Public discussion over community land trusts sparks protest

Prominent local businesswoman’s push for “self-gentrification” fuels neighborhood rift

Shouting protestors drowned out the advice of bank representatives and developers at a public meeting on Sept. 6, as homeowners in Hunts Point gathered to learn about profiting off their homes amid a swath of development across the South Bronx.

Packed arm to arm in a storefront on Hunts Point Avenue, more than 30 people convened to learn about a new initiative from prominent urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, known for her work in environmental advocacy in Hunts Point, but also for her ties to big companies like FreshDirect.

Carter brought in a developer and representatives from small business lenders like the Hebrew Free Loans Society and Renaissance EDC to give homeowners advice about buying out other floors in their building, or even contracting a floor to be built above theirs. The goal was to keep people who already live and own property in the area from being bought out for cash by outside developers looking to revitalize the area, and instead, expanding and renting out units themselves, according to Carter’s spokesperson and husband James Chase.

But the meeting quickly descended into a screaming match on the sidewalk of Hunts Point Avenue. About 20 young artists and activists chanted outside of the storefront, “Majora Carter, we won’t let you sell us out. If you try to gentrify, we will come and take you out.”

The protestors, joined by local activist group Take Back the Bronx, said they were skeptical of Carter’s motives in her new initiative, which she’s titled the Hunts Point/Longwood Community Land Trust. They took aim at Carter’s idea of “self-gentrification” — that if community members have the right resources, they can profit off development instead of being pushed out.

“We are concerned about our displacement,” said Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx. “She is concerned about profit. (Protesting the event) is more of a shaming of her than anything.”

Carter used the same phrase “community land trust” that a grassroots group known as the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards has used to draw attention to its own award-winning project. Activists Monxo Lopez and Mychal Johnson led a group that was selected among five finalists across the city for a partnership with national nonprofit Design Trust which will help Mott Haven-based grassroots group South Bronx Unite revitalize underused land in their neighborhood, including a public health building they’re flipping into a community center. 

Community Land Trusts have been popping up around the country, and gained traction in New York City last year. In a traditional CLT, volunteer designers map out and take ownership over abandoned or underused public buildings and let the community decide what the land can be used for, usually involving affordable housing or communal hubs.

Land trusts can make communities better, Lopez said, but they can also serve to stagnate outside development. If CLTs are taking over underused public spaces, this leaves less room for private developers.

So Lopez was confused when he saw a flyer in early September inviting Hunts Point residents to a land trust spearheaded by Majora Carter, a name he associates with private development.

“To me, there is nothing further from a community land trust than what she’s trying to do,” Lopez said.

Carter is a divisive figure in the South Bronx.

Nearly a decade ago, she was seen as an ally to activists in the area. As the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, she blocked city plans to expand waste treatment facilities in Hunts Point and led one of the nation’s first urban green-collar job training and placement systems. But many soured on Carter when she she signed on as a spokesperson for FreshDirect in 2013, an online grocery company that, despite much opposition, officially moved its headquarters to Port Morris this summer. South Bronx Unite organized protests to oppose the city’s plan to bring FreshDirect to the neighborhood, arguing that the company’s delivery trucks would worsen the existing air pollution problem that contributes to the area’s high asthma rates.

Carter’s land trust isn’t associated with the nationwide movement, but her supporters argue that her approach is still centered on preserving the community.

If ordinary residents have access to the right loans and advice, Carter says they can take control of the development happening in the long-impoverished South Bronx, and steer it in the right direction, said Jose Galves, a phD student at the New School who said he frequently works with Carter.

“She wants to bring in homeowners who live in the Bronx and tell them do not sell your homes because together we can make it,” Galves said. “Together we can build a neighborhood.”

Chase said that when nonprofits and philanthropy groups introduce things like community centers and health clinics into an area, they’re assuming that everyone in a community wants the same thing.

“Community land trusts, in my mind, are a way of denying wealth creation to minorities,” Chase said. “They’re well meaning, but it infantilizes even the concept of ownership and takes it out of the hands of people who have been historically excluded.”

Protestors argued that it benefits Carter’s consulting business, the Majora Carter Group, to bring in outside developers to the South Bronx, even if it is to help homeowners stay in their homes. But Chase said her motives are different.

“We are trying to entrench local home ownership and make sure these people stay,” Chase said. “Anybody who claims that we are proposing that what this neighborhood needs is new people is lying.”

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