Imagining Collective Ownership: Community Land Trusts versus Amazon’s HQ2
By Max Scott and Veronica Olivotto
A RESILIENCE essay series in collaboration with the Urban Systems Lab. Read part two here: Sea Level Rise and Flood Vulnerability on the Western Queens Waterfront: How Community Land Trusts May Support Longer term Resilience in Western Queens
The last two decades of New York City’s history has been marked by extreme growth. From the Hudson Yards to the unprecedented high-rise towers of Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City, New York has grown upward at a rate not matched in over half a century. New York’s housing stock has increased by over 262,000 units since the year 2000, but the benefits of this growth have not been equitably, much less equally, shared. In many cases, this growth has meant gentrification and greenwashing of working class neighborhoods of color.
Long Island City, Queens was home to various declining industrial businesses in the 1970s and 80s, but began to see a renewal in the late 90s and early 2000s as a combination of artists and immigrants moved into the old warehouses and tenements. The New York City graffiti mecca known as 5pointz was in many ways the culmination of this cultural explosion, until it was whitewashed and torn down to build two, fifty-story luxury condo towers. The story of 5pointz is a microcosm of the larger story of Long Island City (LIC) in the past decade. Both rental and housing prices rose dramatically over the last few years, with two bedroom apartments now renting for $4,291 a month and average sales prices jumping from $732,700 in 2012 to 1.1 million in 2017. Concurrently, the median household income (MHI) in LIC increased from $59,464 to $79,180 from 2017 to 2019 — just two years! Crucially, this jump in MHI does not mean that long term LIC residents started earning more. Given that 79% of the residents of Long Island City have moved to the neighborhood between 2008 and 2018, this rise in MHI is likely due to the influx of wealthier residents. All of this growth in wealth comes at the same time as NYCHA is $40 billion dollars in debt and its largest housing project — Queensbridge Houses located in Long Island City, and in fact the largest housing project in North America — faces overdue repairs and a median household income of only $15,483. In 2017, after more than 9,000 new units of housing were completed, real estate prices in LIC continued to skyrocket, but dissatisfaction with the status-quo was brewing.
On September 23rd, 2017 Amazon announced that it was planning to build a second headquarters in North America. However, Amazon wasn’t simply going to choose a city and start building, instead they wanted cities to compete for what they were dubbing “HQ2'’ and the 25,000 jobs it was heralded to bring. Throughout the next year, cities across the country offered a multitude of different concessions to the tech giant. Amazon was offered it all: from a small city in Georgia promising to rename itself “Amazon” to New York pledging somewhere between 1.7 and 3 billion dollars in tax breaks if Amazon builds in the state.
After slightly more than a year of silence from Amazon, the company announced that it planned to build two campuses, one in Long Island City, New York and the other in Crystal City, Virginia. As for the Long Island City campus, it would consist of a collection of high-rise mixed-use towers, likely with commercial space on the ground floor and offices on the above forty or fifty floors — all built on a mix of publicly and privately owned land. There would also be a “park” along the waterfront, which would consist mainly of a glorified sidewalk with a few benches and trees adjacent to the Anable Basin and East River. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo rejoiced at this news, while many state and local politicians waited to see their constituents’ reaction. Community organizing in opposition to Amazon’s HQ2 began almost instantly, with rallies, meetings, and protests being held throughout the cold December and January months. Following this wave of community opposition, City and State elected officials like Jimmy Van Bramer and Michael Gianaris began to bad-mouth the company’s plan. They even appeared and made speeches at anti-Amazon protests in Long Island City.
One major contention that local politicians and community activists had with the plan was how it was being implemented. It was announced, along with Amazon’s arrival in LIC, that the project would not go through the standard city-controlled Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), but through a state-controlled General Project Plan (GPP). While neither ULURP nor GPP are community-based planning — they almost couldn’t be further from it — ULURP does allow some advisory input from the community, whereas a GPP would almost entirely circumvent any local input. According to the New York City Charter, all projects that require a rezoning must go through ULURP. Because the land on which Amazon wanted to build offices was largely zoned M1, meaning industrial, they would have had to apply for a rezoning and complete ULURP. Using a GPP, Amazon, in cooperation with Cuomo and de Blasio, could effectively side-step any levers of democratic control in the development process. Anti-Amazon organizers pounced on this issue and were able to easily sway local politicians to their side once these politicians realized that not only their constituents, but they themselves were being cut out of the planning process.
Suspicion and anger about HQ2 mounted as articles hinting at back-room deals between de Blasio, Cuomo, and Amazon were published. At the same time, Amazon’s long-running firm stance against organized labor did not sit well with New York’s powerful retail and construction unions. The combination of these two factors made their new LIC campus seem increasingly like a blatant land grab.
As December headed into January, Amazon began their public relations advertising campaign. They purchased ads in newspapers and even sent flyers directly to people’s homes lauding their planned $5 billion investment ($3 billion of which would be paid for by New York State and City tax breaks) and 25,000 jobs. But the protests continued to grow. At both the December and January City Council hearings on the Amazon deal, the gallery was packed with people holding signs saying “AmazNO” and “HQ2SCAM” as Councilmembers like Van Bramer and Speaker Johnson berated Amazon reps with questions about back-room deals, egregious tax breaks, and lack of community involvement. But just as quickly as the fight fired up, it was extinguished. On Valentine’s Day, 2019, just a few days after the second raucous City Council hearing, Amazon abruptly abandoned the LIC location for its second headquarters and announced that it will be leaving NYC all together.
Community leaders and activists celebrated Amazon’s departure widely and loudly, but their victory was short-lived. It was global, unregulated capitalism and unwanted, undemocratic luxury real estate development that had been destroying New York City neighborhoods for decades, but that destructive force suddenly had a name: Amazon. This anti-Amazon organizing also helped galvanize the campaign of insurgent democratic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to steal the primary from the establishment incumbent. Now that the corporate giant had been vanquished, organizers needed a new goal.
Two people who stood out as leaders during the Amazon battle were Jenny Dubnau and Memo Salazar. Jenny is an artist who was kicked out of LIC by rising rents and has lived in Jackson Heights for 20 years. Memo is a filmmaker, small-business owner, and a Sunnyside resident for over 20 years. They both realized the need for a new organizing goal and decided to set their sights on the massive Department of Education (DoE) building in Long Island City. This building, located at 44th Drive and Vernon Boulevard and boasting more than 650,000 square feet of floor space, was one of the three publicly-owned parcels of land that were slated for donation to the Amazon deal. But suddenly the building was no longer part of a giant development project, and if the City was willing and able to evict the DoE from that building to make way for Amazon, why couldn’t the City give it to the community? Thus, the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT) was born both as a way to keep the blossoming community organizing movement alive, but also as a means to building collective ownership over a piece of land.
A community land trust was chosen as the preferred model of ownership because it appeared to be the antithesis of the development strategy occurring in the area. Instead of donating public land to a private development project, the land should be kept in the hands of the community through the long-term democratic stewardship of a community land trust (CLT). Turning the DoE building into a CLT would first mean a change of ownership. The deed to the land would transfer from the City to the WQCLT. This would instantly guarantee that the City could no longer give the building to a private developer as part of an Amazon-style mega-project. But CLTs don’t just preserve land from luxury development, they are also a tool that communities can use to take control of their future. This is because the Board of a CLT is split into three parts: community members, leaseholders, and expert advisors. Community members are simply people who live in the immediate neighborhood that surrounds the building or buildings that the CLT owns. Leaseholders are people or businesses who lease space in the CLT-owned buildings. In most cases, these people are lower-income renters, homeowners, or small businesses owners who are looking for affordable prices. Expert advisors are lawyers, housing policy experts, and academics in related fields who can advise the Board of the CLT on decisions like how to pursue legal acquisition of a building or how to debt finance a construction project. This Board structure means that leaseholders and community members hold a two thirds majority, which prevents projects from being rammed through without the consent of the community.
In addition to preventing luxury development and creating a democratic structure to manage land, CLTs are also active players in the fight against climate change. The Homestead Community Land Trust in King County, Washington is currently building twelve new multi-family “net-zero” townhouses that use a combination of solar panels and weatherization to ensure that they don’t use more energy than they produce. The Florida Keys CLT in Monroe County, Florida has been buying properties in the Keys that were destroyed or abandoned during Hurricane Irma. Through a combination of public and private funding, the CLT is then redeveloping these properties into elevated, hurricane-resistant affordable housing for residents of the county. In the case of the WQCLT, the organization would need a large sum of money to truly make the DoE building and the surrounding land resilient. But even with a few million dollars of government support the CLT could repair the building’s aging and broken freight elevators, move the basement boilers up to the second or third floor, and even potentially build a rooftop farm that could feed a community-run food coop. Within the ballpark of a hundred million dollars, the CLT could begin to build out a wetlands park on the surrounding land that would act as a storm-surge absorption mechanism and prevent flooding in the surrounding neighborhood.
While there are many hurdles to realizing a CLT in the DoE building, none of them are insurmountable, and even a small amount of government support could open up a world of possibility. The whole point of a community land trust is to collectively steward land in perpetuity. This way of relating to land and people is fundamentally different from our current set of relations. CLTs treat land and buildings as homes not commodities, and value people more than profit. CLTs offer democratic and diffuse power to local communities, whereas in our current system wealth and power concentrate over time. Lastly, CLTs can more adequately address the threat of climate-change induced sea level rise because they view land and communities on long-term time horizons, rather than five or ten year return-on-investment calculations. In sum, CLTs aim to do what New York urbanist and activist Tom Angotti asks, that we follow “The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, [which] states that ‘In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.’”
Thank you to Jenny Dubnau, Memo Salazar, Nandini Bagchee, James Mongeluzo, James Defilippis, and Cecille de Laurentis for their help answering questions related to land-use around the DoE building, DoE building code regulations, and the functioning of community-based planning.
Max Scott is an undergraduate senior majoring in Liberal Arts and double minoring in Urban Studies and Capitalism Studies. His interests lie in a few different but related areas including political economy, urbanism and cities, and environmental gentrification and social justice. He currently co-chairs the Outreach Committee of the Western Queens Community Land Trust (WQCLT), and also writes about issues of gentrification and housing policy on his website Buildings of New York. He worked as the Urban Climate and Science editor for Resilience Quarterly at the Urban Systems Lab. You are also likely to find him at the Languages Department’s Spanish Socials
Veronica Olivotto is a researcher, teacher and consultant with a keen interest in social justice and its relation to urban climate change adaptation, resilience and flood risk reduction. She is a PhD Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab and a PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. @V_Olivotto