Have you ever seen a piece of land that you know could be used to benefit your community? Or have you ever wondered if rent will stay affordable in your neighborhood? Community land trusts were made to address these questions and more. Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Memo Salazar, the co-chair of the Western Queens Community Land Trust, about what community land trusts are and the power they have.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.   

Memo Salazar speaking at a town hall meeting about CLTs. Photo: Memo Salazar

Epicenter-NYC: What is a community land trust (CLT)?

Salazar: Community land trusts are not-for-profit organizations that own and steward land on behalf of local communities. There are many different versions of CLTs — for home ownership, rental buildings and commercial buildings.The CLT doesn’t have anything to do with a property’s day to day operations, what they do is hold the deed to the land. This means that if at some point in the future, all the people that started the project have gone and the people that are there are like ‘Why don’t we just sell this and make a lot of money?’ They can’t because the deed locks them into keeping it permanently affordable land. We are kind of like a ‘conscience.’

CLTs allow the community to own, work, live off, exploit — wherever word you want to use — the land and buildings in a way that is not for profit. CLTs decommodify the land, take it off the market and turn it back into land used for the community. 

Epicenter-NYC: Can you tell me more about the Western Queens Community Land Trust? How did it come about?

Salazar: In 2018, Amazon was looking to build its headquarters in Queens. The then governor announced that he would give away this huge building in Long Island City (that was public space) so that Amazon could use it for its headquarters. Many people, including myself, did not think it was a good idea and started to push back and contact our elected representatives — who were thankfully on our side. We thought this building was a prime target for companies like Facebook, Google, you name it, but it is a public space and we wanted it to keep serving the public. 

We thought, how do we stop that? How do we ensure this doesn’t happen again? How can we counter that when the next bid comes? We decided to come together and create a community land trust. We invited people to talk to us, including Micheal Lopez of South Bronx Unite, another CLT. Other groups like the New Economy Project came and laid down the nuts and bolts of how CLTs worked. 

During the fall of 2019, we formed a loose governance. We studied other CLTs and how they worked. During the pandemic, we began meeting on Zoom, filled out the paperwork and became incorporated. We became the Western Queens Community Land Trust. Since then, we have been working on getting city officials to pay attention to us and to reserve the vacant building Amazon wanted to use, for the community. 

While the building was a catalyst for creating the CLT, it was not just about that one project. We are here to help the community find land and buildings to do what they need to live and work in Queens. 

Western Queens Community Land Trust seeks to create a CLT in a city-owned building in Long Island City, modeled above. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Epicenter-NYC: Can you give an example of how a CLT can help with affordable housing? 

Salazar: CLTs allow for a system of checks and balances. When the community owns the deed, it becomes much more difficult for a property owner to sell at expensive prices. For example, if a CLT owns a building you can only have a third of the people that live in a CLT property not be part of the membership of the CLT board and group. So if people want to get greedy and sell, only a third will vote and they will not have a controlling share when a vote takes place. A CLT would prevent housing becoming increasingly expensive because of the way it is designed.

Epicenter-NYC: What are some other things CLTs can do?

Salazar: You can use CLTs in all sorts of creative ways. For example, during the pandemic, the city canceled its composting program. There was a patch of land in Sunnyside that was privately owned but nothing was being done with it. A group of guerilla composters jumped the fence and took it over in a very visible and public way. This sparked conversations with the owner, which resulted in an agreement to become a community-run composting site and garden. 

At some point, the owner could decide to sell and the whole thing would be removed, in that case the owner, if he is behind the idea, could sell the piece of land to a CLT at a non-market rate cost. At that point, a CLT can become the holder of that deed and be the ones who purchase the land. The group that has been running the composting would still run the compost site and control what is happening with the land, but the CLT would have the deed. If in 30 years, everyone in the compost group has left and a whole new wave of people come in and want to sell the land, they will be prevented from doing so because the CLT has the deed. 

Epicenter-NYC: Are there any CLT success stories that stand out to you? 

Salazar: The Rochester New York CLT is a great example because it has purchased homes that were in poor condition and being foreclosed on. The CLT is able to buy them at a low cost, fix them up and sell them to low-income families. While these are CLT properties, the families can live in them as long as they want and pass them on to their children, but they must do so at an affordable rate. 

Epicenter-NYC: How can people get involved or start their own?

Salazar: If this is something that someone is passionate about or interested in there are definitely a lot of CLTs around. At least start there, if only to learn more about it because it is daunting and we’ve definitely benefited from the help of others. There are a couple of groups that are sort of the umbrella organization that would really help somebody start a CLT that you can go to. The first is NYCCLI, the New York City Community Land Initiative, they have been around for a long time. Even before people knew what CLTs are they created the groundwork for all of this. If you want to start a CLT, I would start by contacting them. They can also assist the New Economy Project, another nonprofit group that helps CLTs — they are closely related. At the very least find out about your local CLTs and get involved with them. 

How you can get involved:

Currently, CLTs are advocating for the Community Land Act, a set of bills that will provide community land trusts and other nonprofits with the resources to create and preserve affordable housing, commercial spaces and other community needs. Read more about it here

If you are in support of the act you can take the following actions:

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