Origins of the CLT Model

The modern CLT model originated in 1960s Georgia during the civil rights movement. A collective of activists saw land ownership as key to Black liberation in the Deep South. They conceptualized an agricultural community developed on land leased from a community-controlled nonprofit.

In 1969, they realize their dream and incorporated New Communities Inc. (NCI), the first community land trust. Soonafter, NCI acquired over 5000 acres of land, at the time the largest parcel owned by Black Americans. Despite lending discrimination and racism leading to eventual the foreclosure on this land, NCI continues to exist today with several original members still involved and a growing land base.

Concurrently, by the 1980s, the CLT model spread into US urban areas as a response to the displacement caused by urban re-investment and gentrification. In 1992, Housing and Community Development Act legislated a federal CLT definition. Over 200 CLTs exist in urban, rural, and suburban communities across the United States, which have interests such as affordable housing, commercial space, and urban agriculture.

NYC tenants march (Photo credit: Marlis Momber).

Types CLTs in Canada

Learning from the US, housing activists and professionals in Canada took up the community land trust as early as the 1970s.

In Canada, the CLT model has been widely adapted. CLTs generally fall into three categories:

  • sector-led CLTs formed by the housing sector
  • community-led CLTs formed via grassroots organizing
  • public-led CLTs formed through legislation

Sector-led community land trusts are created by established organizations already invested in community housing. They take up the land trust model for its ability to aggregate disparate assets and redeploy equity towards development and renewal projects. Sector-based CLTs have had greatest success within the cooperative housing sector, however they also steward supportive housing and non-profit rental projects and lands. These CLTs do not typically have open memberships, however their cooperative assets continue to be governed by member residents.

Community-led community land trusts are organized directly by the people who live in the area of operation. They are grassroots initiatives that typically have a social justice mission. While they are involved with the acquisition and stewardship of land, they also seek to gain greater community influence of local land use and planning. This is facilitated by a membership open to anyone living within the CLTs area of operation. The membership is responsible for electing the board of directors who governed the CLT.

Public-led community land trusts, which are initiated by government legislation. There is just one example of this in Canada, the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust Corporation developed in 1993.

Sector-Led Community Land Trusts

The community land trust model has been taken up by Canada’s community housing sector. This has been most often demonstrated by the cooperative housing sector, however groups invested in supportive and non-profit housing are also operating.

In 1986, Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto formed Colandco, a land holding and development organization. Colandco purchased existing rental buildings and land for the purpose of cooperative housing development. Colandco entered into 49-year leases with cooperatives for both the land and buildings. In 2017, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto formed Co-op Housing Land Trusts, a body of four different land trusts. As of 2019, the Trusts hold 32 buildings representing a total of 4,196 households. The land trust owns the land and the cooperatives are responsible for the management of its buildings. At the end of the land lease, the buildings will be transferred to the land trust unless the lease is renewed.

City Park Co-operative in Downtown Toronto, part of the CHFT's Land Trusts.
City Park Co-operative in Downtown Toronto, part of the CHFT's Land Trusts.

By the 90s, the Cooperative Housing of British Columbia followed suit and formed The Community Land Trust Foundation (later rebranded as “The Community Land Trust”) with the purpose of stewarding the land and buildings of housing cooperatives. In the 2000s, the organization grew to also develop new cooperatives and non-profit rental projects, sometimes owning the land and other times developing on long-term leased city land. The organization demonstrates the CLT’s abilities to stabilize, improve, and redevelop distressed cooperative housing assets. It stewards more than 1000 homes.

In 2003, Homespace (formerly the Calgary Community Land Trust) was formed by the Calgary Homeless Foundation and was incorporated as a nonprofit. HomeSpace uses a partnership model, whereby it retains owns and physically maintains the buildings it develops, while community partners operate and provide services to residents. Homespace now holds more than 800 homes serving diverse populations.

These groups have continued to steward and grow their assets.

In 2018, the Aboriginal Land Trust Society (ALTS) was created as a part of the Vancouver-based Lu’ma Group of Companies, which includes Indigenous-led non-profits such as the Lu’ma Native Housing Society. ALTS acquires and steward land, which it then leases to developers and housing operators. ALT was created to enable the accumulation of equity, as opposed to working on long-term leased public lands. ALT views land donations as a way for groups to participate in urban reconciliation by helping the trust create equity.

Artistic rendering of the affordable rental housing building for Black and Indigenous people at 823-841 Sixth Street, New Westminster. It is a partnership between Swahili Vision International Association, the Aboriginal Land Trust, and BC Housing.

Community-led Community Land Trusts

First Generation

Community-led community land trusts appeared in Canada as early as the 1970s, in small agricultural communities. While many of these projects cease to exist, the little-known New Roots Community Land Trust in Saskatchewan appears to be Canada’s longest running community land trust.

Starting in the 1980s, community land trusts began to be taken up by urban communities across Canada. A great success of this era is Communaute Milton Parc (CMP), formed in Montreal’s Milton-Parc neighbourhood in 1986. Following decades of successful community organizing against a major redevelopment plan, local activists formed multiple housing cooperatives to ensure the long-term affordability of housing in the area. Fifteen cooperatives and six non-profit housing corporations collectively own their land titles through a Declaration of Co-Ownership. CMP is an overarching governance body which enforces non-speculative restrictions on land uses and sales, and owns land beneath common areas. It represents 148 buildings, 616 affordable units, and 1500 residents.

Demonstrations against the proposed redevelopment in Milton-Parc (Photo credit: Brendan King-Edwards and Tim McSorley)

Still, during this time, there was very little understanding of the community land trust model in Canada. Common challenges faced by CLTs, as noted in a CMHC report, included the inability to secure mortgages for alternative ownership models (e.g. rent-to-own, shared equity, homes built on leased lands), unpredictable public funding, and shifting political support from local governments.

Unfortunately, this led to the demise of a handful of community land trusts. One example is the West Broadway Community Land Trust, which was established 1999 as a subsidiary of the West Broadway Community Development Corporation in Winnipeg. WBCLT purchased land parcels and existing housing stock and implemented a rent-to-own program utilizing ground lease agreements. Heavy renovation burdens among the factors listed above led to the eventual closure of the community land trust.

Despite these struggles, groups across Canada continued to slowly form community land trusts as a way to generate community wealth and secure permanently affordable housing and access to land:

Second Generation

Starting in the 2010s, community land trusts began to emerge in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. In addition to a focus on the acquisition of land, these groups intentionally engaged in social rights activism and community-led planning initiatives.

The first of these new organizations was the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT), established in 2014. PNLT has over 800 members who elect a 15-person board of directors. PNLT and its sister charitable organization the Neighbourhood Land Trust steward over 1000 units of permanently affordable housing, in addition to urban agricultural space. PNLT is known for its strong model of community governance and successfully advocating for the City of Toronto to introduce a Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition program.

Parkdale NLT is successfully growing their community-governed land portfolio.

Kensington Market Community Land Trust was initiated in 2017 by a group of residents who had successfully halted a major development near the neighbourhood. The organization has an open membership who elect its board of directors. In 2022, the organization acquired its first property.

The success of these two organizations has inspired the emergence of additional community land trusts in Toronto’s Little Jamaica, Chinatowns, and other neighbourhoods experiencing significant development pressures.

In 2017, the Hamilton Community Land Trust acquired land from the City of Hamilton and then partnered with Habitat for Humanity Hamilton to construct a four-bedroom home which is leased to a low-income family. This project demonstrates the CLTs ability to redevelop vacant city land.

In Vancouver, Hogan’s Alley Society was formed as a community-led nonprofit in 2017. The original Hogan’s Alley area was the heart of Vancouver’s Black community. It was displaced via the construction of large viaducts in the 1960s, which are now being demolished. As the area is redeveloped, Hogan’s Alley Society is developing a community land trust to permanently steward the land and oversee the development of affordable housing, cultural amenities, and commercial spaces.

Executive director of Hogan's Alley Society describes the project.

Increasingly, African-Nova Scotian communities are looking to empower themselves through collective land stewardship. In Nova Scotia, community land trusts are being developed to revitalize and reclaim lands rightfully held by African Nova Scotians. Established in 2021, Upper Hammonds Plains CLT seeks to prevent out-of-scale redevelopment and reclaim land titles. Founded in 2022, DowntheMarsh CLT aims to restore historically Black neighbourhoods in Truro. The model continues to be explored by communities across the province.

Co-founder of Upper Hammonds Plains CLT Curtis Wiley presents the project.

Community-led community land trusts are demonstrating their ability to match sector-led groups’ ability to acquire at-risk properties and steward large housing portfolios. In 2022, after years of mobilization against Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s intent to sell more than 500 homes to the private market, activists formed the Circle Community LandTrust and successfully bid for the acquisition of these homes.

A Growing Movement

The 2020s represent a turning point for community land trusts in Canada. In 2021, CMHC dedicated a round of funding to community land trust and land assembly projects. Canadian Network of Community Land Trust received scaling funding from said program. The funding has supported the growth of CLTs smaller communities such as Muskoka and Whitehorse.

CLTs are gaining greater visibility in media and politics. In 2023, a federal petition advocating for capital gains-free land donations to CLTs reached parliament.

Communities are realizing CLTs’ potential to secure and stabilize cultural amenities. Inspired by groups such as San Fransisco’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust, Vancouver’s 221A and Toronto’s Community and Cultural Spaces Trust have been founded to acquire and steward cultural and living spaces for artists.

There has been nearly half a century of community land trust development in Canada. The 2020s have already proven to be an exciting decade for the sector.