Community Land Trusts as a Vehicle for Homestead Land Sharing
BY GRACE GERSHUNY
Land ownership is often considered to be integral to achieving the “American dream.” At the founding of this country, only white male landowners could vote. The expansion of European settlements in North America was predicated on theft of land from Indigenous peoples who did not share the settlers’ concept of land ownership, believing that the land and the earth, in general, belonged to all of humanity as the source of life. The converging crises confronting humanity now require a complete rethinking of all our social and political relationships. Fundamental to this transformation is a shift in how we relate to land and its care. Land stewardship must return to the control of the community, for the common good. One way to begin is by creating community land trusts that hold ownership of the land while offering secure tenure to resident land stewards through long-term inheritable leases. This is my story of how I came to become a landowner, and why I am working on such an arrangement for my own homeland that can be replicated elsewhere.
My land ownership saga
I became a landowner for the first time in 1973. I had just moved to Vermont to be with my first husband, and we had to move out of the rented house he had been sharing with some friends. We found an old farmhouse that we could afford with a few acres of mostly wet land along the Clyde River in West Charleston, VT. That summer we had the only tillable half-acre tilled and harrowed, and I had my first gardening experience. I was totally hooked on growing food and knew that we would need more land to really be able to farm.
In a few years, we found about 100 acres nearby that we were able to purchase along with three other families. The property was located about a mile up a fourth-class road that was not maintained in the winter, but power lines were already there. I envisioned developing a cooperative farming venture of some kind, but there was no cohesive plan of that sort by the group. After a couple of marriage breakups (including my own) and other life changes in the group, the land was divided up and everyone just maintained their own homestead. A few years later I married into the land I now call home in the southern region of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. After several years of farming together, that marriage ended, and I was able to hold onto the house we had built together and then acquired the 10.3 acres of land it occupies. Through the following decades of co-parenting, teaching and working at organic advocacy, more relationship drama, and an abortive attempt at creating a farm-based co-housing community I realized that a longer-range plan for my home place was needed.
At some point in this journey, it became clear to me that I didn’t really want to be a landowner, but had no choice in the current market economy if I wanted to have secure tenancy in my own home. I felt very connected to the land and my community and had no wish to live anywhere else, but with advancing age knew that I did not have the capacity on my own to fulfill my vision of how to properly steward this slice of paradise—or even with the help of a partner who is capable and resourceful, but also well into his seventies. I started talking to my ex about possibly putting our two parcels back together and designing in a couple of more home sites where younger people could be welcomed to build and help create the permaculture paradise that we had envisioned together so long ago. Our grown daughter may have little interest in returning to the land where she grew up, but both of our shares would eventually become hers.
At a NOFA Conference a few years ago I was deeply inspired by meeting Leah Penniman, who offered this advice to white allies seeking to support the resurgence of Black farmers: “Share your land.” Since that time I’ve talked with friends and neighbors and attended several workshops and webinars on racial equity and land sharing. After a most enlightening conversation with Susan Witt at the Schumacher Center, who had already developed a model farmstead-oriented community land trust for their region of the Berkshires, I began formulating some more concrete ideas for setting up a Community Land Trust in my region.
Why a Community Land Trust?
The community land trust (CLT) differs in several crucial ways from the more widely known land trust model aimed at conserving working farmland and woodland, as well as unique ecological values. Traditional conservation land trusts are well represented in Vermont, but have little capacity to work with smaller acreage that has no unique attributes such as prime agricultural soils or habitat for endangered species. Landowners are expected to actively manage farmland and woodland, and title to the property rests with the individuals who live there and steward it. The property can be sold at market rates, minus any development potential that has been transferred “in perpetuity” to the land trust.
There are currently around 225 CLTs established in mostly urban areas of the U.S., acquiring dwellings and making them available at affordable rates to low-income communities. The Champlain Housing Trust in Northwestern Vermont is among the oldest of these, initiated in Burlington during the tenure of then-mayor Bernie Sanders. Its mission statement reads: “The Champlain Housing Trust is a Community Land Trust that supports the people of Northwest Vermont and strengthens their communities through the development and stewardship of permanently affordable homes and related community assets.”
Such a mission goes well beyond conservation or even affordability, but addresses broader issues of community well-being and racial equity as well as ecological sustainability and social accountability. The idea that land is a public good that should not be used as a speculative financial investment is central to the concept, along with a commitment to transparency and democratic governance. According to Wikipedia, “CLTs balance the needs of individuals who want the security of tenure in occupying and using land and housing, with the needs of the surrounding community, striving to secure a variety of social purposes such as maintaining the affordability of local housing, preventing the displacement of vulnerable residents, and promoting economic and racial inclusion. Across the world, there is enormous diversity among CLTs in the ways that real property is owned, used, and operated and the ways that the CLT itself is guided and governed by people living on and around a CLT’s land.”
Bob Swann, the founder with Susan Witt of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, is widely credited with introducing the CLT concept to the U.S. when he advised Shirley and James Sherrod and their associates in the formation of New Communities, Inc. in Albany Georgia in 1969. Swann, et al. describe the concept this way:
“The “classic” community land trust is a democratically governed, regionally based, open membership non-profit corporation that acquires land and interests in land. Through an inheritable and renewable long-term lease, the trust essentially removes land from the speculative market and facilitates use for multiple purposes such as workforce housing, village improvement, sustainable agriculture, and recreation. Individual and organizational leaseholders own the buildings and other improvements on the land created by their labor and investment, but do not own the land itself. The community land trust retains an option to repurchase any building coming up for sale at current replacement value adjusted for deterioration. Leaseholders are able to recoup their equity in any buildings and improvements when they leave, but not the escalating value of the land itself. Rather that land value, created by the common need of others for land, is held in perpetuity on behalf of the regional community. The community land trust resells the buildings at their replacement value and writes a new lease to the new building’s owner.”
(Robert Swann, et al. The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America).
The Community Land Trust transforms the concept of individual land ownership into one that considers land as the common heritage of the community that obtains food, shelter, energy, water, and other necessities of life that are inherent rights of all people. This heritage must be freed from the dictates of the market economy, which demands that our human heritage be for sale to the highest bidder.
Today I am excited to be embarking on a new journey towards the dream I have held since before moving to Vermont. A recent connection with a like-minded elder who is eager to help pursue the formation of a regional CLT in the Northeast Kingdom has reinvigorated my determination. I look forward to consulting with the vibrant network of BIPOC centered groups, such as the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, who are working on creating safe spaces and access to land for those who have been shut out and marginalized by the white settler-colonial system that we have inherited. I am especially inspired by the Every Town Project, whose “primary goal is to place at least one parcel of quality land in trust in every town in Vermont to be permanently accessed and stewarded by Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color.” The time seems to be right – If not now, when? If not us, who?