Partner Spotlight of the Month: John Emmeus Davis
Urban Land Conservancy celebrates the achievements of our partnerships that create and preserve nonprofit facilities and affordable housing for communities.
ULC’s Monthly Partner Spotlight shines a light on partners who demonstrate the value of collaboration, furthering our mission to improve the lives of Metro Denver residents and beyond through our real estate investments and community assets.
Congratulations to our June 2020 Partner Spotlight of the Month: John Emmeus Davis!
As Urban Land Conservancy’s CEO, Aaron Miripol, puts it, “John Davis has been our guru of community land trusts.” A true expert in the field, he has more than 40 years of experience providing technical assistance to community land trusts and other nonprofit community development organizations throughout the United States, including ULC over the last decade.
Davis first became acquainted with community land trusts (CLTs) in the 1970s when he was a community organizer and social services administrator in the Appalachian region of East Tennessee. There he met Marie Cirillo, a former nun, who was in the process of creating one of the country’s first CLTs. Davis said, “Marie helped me to see the connection between the absentee ownership of the region’s landed resources and the poverty of Appalachia’s people.”
Later, while in graduate school at Cornell University, Davis had an internship working with a standard home improvement program in a predominately African-American community in Ithaca, New York. Local banks offered low-interest loans to repair the neighborhood’s housing and to promote homeownership, but they did not anticipate the inadvertent displacement of the lower-income families who had resided in the neighborhood before the new funds came in. “That fatal flaw convinced me there had to be a better way to revitalize neighborhoods,” Davis said. “Our goal should be development without displacement, which requires an entirely different approach to owning the land and controlling the re-sale of buildings – the approach embodied in the CLT.”
After finishing a Ph.D. in Community Development Planning, Davis joined the Institute for Community Economics and helped to write The Community Land Trust Handbook, published in 1982. As a member of the Institute’s staff, he also delivered technical assistance to fledgling CLTs across the country. He came to appreciate the sheer versatility and flexibility of the model and its ability to address a range of problems in a wide array of settings. He notes that a community land trust can be applied to cooperative agriculture in a rural community or can produce and preserve affordable housing in cities.
Davis later served for ten years as the city’s housing director in Burlington, Vermont, under Mayors Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. In 1993, he co-founded Burlington Associates, a national consulting cooperative to support community land trusts and other forms of permanently affordable housing. Burlington Associates specializes in the development and evaluation of public policies and nonprofit initiatives that enhance security of tenure for lower-income households by expanding access to shared equity homeownership, and by protecting the community’s investment in affordable housing, transit-oriented development, urban agriculture, and neighborhood commercial districts. Davis and his partners place an emphasis on the long-term stewardship of housing and other community assets in all their work.
“The biggest blind spot in most affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization programs in the United States is their shortsightedness. They never plan for success,” said Davis. “We look at impoverished areas, inadequate housing, and bad infrastructure and say ‘if we just pour enough money into this neighborhood, we can turn it around.’ But much of this investment is allowed to leak away, with affordability disappearing over time. Even worse, many of people, enterprises, and community facilities we intended to aid with that investment get gradually (or rapidly) pushed out. CLTs plug the hole in this leaky bucket, while acting as the long-term steward of the homes, enterprises, and facilities they helped to develop. As a CLT leader in Albuquerque used to say, ‘We are the developer that doesn’t go away.’”
Davis has authored and edited a number of texts and resources about community land trusts, including Contested Ground, The Affordable City, Shared Equity Homeownership, and the Community Land Trust Reader. He also co-produced a documentary, Arc of Justice: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Beloved Community, about the country’s first CLT. “We were only able to complete this film,” Davis recalls, “because of the support of ULC, the Rose Community Foundation, and the Colorado Trust. Here we were trying to tell this inspiring story of African-American civil rights activists in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s, who had pioneered a new approach to land ownership and community development, but we couldn’t find funders who believed in the value of this project. Until Denver stepped up.”
His most recent book, On Common Ground: International Perspectives on the Community Land Trust, was published last month by Terra Nostra Press. It was co-edited by Line Algoed, a researcher at the Center for Urban Research at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels and a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, and by Maria E. Hernandez-Torrales, an attorney in Puerto Rico who helped to create the Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña, a CLT that won a UN World Habitat Award in 2012. On Common Ground is a collection of twenty-six original essays, written by forty-two scholars and practitioners from a dozen different countries, tracing the growth and diversification of the international community land trust movement.
“We felt it was important to show that the community land trust model has expanded beyond the United States, is being used worldwide, and has enormous potential in both the Global North and the Global South. To spur its adoption among Spanish-speaking countries and communities, in particular, we have translated half-a-dozen chapters into Spanish and bound them together in a low-cost monograph. A Spanish version of the entire book will be published later this year.”
ULC has a pivotal place in this new book. It is featured in Chapter 19: Stewardship of Urban Real Estate for Long-Term Community Benefit, authored by Alan Gottlieb and Aaron Miripol. “Because of the book’s international focus, we avoided showcasing too many CLTs in the USA,” Davis said, “but we had to include ULC. It’s an exemplary case. What I admire most about ULC — and what makes it stand out in the world of CLTs — is that you’re doing large-scale rental communities and extending the reach of your CLT beyond housing to include nonprofit facilities, schools, and commercial spaces. ULC is also steadfast in its commitment to owning the land forever and ensuring that public and private investments deliver long-term community benefits, even though that is not the easiest way to do development.”
The book was in production before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus, a rise in unemployment, and protests against racial justice, but it remains extraordinarily relevant. Indeed, the book turned out to be remarkably prescient, as chapter after chapter points to the effectiveness of CLTs in protecting community assets, building social solidarity, and redistributing property and power on behalf of classes and races that have long been denied of both.
“Not only does this book highlight successful CLTs,” Davis adds, it is self-critical as well, examining how CLTs can do better; how we must up our game to serve more people; how we must enhance our dedication to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have a tool of proven effectiveness. But we must sharpen it, broaden it, and find the funding to apply it to our current situation.” “To have success in the future,” Davis said, “CLTs need to get bigger, more diverse, and finally secure the resources they need from governments, foundations, and other philanthropic partners.” As Tony Pickett, CEO of Grounded Solutions Network, has said, “to remain relevant and effective, we must not only grow in scale but also engage in communities that have been historically excluded. We are relevant, by remaining inclusive.” Tony Pickett also penned a chapter in the book entitled: The Burden of Patience in a Long March Toward Racial Justice.