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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Strategies for Sustainable Growth in Community Land Trusts

With increasing concern about housing affordability, there has been growing interest in Community Land Trusts (CLTs), place-based non-profits that hold land in perpetuity on behalf of a community. However, despite their potential, only a handful of the nation’s more than 220 CLTs have over 50 housing units in their portfolios. Moreover, very little has been written about the obstacles that have stymied the growth of existing CLTs or the strategies used by the handful of CLT leaders who have significantly expanded their group’s housing portfolios.

In “Strategies for Sustainable Growth in Community Land Trusts,” a new paper jointly published by NeighborWorks® America and the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Aneliese Palmer, who was a 2018 Edward M. Gramlich Fellow in Housing and Community Development, reports on research that aimed to fill these gaps by focusing on three interrelated questions: (1) how do CLT practitioners define taking a CLT “to scale;” (2) what barriers limit the growth of existing CLTs; and (3) how have leaders of successful CLTs overcome these obstacles?

To answer these questions, Palmer, a joint MPP/JD student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Georgetown Law, interviewed both experts in the field and the leaders of ten notable CLTs in the U.S. and Canada. She also read the CLTs’ annual reports, financial statements, and strategic plans, and she reviewed the literature about both CLTs, specifically, and non-profit organizations more broadly.

Palmer found that leaders of the CLTs had two different definitions of “reaching scale.” Some used the term to mean growing until marginal costs equaled marginal revenues, which is typically how private businesspeople use the term. Others, however, used the term to mean the point at which they were significantly impacting their target populations, which is how many policymakers and non-profit leaders use the phrase.

Second, Palmer found that, as the existing literature suggests, CLT leaders reported that the main barriers to growth were lack of subsidy funding, limited financing sources, complexity, and the reputation of the CLT model. In particular, Palmer found that leaders of CLTs use five “macro strategies” for scaling-up:

  • Securing the support of local public officials,
  • Using mixed portfolios and programs,
  • Leveraging partnerships,
  • Reducing their organizations’ reliance on grants, and
  • Advocating as a collective movement.

Illustratively, most of the leaders Palmer interviewed said getting the support of elected and appointed city and/or state officials helped CLTs get access to public funding or to buy public land at below-market prices. CLT leaders generally used four approaches to get that support: (1) using resident engagement for political mobilization, (2) aligning their CLT’s strategy for growth with their city’s goals, (3) finding a champion in city hall, and (4) and securing government buy-in by occupying a niche in the market. As Brenda Torpy, executive director the 3,600-member Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, VT noted: “people try to get rid of inclusionary zoning every year, but if you have a community of people that are really invested, you have a powerful lobby.”

In addition, while CLTs are often associated with single-family homeowner developments in a specific neighborhood, Palmer found that many organizations go beyond one neighborhood. Many have both ownership and rental units in their portfolios, and most offered programs and services that went well beyond just providing and maintaining housing. As Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, a CLT in Portland, OR told Palmer: “We have had to adapt and be responsive to opportunities. If you are serious about going to scale, then building more, higher-density projects is necessary, especially in a growing community like Portland.”

Palmer concludes by noting that the work done by Torpy, Linn, and the other leaders of CLTs that have grown shows that “the CLT model is not only scalable but may function better at a large scale” Moreover, she notes, “CLTs can be successful in a variety of service areas, housing markets, and political climates.” However, while the model is scalable, CLT leaders face difficulty growing their organization’s impact without sustained, robust public support, which suggests that “a consistent source of funding, continued municipal partnerships, and ongoing public education campaigns will allow more CLTs to scale up their operations and create more affordable homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.”