A pink and yellow map with several plots outlined in red.
A map of the plots of land that are part of the the Down the Marsh Community Land Trust. Photo: Contributed

An old idea is finding its way to Nova Scotia that may help preserve plots of land where communities can build affordable housing.  

The United Way Halifax and several partners are exploring the idea of creating a community land trust (CLT) in the Halifax area. According to Kevin Hooper, the manager of partnerships and community development with United Way, the CLT was one of six ideas the organization identifed three years ago when they were looking at strategic project priorities that originated with the Housing and Homelessness Partnership. 

“Based on that research, we decided that it was something with the potential not only to address affordable housing issues at an immediate level, but at a more systemic level, which is really the big goal,” Hooper said.   

Community land trusts are non-profit organizations that hold a piece of land for the benefit of the community. Assets on CLTs can include not only affordable housing, but also social enterprises, community gardens, and other spaces to be used for the community’s benefit. The land itself is taken off the marketplace while the houses can be purchased or rented by residents. The goal is to keep the housing, whether single-family units or apartments, affordable for the tenants long term.

“The community land trust is a model that tries to impose a new and different systemic model in the housing market,” Hooper said. “You’re taking the resources of a trust and buying property and assets under the condition that those assets remain in a community’s hands, one way or another, in perpetuity, therefore you’re kind of eliminating that inflationary pressure that’s the major problem right now.”

“Increasingly, housing is becoming unaffordable and unattainable. We need a system that really intervenes in that. The community land trust is a system that is separate, autonomous, and geared toward the interests of low and moderate income households. That extended benefit is that it still lets the private sector do what it does. They can go on and provide service to those who can afford their services. Meanwhile, we can have another system that ensures everybody else has some options.”

The Halifax CLT is funded CMHC Innovation Fund and there are several partners involved, including HRM’s planning department, the office of Mayor Mike Savage, Housing Nova Scotia, and the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre. Davis Pier Consulting is supporting project in research and design. Community Land Trust 902 and the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust are taking part, too.  

Hopper said the CLT is in the research stage and the partners are looking at how the model can look, but also how it can be applied in different contexts. 

“Our idea is not to go to community with a pre-formed model and saying, ‘this is what we’re doing. Are you interested?’” Hopper said. “We’re going to community with the basics, the elemental pieces of a community land trust, saying this is how it works, these are the various ways it can be applied. What are your thoughts about that relative to your needs? How can this work for your purposes? How can we work together to create a model that will serve as broad a population as possible?” 

The Halifax CLT can be about more than housing. Hooper said they’re also looking at of potential functions, including leasing opportunities for non-profits, commercial leases, and other community assets like a community garden spaces.

Hooper said the design of the Halifax CLT will be informed by the community’s interests and perspectives. The community will also decided who the operator of the trust will be.

“United Way and our partners are leading the research and development of this project, but we are relying on the community to tell us who they consider a suitable operator,” Hooper said. “Our job is to give them a sense of the opportunities, risks, responsibilities, etc., and consider their suggestions as to who can best fill the role.”

Hooper said that applies to the governance model as well and that the board will be composed of representatives to ensure the “greatest level of equity.”

CLTs are a relatively new concept in Nova Scotia, and Hooper said the United Way and its partners have been researching and speaking with operators of CLTs elsewhere, including the BC Community Land Trust that’s housed within the BC Cooperative Housing Federation. That CLT has been operating for about 30 years.

The Halifax CLT has also looked at the Hamilton CLT, which is a grassroots start-up, Homespace in Calgary, which offers leasing opportunities to a number of non-profit service providers, and the Brussels CLT that provides support to new CLT projects, besides operating its own portfolio of housing assets.  

The Halifax CLT doesn’t have any land yet, although Hooper said there are possibilities out there.

“There’s a certain level of extrapolation to say we know there is a new surplus land policy with the province, the city has a new surplus land policy. So do the feds,” Hooper said. “We had private land holders express interest in donations. There are multiple potential sources of land. That’s part of the research and engagement element to this. Where are those resources and how do we best position ourselves to get access to them.”

An intersection of two streets looking at a plot of land where there are trees and yellow benches.
Lot #29 on the PID map viewing from Ford Street in Truro. Photo: Contributed

In Truro, another community land trust is in the early stages in one of that town’s historic Black communities known as The Marsh. Over the years because of industrialization, development, and environmental racism, Black residents of The Marsh left the community. Dr. Lynn Jones is one of the last few residents of the community; she says there are about two-and-a-half households left (she calls herself the “half” since she spends half of her time in Halifax).

Jones tried several initiatives to preserve the culture and history of The Marsh, including efforts to save one of its historic homes, as well as idea for a reparations institute. It was through a presentation on that latter idea that Jones connected with CLT902, formerly known as the North End CLT . Together they put together an application to get funding from CMHC to start a CLT in The Marsh.

The Down the Marsh Community Land Trust has an operational consultant, a community engagement consultant, and administrative employee. Students from Dalhousie University’s planning program are volunteering their time, too. Kevin Hooper with United Way is part of their advisory board. The CLT will have a permanent board in place next year.

And the trust already has the land; a number of plots in the Cross Street area in Truro owned by Jones herself.

“What I like about community land trusts is that the land becomes controlled by the whole community and not by individuals,” Jones said. “The land is completely removed from the open market. We’re able to design who the land will benefit. In this case, we’re looking at the African Nova Scotian community, first of all Truro, and their descendants.”

“The land remains in the hands of the community in perpetuity. I love that aspect. We can go to rest knowing we preserved something we lost so much of in this time.” 

Natasha Gray, who is the community engagement consultant working with the CLT, said they’re working a communication plan so they can start letting the community know what’s happening with the CLT, and what the land trust could look like.

Gray, who has a background working in employment and health, said she understands how the “fundamentals of life impact your whole life.”

“When you see something as basic as housing that everyone doesn’t have access to, adequate, safe housing, that excites me about (the CLT). People can start building wealth being part of this community land trust and feel comfortable and safe in their home and feel that there won’t be those great effects of those market turndowns.” 

Gray said they’ll do as much outreach as they can to connect with current and former residents of Truro and Down the Marsh who want to learn more about the CLT. They’ll also have a website, social media, and knock on doors to keep people connected. 

Jone said in their research, they learned about the history of community land trusts, including the story of a CLT started by Black farmers in rural Georgia. As part of its research, the founders of that CLT spent a month in Israel learning about the kibbutz and moshav models of agricultural communities that were developed on lands leased from the Jewish National Fund.

Jones said she was “overjoyed” to learn that piece of history about these trusts.

“It started in the African American community and it’s still operating to this day,” Jones said.

Gray said one of the focuses of the CLT is to preserve the history of Down the Marsh. 

“We always want to have an Afrocentric lens when we’re doing this work,” she said. “We do want to focus on making sure people understand the history of the Black community in Truro, not just the Marsh, but the other historic Black communities in the area (The Hill and The Island). That will be one of the pieces we ask the community: if we’re going to use that Afrocentric lens, what would that look like to you as a community. Especially in the Black community where we have that rich history that’s not always written down.” 

Jones said she likes the collaboration and creative pieces about community land trusts, which can include more than housing. She’s thinking a reparations institute and maybe an artists’ network. 

Jone also said her reasons for wanting the land trust are a bit “self-serving.” 

“When I started amassing this land, I had concerns because I thought, ‘What happens when I die?’ Somebody comes along, they inherit the property, they sell it, they make money, and you’re right back into that whole amassing of personal wealth that really bothers me. The greatest thing for me is that I won’t have to worry about that. I could sell it myself and make money, which is what developers, and what have you, want you to do.” 

“This way you preserve the history of the community and the people of the community. I often say, ‘I want my people back.’ That’s what drives me. That’s the passion for me. You got most of (the land), but you didn’t get this piece and our people are coming back to reclaim what is rightfully ours.  

Three people sit at a table smiling for a photo. Behind them is a whiteboard with words and phrases written all over it
Curtis Whiley, left, Dr. Lynn Jones, and Brian Giffprd at a meeting about the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust. Photo: Contributed/Curtis Whiley

A community land trust in another historic Black community is also looking to preserve its land and history for current and future residents.

Curtis Whiley grew up in Upper Hammonds Plains and is a sixth generation African Nova Scotia. His great-great-great grandfather came to Upper Hammonds Plains in 1815 as an emancipated slave and started a sawmill in the community. 

Whiley said a couple of years ago, he and a few residents started looking at the community’s history and really understanding where they came from and how they can have more say in what happens in Upper Hammonds Plains.   

“The people who have come before us, our family members, have really fought for this community,” Whiley said. 

Together they started a little group to talk about the issues in community, including development, increase in traffic, and people using the community spaces, but not respecting them.

“Out of that, a few of us decided a community land trust would be the best mechanism for us to take control,” said Whiley. So the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust (CLT) was created. Its partners include Housing Nova Scotia and Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association. 

Whiley said the trust doesn’t have land yet, but there are a number of parcels in the community. That includes a piece of communal land that is owned by the Melvin Land Tract Protection Society, group of community residents who are responsible for overseeing the activities that occur on that parcel of about 1,400 acres that was granted to the community by Queen Victoria in 1855.  

There are other parcels, too, including those owned by the municipality and historical parcels that are still in the names of the original settlers.  

“Some of the work of the land trust is investigating how we can gain possession or title to a number of interesting title issues for land there,” Whiley said. 

Whiley said the committee advocated for the rezoning of Upper Hammonds Plains.

“Folks can build whatever they want without putting out those notices you’re used to seeing,” Whiley said. “A proposal on a sign that says they’re going to engage the community. None of that is necessary in our community. So, what happens is we see a lot that is clearcut and then suddenly we’ll see a flyer on Facebook of a rendering of a new development that’s coming. For us, it goes back to this place of things happening in our community but having no control over them.” 

“We want to get in a position where we have an idea of what’s happening in our community without it being too restrictive, but us having an understand of what’s happening and what’s being proposed.”

Whiley said they’re further off from building homes than they’d like to be. He said once they got funding for the trust and started investigating the parcels, they realized there are more barriers than they found. For example, they have to work with Halifax Water because some of the parcels are in a watershed protection area.  

“Through the work of land trust, we’ve really been able to mobilize a broader community conversation, which needed to be had in terms of us all getting on the same page, having a shared community vision. Those are really important,” Whiley said. “What I am understanding from working in other places, both in Nova Scotia and abroad, that’s what really starts the foundation is when everyone is on the same page and we’re all moving toward this shared goal. That’s what we’re focused on now.” 

But the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust is not just about building housing for the community; it’s also about preserving the community’s history.

“This is a model that’s not really been used in Atlantic Canada for this purpose. Community land trusts have a history, a Black history that I think because of the unique history of our communities here it’s something we have to be using,” Whiley said. “I think it’s going to enable us to build significant capacity in our communities, in terms of people capacity and also financial capacity, for us to address some of those issues. Because of years of systemic discrimination, we don’t have the same capacity in terms of having developers, engineers, planners, and all the people that you need to put together to make these things happen. For us, it’s about developing partnerships with these types of critical stakeholders so we can really build that capacity and build project through to completion.” 

While CLTs are built from the vision of the community, Whiley said he has a vision of what he’d like to see.  

“I picture us being able to develop our own communities, subdivisions in particular, which have modest housing, so it fills step along the housing continuum that we don’t really think about.” 

“These types of housing just don’t exist in our communities. You see market housing and rental housing. The gap just keeps growing and it becomes more unattainable. I think having more adequate, safe housing to see what’s attainable in their community will help people to visualize themselves being homeowners and to make those steps toward their own financial independence.” 

“If you think of our neighbouring communities and the developments that are going on there, they are so far out of reach. And it’s disheartening for people to think they can’t ever get there.” 

People at a meeting listening to a speaker
Residents attend a zoning meeting for the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust. Photo: Curtis Whiley

This month and through the fall months, all three of these CLTs will start talking with the community about their projects. In Upper Hammonds Plains, Whiley said that CLT will be organizing a retreat with other organizations in the community for this month. He’s been working on the CLT himself for about 18 months, but he says they will work on putting together a board of directors and creating a strategic plan that relates to certain parcels of land. 

“Community land trusts will be a significant part of our community’s collective empowerment over the next five to 10 years,” Whiley said. “These organizations will be the mechanisms to facilitate community transformation. I am so excited there is capacity building in this CLT and community housing space and we’re really building communities here.” 

Meanwhile in Truro, Gray said they will host community engagement sessions this fall to talk about the Down the Marsh CLT. Once those sessions are done, Gray said she’ll report back to the board on what they heard. The planning students from Dalhousie University will work on asset mapping and community profiles.  

“When we’re engaging with the community, we want to find out what that demographic of community would look like that would actually come and support this project,” Gray said. “One of the things we want to make sure gets out there is that affordable housing doesn’t always mean low-income housing. Affordable housing means you can live comfortably within your home.” 

Hooper said the Halifax CLT has already started reaching out to people and organizations that are critical to getting the CLT off the ground. Larger community conversations will start this month.

“We want to have a good sense going in, so we’re not contemplating options that won’t ever be feasible.” 

Hooper said they’d like to be a model for CLTs in Nova Scotia, adding its part of their mandate to get the word out about what they’re learning through the entire process. That’s already happening as all three CLTs work together. 

“We certainly have an interest in supporting others with what we learned and the resources we’re able to share. It’s relatively early days for that, but come next year when we’re further down the road on this we’ll start pursuing an information sharing agenda and going out and communicating what we’ve done and opening up the possibility of partnering with others on how they can do this in their own communities.”  

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Thanks for this excellent story about what’s happening with Community Land Trusts in NS, Suzanne. The idea has great potential to create substantial numbers of non market affordable homes and to help empower Black communities.