The world is having a crisis of space. As global issues of climate change and sustainability collide head first with population growth and mass migrations, the question of who owns space on our planet – and what they are doing with it – is taking centre stage.
In the UK, land and property have been at the heart of disputes for centuries, from access rights to affordable housing. This year is the 90th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, a key event in the struggle for public access to countryside, but it’s an ongoing issue, particularly in Scotland, where 432 private land-owners own 50% of private rural land.
And then there’s the housing crisis: not enough, and too expensive – especially with the meteoric rise of Airbnb.
One model addressing this inequality is the community land trust (CLT) which gives ordinary people the means to steward land. CLTs are locally controlled and democratically accountable through a membership that is open to all who live or work in the defined community – including occupiers or users of the land and properties that the trust owns. According to the UK’s CLT Network there are 548 CLT groups in England and Wales running 587 projects. There are over 1,100 completed homes, with a further 7,100 in the pipeline.
Community ownership of the land is protected for the future through CLTs holding their assets in perpetuity, though they do have the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. Assets can only be sold or developed in a manner which benefits the local community; for example, if a home is sold, the cash realised is protected and can be re-invested into something else that the trust’s members think will bring benefit.
In Cornwall alone, there are an estimated 10,000 Airbnbs – and this number is growing, as landlords who were letting property for £800-£900 a month have now realised they can make £1,500 a week. Research by Cornwall Live showed that in March, St Ives had 119 Airbnbs. There were 68 houses and flats for sale, with none for rent.
Cornwall CLT was set up in 2006 to combat this, and is now one of the largest in the UK, having delivered more than 230 affordable sustainable homes with more in the pipeline, alongside advising other community-led groups in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Most of its homes are for sale (although some are for rent) and are offered at discounts calculated to be affordable to median local incomes.
According to SQM Research, rental vacancy rate in the Blue Mountains plunged from 3.2% in December 2019 to 0.7% in April 2022%, while the value of homes in Australia rose 16.7% in the 12 months to May 2022. Now the Blue Mountains – a region 65 miles inland from Sydney – could be among the first places in the country to establish a CLT, catering especially for women.
“Domestic violence is the single largest cause of homelessness in Australia and the largest cohort is women over the age of 55 who don’t own property and have very little in superannuation,” Blue Mountains MP Trish Doyle told the first in-person meeting of the Walanmarra Artists & Blue Mountains CLT in May, adding that women from indigenous communities and those with disabilities were particularly vulnerable.
The CLT model emerged in the US during the civil rights era. Influential figures including Robert Swann and Slater King (cousin of Martin Luther King Jr) wanted to create long-term opportunities for economic and residential independence for African Americans in the rural south.
In 1968, Mr Swann travelled to Israel, learning about the success of the Jewish National Fund, which had a history of acquiring then leasing land to planned communities and co-ops. Working with fellow civil rights leaders he developed the first land trust in the US, New Communities, in 1970. Based on a 5,000-acre farm near Albany, Georgia, it is still going strong, and this year is working with Airbnb to launch the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail. This will “allow participating farmers to benefit from the economic opportunities of local tourism through hosting [while] raising awareness of the current needs of Black farmers.”
There are now over 240 CLTs in the US. The biggest – Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont – owns over 3,000 homes and over 130,000 sq ft of commercial and community facilities.
Others are just getting started. In cities, CLTs are at the forefront of campaigns to bring vacant land into productive use. In an area where space is at a huge premium, East New York CLT (ENYCLT) is planning to take over a number of underutilised city-owned sites used as NY Police Department (NYPD) staff car parks in East New York, Bushwick and Brownsville.
The CLT has calculated that one such empty lot – at the corner of Sutter Avenue and Linwood Street in East New York – is big enough to hold up to 60 permanently affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom co-op units, a community facility, a small pocket park and a rooftop farm. Research by ENYCLT found there are 145 vacant lots and parking lots citywide used by the NYPD, of which 73 are underutilised and poorly maintained.
“Together, these 73 lots represent more than 1.3 million square feet of development potential that could provide hundreds of affordable housing units and tens of thousands of square feet of manufacturing and commercial space,” the study argues. The 73 lots are located in five community districts in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
ENYCLT has not yet acquired any land, but it is in conversation with developers and architects and hopes to seek funding through various city and state government programmes.
“We have a vision through the community, through the residents, of what this land can bring to East New York, we can bring so many resources here: housing, green space, commercial space,” says ENYCLT secretary Debra Ack. “We have so many young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs who are in school, who would love to come back to their community and open up a business and hire from within the community. But there’s one problem: They can’t afford the space.
“[NYPD staff are] coming into my community and parking over here for free. You know what I say to that? Take the damn train like everybody else. We need our land back.”