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Lower East Side Organizers Look to Launch New Community Land Trusts

They are working to transform two city-owned parking lots into affordable housing that will be built on land that cannot be resold for profit.

Katie Pruden Oct 21

Tito Delgado, 71, has lived in the Lower East Side for almost all of his life. He has seen his neighbors and friends driven out of their neighborhood, and himself too, because of unaffordable housing prices. “There is a whole history of displacement here,” Delgado said, adding “I still live in the Lower East Side, but I sleep in Chelsea.”

Some who have been forced to leave their homes like Delgado aren’t giving up on the neighborhood.

Sixth Street Community Center, This Land is Ours and the Cooper Square Committee with the help of the community are developing a plan, starting in the Lower East Side, to create more accessible housing through community land trusts (CLTs). 

Their first goal is to transform a pair of city-owned parking lots — a New York City Housing Authority lot on E 6th St between avenues B and C, and a New York Police Department parking lot on E 5th St. between First and Second avenues — into affordable housing complexes, which will include energy, worker and food coops. 

With a CLT, land is put into a trust and whatever is built on top of it is owned and improved by the people who use it. The land itself is controlled by a non-profit organization to prevent it from being resold. This protects it from real-estate speculation and ensures that apartments will stay affordable for generations to come, as opposed to soaring prices in recent decades of Housing Development Fund Corporation cooperatives.

“They turn a blind eye to it,” said Valerio Orselli, the founder of This Land is Ours, about price regulations on HDFCs, which he has experience in as well as CLTs. While CLT residents can’t reap a profit from the resale of their property, Orselli says the deep affordability of the apartments makes it possible to create “social equity” as tenants have more money to spend on better education and healthcare, or to start a business with. 

The Nov. 12 rally for community land trusts at NYPD’s East 5th Street parking lot featured neighborhood residents of all ages and talents. Reed Dunlea
The protesters then took to the streets and marched through the Lower East Side. Reed Dunlea

“We need to steward the buildings and make sure there is no speculation,” said Delgado, a housing activist who worked for two decades at the Cooper Square Committee. The backers of the proposed CLTs hope they will ignite a trend that reaches beyond the Lower East Side.

“This is an anti-displacement movement,” said Delgado. 

Origins of the community land trust movement

One of the original models for a community land trust in the United States was created in 1969 by a group of Black farmers in Georgia. They created an agricultural settlement called New Communities that was cooperatively run by the individuals who lived there in order to foster race equality, lessen economic disparities and give opportunity to small farmers. 

The proposed CLTs on E 5th and E 6th streets are being designed by some of the oldest anti-displacement organizations in the city. After years of protests and organizing, the Cooper Square Committee won approval in 1970 for its “Alternate Plan,” which replaced an urban renewal plan pushed by Robert Moses that would have demolished hundreds of homes and businesses in a 12-block stretch from Delancey to E 9th Street between Second and Third avenues. More than two decades later, a CLT and mutual housing association were founded that included 22 buildings that are still affordable today.

Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center, helped design the first Manhattan CLT model in the ‘80s, called RAIN (Rehabilitation in Action to Improve Neighborhoods), which joined together 12 homesteading groups in the community that pledged their land to common ownership through membership in the CLT, according to Brandstein. Though RAIN once followed the CLT model, it is no longer active. 

The newly-proposed CLTs are more ambitious than anything previously attempted in New York City.

The vision, though only in the early stages, includes a 76-unit complex on 5th street for seniors, and a 48-to-53 unit complex on 6th street for families. The housing will be available to those who earn 50-60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). Affordable housing in New York City is based on what the federal government sets as the city’s AMI for the year, which is then categorized into different levels of the household’s percentage of it. The 2022 AMI (100%) for the New York City region is $120,100 for a three-person family.

The newly-proposed CLTs are more ambitious than anything previously attempted in New York City. “How do we serve the whole person? Not just the person who needs housing, but the person who is a worker, who eats food, who uses energy?” Brandstein asks. Along with affordable housing, the organizers’ plans include the creation of a workers’ center, food coop and solar or clean energy coop. 

The CLT advocates hope to get the qualification as low as 30% of the AMI ($36,030 for a three-person family), which will depend on the number of government subsidies their project receives. The organizations say they are confident they will receive funds based on their previous successes. 

Community meeting

Members of the Lower East Side want to transform a parking lot for police officer’s cars on E 5th St. into affordable housing.
The NYCHA lot on E 6th St.

On Sept. 22, the sponsoring organizations held a community forum at La Plaza Cultural community garden to discuss their vision. Flyers including mock-up graphics of the plans were handed out, as well as a petition for supporters to sign. More than 50 community members gathered to hear from the organizers. State Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and a representative for City Councilmember Carlina Rivera voiced their support for the plan.

At the end of the forum, attendees spoke on the issue. Some community members gave their support or offered advice. Others expressed doubts about the CLT model, though no one opposed building more affordable housing in the neighborhood. 

Some participants also expressed concerns about eliminating the police parking lot on E 5th St. and whether that would slow down response time; however, the lot is only for the personal cars of officers who drive to work, not NYPD vehicles.

CLT organizers acknowledge it will take years to bring their project to fruition. The next step is winning the support of the NYCHA tenant associations whose buildings are adjacent to the E 6th St. parking lot. One tenant association has already signaled its support while the other remains to be heard from. The bigger challenge will be winning the backing of the Adams administration in the form of  a Request for Proposal, or even better, a non-competitive Sole Source proposal approved by the mayor.

“The question of community engagement is really pressing,” said Brandstein, who is hoping more Lower East Side residents will join the fight.

To get involved, call the Cooper Square Committee at 212-228-821 or email csc@coopersquare.org. 

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