Land for the Many

The neighborhood of Lewisham, London, which received mayoral recognition for its CLT program.

In a June 4, 2019, article in The Guardian, George Monbiot comments:

What is the most neglected issue in British politics? I would say land. Literally and metaphorically, land underlies our lives, but its ownership and control have been captured by a tiny number of people. The results include soaring inequality and exclusion; the massive cost of renting or buying a decent home; the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems; repeated financial crises; and the loss of public space. Yet for 70 years this crucial issue has scarcely featured in political discussions.

The Guardian article coincided with the publication of a report for the Labour party – “Land for the Many” – written by Monbiot with six experts in the field with the aim to “put this neglected issue where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion.”

In Saturday’s online edition of the The New York Times and again in Sunday’s print version, Julie Turkewitz reports on “Who Gets to Own the West?” She details a trend in which newcomers to the “interior West” – including Idaho, Montana, and Colorado – are buying up large tracts of land.

Brokers say the new arrivals are driven in part by a desire to invest in natural assets while they are still abundant, particularly amid a fear of economic, political and climate volatility. “There is a tremendous underground, not-so-subtle awareness from people who realize that resources are getting scarcer and scarcer,” said Bernard Uechtritz, a real estate adviser.

Turkewitz references the Land Report, which tracks large land transactions and reports that just 100 families collectively own 42 million acres across the country – an expanse of 65,000 square miles, or 3 percent of all the privately held land in the US.

Describing the consequences of this land rush, she writes, “In 2018, more than 20,000 Californians arrived in Idaho; home prices around Boise jumped 17%. This has meant not just new subdivisions and microbreweries, but also packed schools, crowded ski trails and heightened anxiety among teachers, plumbers and others, who are finding that they can no longer afford a first home.”

Art space members rally to buy their own building through the Oakland CLT.

At a time of ever greater concentration of land ownership, the need to broaden access to land is increasingly urgent. As both Monbiot and Turkewitz lay bare, land access lies at the heart of issues of equity, affordable housing, livable cities, regenerative agriculture, ecological restoration, renewable energy, social entrepreneurship and, we would add, reparations.

Monbiot’s 75-page report provides detailed suggestions to the UK government to address this concentration of land ownership. Among them:

To help stabilise land prices and make homes more affordable, we propose a new body, called the Common Ground Trust. When people can’t afford to buy a home, they can ask the trust to purchase the land that underlies it, while they pay only for the bricks and mortar (about 30% of the cost). They then pay the trust a land rent. Their overall housing costs are reduced, while the trust gradually accumulates a pool of land that acts as a buffer against speculation, and creates common ownership on a large scale.

He also suggests, “We would like to use part of the Land Registry’s vast surplus to help community land trusts buy rural land for farming, forestry, conservation and rewilding.”

Community land trusts are proven vehicles for fairly allocating land in a place-based, democratic manner. The non-profit, regionally-based organizations, acquire land by gift or purchase, create a land use plan for each site, then lease the land on a 99-year basis for the designated use such as workforce housing, farming, manufacturing, local retail, or office space. Lessees own their buildings and other improvements, but not the land itself, which remains in a community commons. Buildings are resold at replacement value only, excluding the rising cost of land, and thus are kept more affordable for the next lessee.

Accordingly, community land trusts are a tool for communities to control their own local economic development, and to allocate land in response to local social and economic conditions.

NCLT one of the oldest CLTs in the country, holds land for farms and office buildings, as well as housing.

However, the growth of community land trusts has been slow to reach a critical scale. Even if governments and foundations suddenly turned their collective resources to funding community land trusts, there would still not be enough working lands – lands suited for housing, farming, ranching, retail, manufacturing, and other commercial uses – held in community commons to accomplish broad land redistribution. It will take a wide-ranging movement of land gifting to effect change.

In much the same way that conservation land trusts are recognized as reliable recipients of ecologically sensitive lands, community land trusts need to be understood as reliable recipients of working lands. This would mean expanding the growth and public profiles of community land trusts so that donors and their philanthropic advisors recognize community land trusts as trusted partners in achieving their long-term goals for use of a specific site, or for achieving their philanthropic goals such as security for women and girls, thriving local food systems, support for import-replacement, protecting the diversity of Main Streets, climate remediation, and more.

Broadening access to land is thus not just an affordable housing issue, but one that encompasses many of the key environmental and social issues of our time. We propose an alliance of groups that would join together to encourage voluntary gifts of land to community land trusts – land redistribution on a scale that responds to the urgency of the issue in today’s world.

Monbiot concludes, “These proposals, we hope, will make the UK a more equal, inclusive and generous-spirited nation, characterised not by private enclosure and public squalor, but by private sufficiency and public luxury. Our land should work for the many, not just the few.”