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REVIEW: Community Matters

By Tom Angotti

Community Matters Edited by John Emmeus Davis

Madison, WI, Terra Nostra Press, 2022.

250 pp, $7.50 US

Community land trusts (CLTs) have emerged in many parts of the Americas and Europe as a means for securing community control of land and insuring that it is used to meet the long-term needs of communities, particularly the many whose needs are not met by the land and housing markets. Interest in CLTs has grown along with the consolidation of neoliberal policies that give priority to the interests of investors and developers. These policies nurture the myth that government is incapable of meeting basic housing and infrastructure needs and only “market magic” can do so. However, as the market continues to fail it only intensifies displacement, homelessness and poverty. CLTs are an affirmation that another world is possible through community stewardship instead of private ownership.

This readable volume, subtitled “Conversations with Reflective Practitioners about the Value and Variety of Resident Engagement in Community Land Trusts,” focuses on the tactics and strategies in use by land trusts in the US, Puerto Rico, Brussels, and London. It is based on transcripts from a recent convening of leaders, organizers, and technical assistance providers and edited by John Emmeus Davis, editor of the classic The Community Land Trust Reader (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010). Davis is a lifelong advocate of and advisor to CLTs and in this book reminds us to keep the community in community land trusts in order to sustain them over generations.

Why Community Matters

Community Matters documents some of the ways that CLTs sustain community involvement. More importantly, it illustrates the variety of ways that CLTs organize to build community, and the fundamental importance of community engagement. It is in many ways a response to one of the pernicious myths pervading our social movements -- that the mere possession of land, buildings and infrastructure by itself guarantees community sustainability. The stories told in these meetings by “reflective practitioners” (the term that Davis uses) demonstrate clearly that organizing must never stop in order to build and sustain CLTs.

In the typical land trust, a legally established non-profit trust leases land to a community-based non-profit, which may develop and manage housing, commercial space, food production, open space or community facilities in accordance with community priorities. Housing may take the form of individually owned homes or multi-family apartment buildings. While it may appear to many that CLTs are just a better device for producing and maintaining affordable housing, the discussions in this book prove that organizing and building community is really the most treasured outcome and the very foundation of the CLT.

Davis names the following factors as essential components for building community via CLTs: solidarity, constituency, mutuality, consultancy and reciprocity. These varied strands of engagement need to be woven together. If participation in formal governance structures is the only form of engagement, CLTs will be weaker. If they are part of a wider process of community building they will be stronger. Davis lifts up diverse forms of community engagement and empowerment and not any specific technique.

I found one of the best examples of building community in the book to be the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Alejandro Cotté Morales from that group states that “community organization is the backbone of any CLT… People are the core. They can’t be an object; they must be a subject. They have to lead the process.” Organizing has to address community issues and problems but, he says, “comprehensive community development” is essential and the process is complex. Mariolga Juliá Pacheco from the Caño Martín Peña brings up yet another critical point: “…we’re working precisely in the pursuit of general wellbeing” in the district, which includes households that are not in the CLT. Organizing includes the entire population and benefits from having a comprehensive plan….Communities are not homogenous…We are eight communities and we are all different.” Furthermore, she says “Conflicts are part of the job….Changes bring about tension, and tension causes conflicts.” This is in contrast to the widespread tactic of covering up conflicts and pursuing a mythical harmonious paradise.

Another case that stands out is the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston. This CLT emerged from a lengthy struggle to gain control over empty lots, many of them owned by the city, that were used as dumping grounds. This led to extensive organizing to get the city to turn over control of the land to the community land trust. Thus, according to Jason Webb, who worked with Dudley Street for 15 years, “our biggest partner was city government.” Webb also raised the question many organizations face: “Do you also work with other nonprofits that are based in your neighborhood?” The answer is complicated. He refers to a partnership with The Salvation Army which broke down when that group didn’t fulfill their part of the deal. But he goes on to claim that the CLT is focused on seeking cooperation and not conflict, building leadership and mentorship. The former director of the Dudley Street land trust, Tony Hernández, notes “It’s about relationships….You want to build relationships with people.” He lost me, however, when he said, “It feels like we’re one big family.” I know that there are conflicts within families just as there are within communities. That is why I am inclined to believe the Caño Martín Peña story which takes into account differences and conflicts as fundamental elements of communities.

Community Matters demonstrates the wide variety of CLT governance structures in the Americas and Europe. CLTs in Brussels and London fit within the particular legal and political frameworks where they emerged. Dave Smith, speaking of the London CLT, points out the influence of “republicanism, separation of powers, Federalist Papers stuff” leading to the traditional tri-partite governance structure. On the other hand French CLTs are unique creatures of an historically top-down centralist system. Yet a very different example of centralized governance may be found in Houston, Texas, where the city government in this conservative state recently started and financially supports a CLT that aims to benefit African American neighborhoods that have been historically abandoned by government.

Ultimately, however, Dave Smith from the Brussels CLT puts it succinctly: “What’s quite telling is that, for a CLT, unlike other housebuilders, it ultimately always comes back to people, doesn’t it, rather than buildings. When you’re building housing, there’s a point at which you stop, but there’s no point at which you stop when you’re building communities.”

Tom Angotti is Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy & Planning at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York and Adjunct Professor at Parsons/The New School in New York City.




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