What do we mean by ‘community’?

Home K Research and opinion K What do we mean by ‘community’?

Blog authored by Tom Chance, Co-Chief Executive at the National CLT Network

Almost a decade ago I worked at the Greater London Authority, where I helped London CLT secure their homes in the St Clements development. Citizens were organising for their own power over land and housing. Unsurprisingly, those who held the power were reluctant to give it up.

One barrier I recall was the Mayor’s advisers agonising over who ‘the community’ was in a city of nine million people, where neighbourhood boundaries are hard to pin down. Was a self-selecting community democratic? Would a CLT do anything that housing associations weren’t already doing? Could communities actually do anything at scale?

It was all too easy for them to use these questions to quietly sideline CLTs.

But the questions are interesting, and worth reflecting on.

Where is the ‘community’ in American CLTs?

In the USA, where CLTs originated, there is a lively debate about the evolution of the movement since civil rights organisers created the first CLT in Albany, Georgia in 1969. Many American CLTs are now initiated, top-down, by local government and their focus is on providing as many affordable homes as possible. Some people have complained that CLTs are losing their community focus and roots.

It’s reminiscent of the debate about British housing associations. Most started with strong community roots and a mission to alleviate poverty, but in recent years some have been accused of ignoring and trampling over local communities and building increasingly unaffordable homes.

Emily Thaden and Tony Pickett, who work for our sister network in the US, have responded to the American debate. They agree that too much focus on scale can lead to a paternalistic and superficial community involvement. But they also argue that too much emphasis on local community control can leave CLTs without support from government, developers and investors, so they fail in their mission to take control of neighbourhood land and disappoint their communities. Thaden and Pickett suggest successful CLTs need to reconcile the two so they ‘scale up community control’.

One CLT in America that has done this is Rondo CLT, in St Paul, Minnesota. It was founded by black community organisers after their community was decimated by an Interstate road in the 1950s and 60s. Over the years it expanded rapidly, reaching beyond the bounds of the Rondo neighbourhood to cover St Paul. But when funding pressures hit, the members and board made a conscious decision to refocus on the Rondo area, where the CLT could also help resist the gentrification of shops and other commercial space to protect the existing local community. The CLT remains rooted in community organising, and gives the community power and control over the changes in their neighbourhood.

This story is picked out in another interesting American paper on ‘the production of community in CLTs’. They describe four different kinds of ‘community’ that could be produced through a CLT:

  1. Community control, where the CLT’s activities and strategies come from the organising energy of its members (and not just from a paternalistic board).
  2. A community of neighbours, whose relationships and community life are enriched by being members of the CLT and residents in CLT homes.
  3. A more abstract community of purpose, where CLT residents share the aims of the CLT and trust that the CLT’s staff and board will stay focused on that purpose.
  4. A future community of residents who can benefit from the CLT’s activities, extending even to future generations so that CLTs steward land for the changing community.

In the authors’ view, most CLTs in the state of Minnesota – which are very different to most British CLTs – fail to really tick the first two boxes, but achieve the third and fourth.

What’s happening this side of the pond?

CLTs don’t need to tick every box, and the extent to which CLTs are led by their members, or enable a richer community life for their residents, varies a lot across England and Wales. It’s a good exercise to reflect on that list and think which of those kinds of community your CLT is managing to create.

Some CLTs are trying to blend the CLT concept with cohousing. They hold the land in trust, controlled by the wider community. They also building homes and shared facilities in a way that creates a richer community life. Maybe they tick all four boxes?

For our movement ‘community’ is the USP. While CLTs have pioneered better forms of affordability, and might build to higher standards, the fundamental difference between a CLT and a council, housing association or private developer is the ‘community’ element.

CLTs can be initiated by a council or developer, but the community control needs to be built from the bottom up. That’s not easy. It takes time and skill to reach out to diverse communities in your local area, to get them interested and then involved. It’s even harder if you are starting out as a group of busy people with low paying jobs, or if you’re all of a particular demographic with few connections with the other diverse local communities.

That’s why we launched the Cohesive Communities Fund, to give cash and support to 16 CLTs determined to build a larger, more diverse and engaged membership. We hope to attract more sponsors to widen this programme.

We also created a Local Advocacy Toolkit that has lots of tips for achieving this. Strong community roots give you legitimacy and power, and so help you to build a positive relationship with your council so you can ‘scale up community control’. Contact us for more information on the toolkit or the CCF.

What’s clear looking across the pond, and to me talking to the many CLTs we have here, is that we can’t be complacent about community. If we’re to avoid a mission drift, as some allege about American CLTs and British housing associations, CLT boards and members need to make a conscious effort to put ‘community’ at the heart of your CLT.