It Takes an Island

Island Housing Trust 

It takes an island, or a borough, or a County, or a shire to gather and hold land for community benefit.

In an economy that is both just and sustainable, land would not be treated as a commodity that is bought and sold on the market to the highest bidder. Private control of limited natural resources inevitably leads to wide discrepancies in wealth because owners benefit unfairly from the need of all for access to land.

Nor is government the appropriate owner of land and arbitrator of access. Clumsy, centralized, bureaucratic— the process would be mired in paperwork.

Instead we recommend a series of regional, nonprofit, democratically-structured, citizen-based organizations that hold land and grant access through long term leases. Community land trusts were imagined by Schumacher Center founder Robert Swann as a new land tenure system which could achieve a bold redistribution of land from private ownership to the commons.


Robert Swann with members of New Communities, Inc. at planning meeting circa 1970.

Lessees own homes, barns, roads, wells, perennials, and other improvements on the land and can sell or transfer these assets at replacement cost should they move, but the land itself continues in trust. Lease income is pooled to fund broader community purposes such as purchasing more land so more people can build homes and develop businesses.

The Democracy Collaborative recently released a carefully researched publication called Community Control of Land and Housing. Authors Jarrid Green and Thomas Hanna make the case for expanding the capacity and number of community land trusts in order to address the social and ecological consequences of land speculation.

“. . . There is an emerging opportunity to develop strategies related to land and housing that can help create inclusive, participatory, and sustainable economies built on locally-rooted, broad-based ownership of place-based assets.” 

Community land trusts (CLTs) are most commonly identified as vehicles for affordable home ownership rather than as instruments of land reform because the need for affordable housing is urgent, and tax-exempt status is sought for that limited purpose at start up. Bob Swann would quip that it is not just the poor who shouldn’t speculate on land—no one should. But the exclusive purpose for affordable housing creates an impression that those with higher incomes would not be welcome to voluntarily place their own land in the CLT and lease it back.


Indian Line Farm, the first Community Supported (CSA) Agriculture farm in North America, is one of three properties owned by the Berkshire Community Land Trust. Photo by Jason Houston.

The Berkshire Community Land Trust sought and received 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status for multiple purpose—education, affordable housing, farming, economic diversity, open space for recreation, and enhancement of the community. Its sister organization, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, recently received 501(c)(2) title-holding status for BCLT’s 501(c)(3). BCLT accepts donations of land for multiple purposes and develops a land-use plan to meet ecological characteristics of the site as well as the social needs of the community. It then turns the land over to the CLTSB to manage and lease. Working together, these two organizations have a mandate to go beyond just affordable housing and manage all kinds of productive land:

  1. retail sites to secure the character of small towns and inner-city neighborhoods;
  2. manufacturing sites so citizens can support new import-replacement businesses that create local products for local needs such as wool processing or furniture manufacturing;
  3. workforce housing for the firefighters, nurses, and teachers who work in a community and have incomes above charitable levels but who are priced out of the housing market;
  4. farmland and ranchland, which is leased with equity in buildings and other improvements to farmers who are thus not burdened with land debt.

These sites do not have to be strictly limited to income qualified lessees but rather to those best qualified to develop and operate the specified activities. By encouraging citizen and public donations of land or donations of funds to acquire sites, the CLT eliminates the high cost of land for a community supported business and thus gives them a head start towards success.

Of course, CLTs can also still directly serve the immediate need for affordable home ownership in disenfranchised communities. Island Housing Trust (IHT), a CLT on Martha’s Vineyard, is partnering with the local hospital to develop housing for staff.  Many critical workers live off-island because of the high cost of housing and cannot reach their posts if weather delays the ferry. IHT is buying a former inn and renovating it to include multiple two-bedroom apartments. Through a master lease the hospital will take on all the units at market rates so IHT can repay its upfront investment. The hospital will then rent to individual employees at subsidized rates, securing a critical workforce.


Watch It Takes an Island here.

The need for housing for workers is so well understood on Martha’s Vineyard that merchants are donating a percentage of monthly sales to IHT, thereby taxing themselves to build housing for community members. Annabelle and Simon Hunton, owners of Nabnocket Inn, were so touched by IHT’s depiction of island neighbors facing a crisis in locating stable housing that they donated 2% of all the Inn’s income in the month of April to IHT and are planning to do more. Other merchants are doing the same in a partnership program with Island Housing Trust.

Local control of land and housing ensures an inclusive, participatory, and sustainable economy built on locally-rooted, broad-based ownership of place-oriented assets essential to bringing about a just economic future.




Please join us at these local events:



The Good Work Institute, the Teyuna Foundation, and Integrative Permaculture are pleased to invite you to an evening of indigenous wisdom from the four families of the Teyuna: the Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, and Wiwa people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of Colombia.

September 8th, 5:00 pm: 
South Berkshire Friends, 280 State Road, Great Barrington, MA
Purchase tickets here
September 11th, 6:30 pm: 
The Old Dutch Church, 272 Wall Street, Kingston, NY
Purchase tickets here


RSVP by September 30th.



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