Community land trust takes root in the Bronx | The Riverdale Press

By Abigail Nehring

A fire engulfed an unoccupied two-story home at 2275 Loring Place N., in December 2007, reducing it to rubble, leaving vacant land sandwiched between Colonial-style homes in University Heights. Within eight years, the property landed on the borough’s delinquent list and became eligible for tax lien sale, eventually entering in rem seized 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 funding to developers to rehabilitate distressed properties. Instead, organizers wanted to put him in a nonprofit land trust.

“There was city funding to go through a two-year learning exchange on (community land trusts), which we participated in,” said Edward Garcia, a housing organizer in the Northwest Bronx. “Before this, we had considered new strategies to fight for 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 began our efforts to understand the model and figure out how to structure our community land trust and take our campaign public.

They incorporated the Bronx Community Land Trust in 2020. It is one of at least 18 land trusts that now exist in the city. They share expertise and champion common goals through a citywide coalition, the NYC Community Land Initiative. Most are in the early stages of property surveying; some are negotiating to acquire their first plots. The land is then placed in a permanent governance structure that separates land ownership from decisions about how it is used and developed.

In its 2020 property survey report, “Fighting Back,” the 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 state-owned.

Ongoing negotiations relate to properties in Councilman Oswald Feliz’s neighborhood. Their investigation found no public 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 that the Bronx Land Trust can be active in these neighborhoods as an option to stabilize distressed owner-occupied homes, including the Housing Development Fund Corps.

The Clergy Coalition formed in the 1970s to stem the spread of arson in the Bronx and fight for communities that were first endangered by the federal government and then devastated by city-sanctioned divestment . 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 on 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 paved the way for them to acquire public property.

The Bronx Land Trust is in talks with the city and Ernst Valery of EVA/SAA, a developer, about three derelict properties in Belmont.

“We are getting closer to making the acquisition a reality,” Garcia said.

In March 2021, East Harlem’s El Barrio Land Trust was the first to reach an agreement 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 apartments at market prices. The El Barrio Community Land Trust is partnering with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association Inc. and Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing Inc. on the $13 million project.

“It may seem like it’s this wonky policy tool, but it’s not,” said Julia Durantí-Martinez, a program manager who works with land trusts at Local Initiatives Support Corp.

“It comes from people fighting to survive. There are technical elements and things you need to think about once you become a land organization. What that means is a big change. But it is possible to learn all of these things. We keep saying let the experts handle it, but that’s what continues to sustain this speculative industry.

In a recent study of the Cooper Square Committee’s portfolio of 24 multi-family buildings, LISC found that they are kept in better condition than the neighborhood’s surrounding housing stock, receiving on average only one housing violation for every 3.5 in comparable buildings nearby. For some, that’s an impressive feat given that apartments remain affordable for renters who earn just 28% of the region’s median income.

“Our research shows how investments in community development have created better-maintained properties and taken them out of speculative cycles,” the LISC study concluded.

With the help of urban design students from Hunter College, the Bronx Community Land Trust studied the borough, analyzed zoning restrictions and extracted ownership history from city records. Two years ago, they announced a list of several dozen properties they selected to transfer into the land trust.

It’s unclear to what extent the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development will be willing to be a partner in its negotiations with fledgling land trusts. The Bronx is littered with parcels that would make excellent candidates for community land ownership. In city planning lingo, these are called infill lots – properties that remain undeveloped as the neighborhood develops around them. Many are owned by the city.

Others are bought and sold on the speculative market or wait for years for the inauguration of a development that has simply stopped moving forward. Their history and eligibility for purchase can be difficult for community land trusts to guess.

“We still notice that New York City continues to not make it a priority to negotiate with (land trusts) or other models of responsible ownership,” Garcia said. “We don’t get first dibs. The city continues to deal with private developers who are not accountable to the community. We lobbied for the city to do business with us rather than with private developers. »

The citywide coalition of community land trusts has proposed amending the city’s constitution to prohibit the transfer of city-owned land to private developers. Other policy goals include the city’s Community Buyer’s Opportunity Bill and the state’s proposed Tenant Buyer’s Opportunity bills, which would give current tenants and land trusts communities the right of first refusal to buy a building when its owner decides to sell.

“We are asking that all sites we have identified be transferred to CLT, and if there are negotiations with private developers, they must report to us and negotiate on the terms of the ‘community land trust’,” said Garcia.

But winning an equal seat at the private developer table won’t be easy.

“The city was already in negotiations with developers for our target properties, and that’s not fair,” he said. “They wonder what the (land trust) can really do. They offer tax incentives to real estate investors and they are not open to working with a (community land trust). We have to go against this traditional way of doing business. We have to put pressure on them.

“The (community land trust) needs to be in the picture.”

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