it to rubble, leaving a vacant lot sandwiched between colonial-style homes in University Heights. Within eight years, the property landed on the borough’s delinquency list and became eligible for the tax lien sale, ultimately entering in rem foreclosure a year later.
The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition set its sights on the property in 2020. By then it had been added to the city’s Third-Party Transfer program, which provides financing for developers to rehabilitate distressed properties. Instead, organizers wanted to put it in a nonprofit land trust.
“There was funding from the city to go through a two-year learning exchange on (community land trusts), which we participated in,” said Northwest Bronx housing organizer Edward Garcia. “Before that, we had been considering looking into new strategies to fight toward economic democracy and we identified (community land trusts) as an opportunity to fight for collective governance. At the same time, we had the learning exchange and started to put our efforts into understanding the model and figuring out how to structure our community land trust and make our campaign public.”
They incorporated the Bronx Community Land Trust in 2020. It’s one of at least 18 land trusts that now exist across the city. They are exchanging expertise and advocating for shared goals through a citywide coalition— the NYC Community Land Initiative. Most are in the early stages of surveying property; some are negotiating to acquire their first parcels. The land is then placed into a permanent governing structure separating land ownership from decisions about how it’s used and developed.
In their 2020 property survey report, “Fighting Back,” Bronx Community Land Trust profiled five city council districts where they saw opportunity for community land stewardship. They identified 21 properties to target for acquisition, all but three of which are publicly owned.
Current negotiations are focused on properties in Councilman Oswald Feliz’s district. Their survey found no publicly owned sites that met their criteria in Councilman Eric Dinowitz’s district 11, which spans Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, and Woodlawn. Nonetheless, the report concluded, Bronx land trust can be active in these neighborhoods as an option for stabilizing distressed owner-occupied homes, including Housing Development Fund Corps.
The clergy coalition formed in the 1970s to staunch the spread of arson across the Bronx and fight for communities that were first redlined by the federal government and then devastated by city-sanctioned disinvestment. After nearly 50 years of housing advocacy, the group has made a strategic shift, jumping into New York City’s nonprofit land stewardship renaissance. The Cooper Square Committee was the first to propose an urban land trust model to preserve affordable housing in the lower east side. For decades, it was one-of-a-kind until the city council codified community land trusts into law in 2017 and set up a path for them to acquire publicly owned property.
Bronx land trust is in discussions with the city and Ernst Valery from EVA/SAA, a developer, about three abandoned properties in Belmont.
“We’re getting close to making acquisition a reality,” Garcia said.
In March 2021, East Harlem’s El Barrio land trust was the first to enter into a deal with the city for the transfer of four multi-family buildings, which are now being converted into a mix of affordable units, transitional housing for recently homeless people, and market-rate apartments. El Barrio community land trust is partnering with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association Inc. and Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing Inc. in the $13 million project.
“There can be a sense that it’s this wonky policy tool, but it’s so not,” said Julia Durantí-Martinez, a program officer who works with land trusts at Local Initiatives Support Corp.
“It comes out of people fighting to survive. There are technical pieces to it, and things you have to think about once you become a land-holding organization. What that means, that’s a big shift. But it’s possible to learn all those things. We keep saying let the experts handle it, but that is what continues to uphold this speculative industry.”
In a recent study of Cooper Square Committee’s portfolio of 24 multifamily buildings, LISC found that they are maintained in better condition that the neighborhood’s surrounding housing stock, receiving on average only one housing violation for every 3.5 in comparable buildings nearby. To some, it is an impressive feat considering the apartments are kept affordable for tenants making only 28 percent of area median income.
“Our research shows how community development investments created better-maintained properties and removed them from cycles of speculation,” the LISC study concluded.
With the help of Hunter College urban design students, the Bronx community land trust has surveyed the borough, analyzed zoning restrictions, and ferreted out ownership history from city records. Two years ago, they announced a list of several dozen properties they selected to target for transfer into the land trust.
It’s unclear how willing a partner the city housing and preservation and development department will be in their negotiations with nascent land trusts. The Bronx is littered with parcels that would make excellent candidates for community land trust ownership. In the parlance of urban planning, they are known as infill lots — properties that remain undeveloped as the neighborhood grows around them. Many are owned by the city.
Others are bought and sold on the speculative market or sit for years awaiting groundbreaking on a housing development that has simply stopped moving forward. Their history and eligibility for purchase can be difficult for community land trusts to surmise.
“We’re still noticing how the city of New York continues to not make it a priority to negotiate with (land trusts) or other responsible ownership models,” Garcia said. “We do not get first dibs. The city continues to do business with private developers that are not accountable to the community. We have been pushing for ways to get the city to do business with us instead of private developers.”
The citywide coalition of community land trusts has proposed changing the city constitution to prohibit the transfer of city-owned land to private developers. Other policy goals include the proposed city Community Opportunity to Purchase Act and proposed state Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act bills, which would give current tenants and community land trusts the right of first refusal to purchase a building when their landlord decides to sell.
“We’re asking for all the sites we’ve identified to be transferred to the CLT, and if there’s any negotiation with private developers, they must be accountable to us and negotiate on the terms of the” community land trust, Garcia said.
But it won’t be easy to win an equal seat at the private developer table.
“The city was already in negotiations with developers for our target properties, and that ain’t right,” he said. “They’re wondering what the (land trust) can actually bring. They give tax incentives to real estate investors and they aren’t open to working with a (community land trust). We have to push against that traditional way of doing business. We have to pressure them.
“The (community land trust) must be in the picture.”