Community land trusts a model for community-led land stewardship

Parkdale mural in Toronto. Photo: Robert B. Moffatt/Flickr

Last week marked the first meeting of the Canadian Network of Community Land Trusts held on Canadian soil.

The group's meeting in Montreal was attended by community land trusts from across Canada, most of them from British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. It's indicative of a rise in popularity of this alternative model of land ownership, as communities grapple with increasingly unaffordable housing prices, and commercial development changes the social, cultural and economic diversity of neighbourhoods. The Canadian Network of Community Land Trusts is seeking to share the collective experience and expertise of Canadian land trusts while expanding the footprint of this model of land ownership.

Community land trusts (CLTs) are, in essence, a model for community stewardship of land and community assets.

CLTs are non-profit organizations that focus on acquiring land to hold it permanently in trust for the community and out of the private market. Many CLTs are geared toward providing affordable housing for low- to mid-income households, while others also operate commercial properties or provide community gardens and other benefits.

They exist around the world with an established tradition in the United States, but are less present across Canada. The historic absence of CLTs in Canada, and their more recent emergence in different neighbourhoods, is potentially a result of the long-standing role that federal and provincial governments played in creating and funding affordable housing, which largely stopped in the mid-1990s.

Grassroots CLTs, such as the Friends of Kensington Market in Toronto, or Hogan's Alley Community Land Trust in Vancouver, are formed by residents organizing in response to issues affecting their neighbourhood -- for example, when gentrification changes the character of a community or urban development displaces residents.

This type of CLT is controlled by community members and governed by boards made up of users of CLT land and their neighbours. A community-led board allows for local decision-making and stewardship of land that is responsive to a neighbourhood's needs.

For example, the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust in Toronto (which the author is involved in), has a board composed only of community members, community organization partners, and tenants of the land trust's property.

Friends of Kensington Market is organized by neighbourhood residents and local business owners of the Kensington Market neighbourhood of Toronto. The organization sprang up in response to residents and long-standing businesses increasingly being priced out of the area.

Hogan's Alley Community Land Trust was formed by members of Vancouver's Black community when in 2015 the City of Vancouver decided to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and replace them with a park and condo towers. As described by a City of Vancouver report, Hogan's Alley was a downtown area home to Vancouver's Black community and immigrant groups until the mid-1970s, when an urban renewal program demolished the area, displacing its residents. The organization's members created a working group to create a community-led vision for the neighbourhood, and is proposing a transfer of city-owned lands to the trust so it can realize this vision.

A fourth example of a community land trust is the Milton-Parc Community in downtown Montreal -- a unique grassroots-level CLT made up of 15 housing co-operatives and seven non-profit organizations housing around 1,500 people. The organizations making up the CLT own land within a six-block radius of each other and formed a syndicate to collectively preserve the multiple properties and manage common areas shared between the organizations.

Sector-led CLTs, on the other hand, are not owned or controlled by residents and community members, but are controlled by organizations in the non-profit sector that hold land for a social purpose. The model is having significant success in Vancouver, where the Community Land Trust, an organization controlled by the Co-operative Housing Federation of British Columbia, owns more than 2,600 homes, largely as a result of an innovative partnership with the City of Vancouver. The City of Vancouver entered into 99-year leases with the Community Land Trust over multiple sites, allowing the land trust to design, build and operate new affordable housing. The Community Land Trust is leveraging its partnerships with multiple housing co-operatives, non-profits, government and developers to acquire, build and re-develop housing for low- to mid-income families in the Lower Mainland.

An ideal CLT model would blend community-led governance with the partnership powers that Community Land Trust in Vancouver managed to harness.

There is growing interest in the CLT model in Canada, but many organizations face the significant challenge of trying to take increasingly expensive properties out of the private market. The successes of the Vancouver Community Land Trust demonstrates the pivotal role that municipal governments can play, and underscores the need for political will in making the development of these projects a reality.

Claudia Pedrero is a lawyer with Iler Campbell LLP where she works on a range of governance, human rights and housing issues for non-profit clients.

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to probono@rabble.ca. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

Photo: Robert B. Moffatt/Flickr

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