Commercial Community Land Trust

For 40 years, community land trusts have pioneered a new approach to affordable housing. Now, a handful of CLTs are exploring what it would look like to bring the model to commercial spaces.

Some CLTs find themselves getting into commercial when building housing in an area where zoning calls for retail on the ground floor. Others are more proactive, and see commercial CLTs as a solution to neighborhood needs that the market doesn’t meet.

“If you’re going to rebuild neighborhoods, you need quality housing,” explains Michael Brown, a consultant with Burlington Associates, and one of the leaders in the commercial CLT field. “But you also need a grocery store that sells fresh produce.”

There are challenges. Because CLTs have built up around housing, moving into commercial spaces means that organizations have to take on new capacity. It also means higher prices for property, and unlike with affordable housing, there are few resources dedicated to commercial development that non-profit organizations can access. Savvy groups, however, are finding options, such as using the New Markets Tax Credit program.

Because of these hurdles, many of the CLTs that are getting into commercial spaces are beginning with more community-oriented uses, like community centers and business incubators, as opposed to cash-flow retail businesses.

Anchorage, Alaska is home to one CLT that is proving the potential of the model in commercial spaces. Between 2003 and 2012, the Anchorage Community Land Trust bought and developed nine commercial properties in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood, and moved in 24 commercial tenants. The area lacked a full-service bank, and so the Anchorage CLT’s first project was to turn a vacant gas station into a credit union. Next, it transformed an empty furniture warehouse into office space for non-profits. In addition to its role as developer, the Anchorage CLT also emerged as an advocate, and its efforts helped bring resources like a library and a cell phone network branch into the neighborhood.

“We understood that in order to have a successful community where people moved in and thrived and built their families, you had to have a viable business corridor that served the needs of the community,” former Executive Director Jewel Jones told two researchers from the National Community Land Trust Network in 2012.

To scale their commercial operations, CLTs will need to explore funding options. The more that groups test the waters, though, the more other groups get interested.

“I think there’s a lot of interest, and I think the interest is growing,” says Brown. “We’re still experimenting, but I feel really optimistic.”


Avatar photo
Follow Olivia LaVecchia:
Olivia LaVecchia

Olivia LaVecchia is a former senior researcher with ILSR’s Independent Business Initiative. Her work focused on building awareness and support for public policy tools that strengthen locally owned businesses and check concentrated economic power.