Seeding the First CLTs:

Urban Experiments

URBAN EXPERIMENTS: Image by Bonnie Acker (c) 2014The earliest attempts to transplant the new model of tenure pioneered in the rural regions of southwest Georgia, east Tennessee, and Hancock County, Maine into an urban setting took place in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Ohio.  The first failed to thrive and soon disappeared.  The second took root and endured, earning the distinction of becoming the first urban CLT in the United States.

Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project

Columbia Heights is a 20-block area in northwest Washington, a neighborhood that was devastated by the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  By the mid-1970s, the neighborhood’s housing was badly deteriorated and overcrowded.  The District of Columbia was discussing plans for urban renewal, while speculators were busily buying up property in the hope that the wave gentrification that was beginning to sweep through many of Washington’s inner-city neighborhoods might eventually reach Columbia Heights.

Sojourners logoMembers of an evangelical Christian community known as Sojourners began working in Columbia Heights in 1975, attempting to address problems of poor housing and playing a lead role in organizing a neighborhood Columbia Hts-Perk Perkins-1981tenants union.  (The director of the Sojourners Housing Ministry during this period was Perk Perkins, who was later involved in helping to write The Community Land Trust Handbook, published by Rodale Press in 1982.)

The other group that became active in Columbia Heights’ housing issues in the mid-1970s was the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV).  There was some overlap in the membership of Sojourners and CCNV, although the two groups drew on different religious traditions and exhibited different styles of militancy in pursuing similar social agendas.

CCNV had been founded in the early 1970’s by Father Guinan and a group of George Washington students as a response to questions CCNV logoabout justice and human rights during a time of war – the Vietnam War.  As they marched, protested, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, they also endeavored to “make peace” with their low-income neighbors.  They opened a soup kitchen in 1972 and soon were feeding 200 to 300 homeless people a day, seven days a week.

Through the process of feeding the poor, they realized that many people in need of a bowl of soup also lacked basic shelter and medical services.  Therefore, in addition to the soup kitchen, CCNV soon opened two hospitality houses and a medical clinic.  And, in 1976, with the support and involvement of the Sojourner Housing Ministry, CCNV turned its attention from providing temporary shelter for the homeless to acquiring and rehabilitating permanent housing that could be leased to low-income families in Columbia Heights.

The vehicle for this Sojourners-CCNV effort was the Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project (CHCOP).  Founded in 1976, this organization was conceived and structured to be a community land trust.  Over the next two years, it succeeded in acquiring three buildings, but the burden of rehabilitating and managing dilapidated buildings with donated funds and volunteer labor proved too much.  CHCOP dissolved and the buildings were sold.

Sojourners turned its focus to building a broad-based tenants union and working in coalition with other grassroots groups to win a condominium conversion controls and a tenant first-right-to-buy law from the city.  The latter law, once enacted, led to the formation of some of the first limited equity housing cooperatives in Washington D.C.

CCNV returned to its original focus on sheltering the homeless.  In 1984, after years of organizing public hearings and militant protests on behalf of the homeless, marked by Mitch Snyder’s highly Mitch Snyder (1946-1990)publicized fasts, the voters of Washington D.C. were asked to approve a CCNV-sponsored measure called the “Right to Overnight Shelter Act.”  Passed with 70 percent of the vote, this Act was the first time that voters in America created a legal right to shelter for homeless people.

The first attempt to create an urban CLT failed.  In Washington D.C., it would be over a decade before a CLT was finally established in the District, with the incorporation of the New Columbia Community Land Trust in 1990.  Despite the demise of CHCOP, however, the grassroots organizing that led up to it and came of it made significant contributions to the fight to prevent displacement, house the homeless, and provide affordable housing in Washington D.C.  The Columbia Heights Community Ownership Project had a lasting impact, even if its own existence was fleeting.

Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati  

A more successful experiment in attempting to seed a CLT in the rocky soils of an inner-city urban neighborhood occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1980.  The Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati (CLCC) was planted in the city’s oldest and most Map of West Endimpoverished African American neighborhood by an ecumenical association of ministers, pastors, priests, and nuns called the West End Alliance of Churches and Ministries.  One of its leaders was the Reverend Maurice McCrackin, whose community church lay in the heart of the neighborhood.  He introduced the CLT to his peers.

The Rev. McCrackin had himself been introduced to the core concepts embodied in the model several times over the years.  He Clarence Jordanwas an old friend of Koinonia’s founder, Clarence Jordan.  In 1968, when Jordan announced a new direction for Koinonia, laying out his plan for developing affordable housing on leased land in a mimeographed letter mailed out to 2000 Friends of Koinonia, McCrackin would certainly have received a copy.  Much earlier, the Rev. McCrackin would have likely made the acquaintance of Bob and Marjorie Swann, who were members of Peacemakers, a pacifist Chuck Mattheinetwork headquartered outside of Cincinnati.  But the person who sealed the deal on the CLT, convincing the Rev. McCrackin that a community land trust might address some of problems of dilapidation, displacement, and incipient gentrification in the West End, was a young friend named Chuck Matthei.

Matthei was the executive director of the Institute for Community Economics. In 1980, he happened to be visiting his old friend and mentor in Cincinnati, Maurice McCrackin, when the Reverend got a call about one of his neighbors being evicted.  As he scrambled to CLCC-Vivian Maxwell-1st leaseholder&RevMcCrackinfind temporary housing for Vivian Maxwell and her children, he asked Matthei whether he had any ideas for how a more permanent solution to Ms. Maxwell’s housing problem might be found.  Matthei suggested forming a community land trust.

After a series of community meetings convened by the West End CLCC-Board of Directors-1981Alliance of Churches and Ministries, the decision was made to create a CLT, named the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati (CLCC).  The organization’s first president was Sr. Barbara Wheeler, a CLCC-Sister Barbara Wheeler-first board presidentDominican Sister of the Sick Poor, who lived near the Rev. McCrackin’s church.  The first property acquired by the newly formed CLCC was a house that was immediately conveyed to Vivian Maxwell.

Despite its urban surroundings, the CLCC bore a striking resemblance to the CLTs that had been previously established in rural areas.  Like the Woodland CLT in Tennessee and the Covenant CLT in Maine, the Community Land Cooperative served a Cincinnati's West End-1984population that had been excluded from the economic and political mainstream.  It was a product of grassroots organizing and a vehicle for community empowerment: a means for controlling the fate of an impoverished inner-city neighborhood, while involving the neighborhood’s residents in the CLT’s activities and governance.

It was also a vehicle for controlling the resale prices of any homes developed through the CLT.  The Community Land Cooperative was Anti-gentrification protest signs-1984created, in part, to serve as a bulwark against gentrification.  It was believed by CLCC’s founders that simply removing land from the speculative market would not do enough to preserve the affordability of Willie Watts-1st CLCC executive director
CLCC’s homes or to prevent the displacement of the neighborhood’s lower-income residents.  From the beginning, therefore, the CLCC imposed permanent contractual controls over the pricing and conveyance of any homes developed on the CLT’s lands.

The CLCC received no financial or political assistance from the City of Cincinnati during its formative years. This was due, in part, to the reluctance of the organization’s religious leaders to accept public funds of any kind, but it was also due to the CLCC’s outspoken opposition to municipal policies and plans that threatened to displace the neighborhood’s long-time residents. Consequently the CLCC was forced to look for sources of funding other than government to purchase its first homes. Most of the equity came from religious sources. Most of the financing came from the Institute for Community Economics, which used money from social investors to offer loans at a low rate of interest. ICE also helped to supplement CLCC’s one-person staff, as the organization began JohnDavis&MauriceMcCrackin-Washington DC March for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom -1984adding property to its small portfolio, by sending a member of its own staff to Cincinnati. From 1983-1984, John Davis divided his time between assisting CLCC and serving as ICE’s representative, providing technical assistance to start-up CLTs in the Southeast.

The inspiring example and early success of the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati encouraged other neighborhood activists to start CLTs in their own cities, similar to the way in which the example of New Communities Inc. had inspired the formation of many rural CLTs in the 1970s.  The number of urban CLTs grew rapidly during the second half of the 1980s, a development that was nurtured by the Institute for Community Economics.  ICE used the Common Ground-1985-title slideCLCC’s story – told in The Community Land Trust Handbook, published in 1982, and Common Ground, a slide show produced by ICE in 1985, to introduce community land trusts to a wider audience.  Increasingly, that audience was to found in communities that were urban or suburban, instead of rural.


  • Rev McCrackinJudith A Bechtel and Robert M. Coughlin, Building the Beloved Community: Maurice McCrackin’s Life for Peace and Civil Rights  (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991).
  • Community Media Productions, Common Ground (A narrated slide show featuring the Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati, commissioned by the Institute for Community Economics, 1985.  Available elsewhere on the Roots&Branches website, under VIDEOs).
  • John Emmeus Davis, Contested Ground: Collective Action and the Urban Neighborhood (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
  • Institute for Community Economics, “Columbia Heights, Washington D.C.,” Pp. 76-90 (Chapter 6), in The Community Land Trust Handbook (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982).
  • Institute for Community Economics, “Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati,” Pp. 91-103 (Chapter 7), in The Community Land Trust Handbook (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982).
  • Dan McKanan, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2011).
  • David R. Swartz, Moral Minority:
The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).