Activists have said that the COVID-19 global pandemic exposed American society as unjust and presented inequities people had ignored for years. From housing to employment to schools, the pandemic showed where the power lay in society.

Housing, in particular, was pushed to the forefront during the pandemic.

The CLT initiative calls for immediate housing of homeless New Yorkers, investing in the city’s expanding co-op economy in Black, Brown and immigrant communities, and handing over land and housing control to the communities themselves.

The latter is the current topic of discussion.

The New Economy Project’s new campaign hopes to expand CLTs in the city and wants to make sure the city gives them the money to help expand them.

NEP, a citywide organization that works with community-based groups primarily led by Black, Brown and immigrant New Yorkers, is on a mission to build an economy that works for all people. A group of more than 15 CLTs around the city are organizing to help expand CLTs and ensure permanent affordable housing and community land development.

“I would say a few decades ago, there was a movement in the city to create a CLT when New York real estate was increasing,” said Deyanira Del Ri, co-director of the NEP. The pandemic didn’t help things in 2020 as residents weren’t able to pay rent and landlords were either increasing rent or threatening tenants with eviction.

“We started looking at CLTs as a way to keep people in their homes,” said Del Rio.

A Community Land Trust, as defined by Grounded Solutions Network (a merger of several CLTs), are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of CLT residents, community residents and public representatives that provide lasting community assets and shared equity homeownership opportunities for families and communities.

“CLTs develop rural and urban agriculture projects, commercial spaces to serve local communities, affordable rental and cooperative housing projects, and conserve land or urban green spaces.”

In a statement, the New York City Community and Land Initiative said, “Land use and community development must reverse and repair historical harms done to Black, Brown, and immigrant communities, promote the health and safety of community residents, and be environmentally sound.”

According to a report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the concept of CLTs began in 1959 when Robert Moses wanted to demolish an 11-block area in the neighborhood to make room for union-sponsored co-ops. A group of residents and businesses created the Cooper Square Community and fought against the proposal on the stance that the new houses that would be dubbed as affordable housing were still out of reach financially for most residents at that time. After a decade-long fight, the city government tapped out and accepted the “Alternate Plan for Cooper Square” (Cooper Square Committee, 1961), the first community-initiated plan in the city’s history.

The official Cooper Square CLT was formed in the early ’90s.

Del Rio and NEP/Skadden Fellow Akilah Browne, however, said that some have doubted their attempts at expansion because Cooper Square’s efforts were from a different time. That it happened in a time where real estate didn’t dominate the city like it does now. The pandemic changed things.

COVID-19 didn’t stop its advocacy, but Del Rio said that it actually “lit a fire” under them to push harder.

These various CLTs have held meetings exchanging knowledge and creating new ways to further their goals.

Del Rio said these meetings “strengthened the shared vision for the work.”

In 2019, the city set aside $870,000 for CLTs for FY2020. They want the city to continue its support asking for $1.5 million to keep the mission going.

Browne said that the city is not going back to the old ways if this initiative has anything to say about it.

“I think there are lots of great opportunities to push on the city and state to not bring back the status quo,” said Browne. “Groups and community members are very much aware of that and have been working for years.”

The activists have a friend in Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who wrote a letter to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in 2020 advocating on behalf of CLTs.

“When we see concerned citizens put in the work to increase access to something as critical as affordable housing, we ought to honor their efforts and respond with support,” wrote Velázquez. “While I am aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a substantial strain on the city’s budget, I truly believe that this funding directly addresses the disparities this pandemic has brought to light.”