Taking Back the South Bronx

This piece was originally produced for WNYC's The Affordability Project on November 17, 2016


A few weeks ago, a group of activists and residents got together in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx for a ceremony in front of a vacant, two-story building.

“We’re going to lay our hands on this building,” said Mychal Johnson, one of the event organizers, to the crowd that had gathered. “We’re going to reclaim this structure!”

The building and the land it sits on are currently owned by New York City's Health and Hospitals department. Activists want officials to hand over the keys to the building so they can convert it into a community center with space for an after-school program, a health clinic, a commercial kitchen for local businesses, a birthing center, and even room for an local youth orchestra, UpBeat NYC.

To accomplish this, they have formed the Mott Haven Port Morris Community Land Trust, hoping to use a model of land ownership and development not often seen in New York City.

Community Land Trusts, at their most basic, are community-led developments of individually-owned buildings on community-owned land. The goal is to encourage local participation by setting up a non-profit entity that elects board members to steward the land. The community decides how they want the land to be used. CLTs, as they are known, have been used for urban agriculture and gardens, low-income housing, limited-equity homeownership, and community centers.

Proponents of the model say it’s a way for communities to remove land from the speculative real estate market as the trusts can write clauses into the lease stipulating that housing built on the land must be affordable for 100 or 200 years.

The City regularly gives vacant land to developers in exchange for certain conditions like affordable housing or public space. It’s been hesitant, however, to embrace CLTs, in part over fears that the city would become responsible if the non-profit fails. Currently, there is only one full-functioning model in New York City, Cooper Square in the Lower East Side, and it took 50 years to establish.

Council Member Donovan Richards, however, has introduced legislation into the City Council in support of CLTs and the city is considering them as a tool to dispose of vacant land that the city owns.