Planting the seeds of CLT in Toronto

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On February 15th 2013, Parkdale’s community land trust, Neighbourhood Land Trust, was invited to a Community Land Trust Workshop at the University of Toronto, organized by Susannah Bunce from UofT and a collaborative researcher, Yesim Sungu-Eryilmaz from Boston University. The workshop featured John Emmeus Davis, a CLT consultant from Burlington Associates, while convening practitioners, researchers, and students from various organizations in Toronto who are interested in the possibility of CLT.

The first half of the workshop was led by John, who gave the CLT 101 presentation that helped the participants build a common understanding of CLT. First John took us back to the historical roots of the CLT movement such as the Garden City movement, the Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi’s political philosophy of ‘from political movement to constructive movement.’ What is common here is that CLT movement started as struggles over the redistribution of benefits produced from lands to those people who would otherwise be excluded. This opening was a great context-setting for the workshop, because the historical root is sometimes paid little attention by policy-makers and practitioners in the face of urgency to prove the CLT model as an efficient tool for delivering affordable housing.

Throughout the workshop, John emphasized that it is a means, not an end, for CLTs to own lands and provide affordable housing; land stewardship is the core tool of CLTs to achieve organizational mission. It is thus that CLTs may need to focus on land stewardship and pursue other functions by building partnerships with other organizations who possess those expertise and experience that CLTs don’t – non-profit housing development and provision, commercial development, and urban agriculture for example. Interestingly enough, John pointed out that many CLTs fail because of real estate risks, not because of CLT related challenges such as a democratic governance model, complicated membership development and so on.

If land stewardship is at the core, then what differentiates CLTs from conservation Land Trusts that is more familiar in Canada? A key distinction – and why it is called ‘community’ land trust – is that a CLT is about building a community through land ownership by allowing large community members to be part of decision-making, to be represented at the board of directors through its classic 1/3 governance model, which is often absent in conservation land trust whose purpose is preservation of land. Of course just insuring the 1/3 governance model does not guarantee the thorough representation  of all community members, but the point of the 1/3 governance model, according to John, is not to give any majority vote to any group.

Further,  John went on to point out that there are ‘differences’ in any neighbourhood that we cannot erase; nor we can pretend that they do not exist. It is the 1/3 governance model that enables us to ‘institutionalize such differences and conflicting interests’ to talk about them in an open democratic space. In this regard, some may think that opening up membership may make it difficult to operate CLTs as it brings in diverse members whose visions may differe, but that is the moment when community organizing becomes crucial. The 1/3 model is just a prototype such that it can be modified according to local conditions. Like we discussed in the previous post, Parkdale’s CLT may need to refashion the prototype to accommodate its neighbourhood diversity.

The second half of the day was dedicated to discussing the challenges and opportunities for implementing CLT in Toronto. An opportunity is that many different groups of people got together at this workshop and started to talk about the potential of CLT in Toronto. This is a momentum that we should keep building on. On the other hand, the key challenges identified are: how to secure land and financial resources for acquisition give the hot real estate market of Toronto; how to get buy-in from the city council and the city hall – the political support is essential to stabilize the CLTs; and how to leverage ongoing initiatives to start CLTs – Parkdale one and TCH one – to expand the possibility of proliferating CLTs in different neighbourhoods.

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