The city of Houston is experimenting with land trust to fight gentrification
Across America there are more than 220 land trusts, varying in size and location but mostly tending to exist close to the coasts. In a trust, a community-controlled nonprofit owns land makes rules for how buildings on that land should serve the community, which are largely aimed at undoing centuries of oppression and dispossession.
However, there are barriers to a community-led effort to establish a land trust in a business-friendly city like Houston. As Jeffery Lowe, Texas Southern University assistant professor of urban planning and policy tells The Houston Chronicle, “The difficulty here in Texas and in Houston is that we really place a high appreciation on the commodification of land,” explained Jeffrey Lowe, an assistant professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a Kinder Fellow. “Many of our policies basically promote private property ownership, not only that the land should be commodified, but that it should be commodified to its maximum value.”
There are community land trusts in the state, however, and one of the most productive ones is its Guadalupe Community Land Trust in Austin, which is run by the neighborhood development corporation. As of yet, there are no land trusts in Houston, but the city is creating its own land trust that will not simply focus on pieces of land, but the entire city, a markedly different strategy from other land trusts.
Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities initiative wants to create a community land trust specifically for Houston’s Third Ward. Third Ward’s Emancipation Economic Development Council established a partnership with the MIT Department of Urban Planning in 2016 which helped lay the grounds for the area around Emancipation Park to become a land trust. Central to establishing the area as a land trust, however are existing landowners willing to make the land available.
As a member of the council, Shanette Prince says, “The strength is the community owning the land and allowing homeowners, long-term residents to have a say in what happens to their land… Residents [would] have a say in what happens to their land long-term.” Prince also said that they would be “able to collectively organize that land and make sure that the land is used in the way that the community wants the land used.”
Representative Garnet Coleman sees the interest in developing a land trust in Third Ward as a parallel work to his own work, which has largely centered around orchestrating land purchases and developing land in an affordable manner. Coleman says of his efforts, “We were buying land quietly. This is how you do it,” he said. “My family has been in this Third Ward area for 100 years,” Coleman added. “I know my constituents. We’ve done plans before. The first Third Ward redevelopment plan was done in 1993.”
However Lowe does not believe that these initiatives are enough. “Community revitalization has not been our focus,” said Lowe. Instead “it has been primarily the redevelopment of places where market approaches benefit those who already have the means. The community land trust is an alternative approach to that while at the same time it could help advance democratization” and grassroots organizing, Lowe explained. “If we believe that’s important, then we have to think of ways of building it back.”