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Community Land Trust Board Meeting Design Proposal

Improving Community Land Trust Board Meeting Structure to Support Resident Engagement Using Participatory Design

Jack Ratterree
September 2019

I. Purpose of the Study

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations designed to ensure long-term stewardship of land, usually to maintain affordable housing for low-income communities. In a traditional CLT model, the trust buys land within a specified area while leasing out property upon it. The separation of land and property greatly reduces the cost of the housing, preserves affordability for future generations, and protects the area from gentrification.

Recently, there has been critique of these organizations saying that they have become exclusively a means to provide affordable housing and have drifted from their original mission to build and organize communities (Defilippis, Stromberg, & Williams, 2017). While such community engagement can vary in form from financial literacy classes to shared gardens, the engagement with the most impact on CLT resident’s daily lives is the board meeting. Usually occurring every other month, board meetings are a chance for CLT staff, served residents, and surrounding community members to discuss proposed development and activities within the CLT’s range of service. However, this tripartite governance structure has been subject to much criticism, though — described as “merely necessary, not sufficient” (Defilippis et al., 2017, p. 759). Most reviewed literature points to the inherent structure of these board meetings as unaccommodating, disempowering, and intimidating towards their served residents, (Williams, 2018) most of whom have been systematically excluded from civil society already (Saegert, 2006). Structural disparities and misrepresentation in board meetings are especially important to recognize as they serve as one of the few opportunities for CLT residents to have control over the happenings in their community.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the effectiveness of board meeting structures for CLTs in terms of community control, comfort, and representation. The goal is to understand where residents think engagement problems in the board structure may lie so that the current system can improve or a new system can be developed. An improved system will lead to a better served community which, in turn, will increase social capital and strengthen the served area. Further study into the dynamic of this governance structure will inform future service design systems, primarily regarding community-focused and/or nonprofit businesses.

II. Relevant Literature

The objective of reviewing past literature was to contextualize how CLTs have changed since their conception, especially in regards to community engagement, and understand how those changes affected the served community. After reviewing selected articles, three major themes emerged: temporal climate trends, social capital leveraging, and lack of community control.

A. Temporal Climate Trends

Several journal articles across the literature identified a mass shift in the purpose and structure of CLTs between first generation trusts (founded in the early 1980s) and second generation trusts (founded in the late 1990s) (Gray & Galande, 2011). This shift is important to track to understand the context behind why community engagement became less of a focus for newer CLTs. Key reasons for this perceived shift are identified in the changing social and political climate during the founding of the CLTs articulated through their reception of community.

Many studies pointed towards the “ethos of the time” (Thaden & Lowe, 2014, p. 17) during the establishment of CLTs as having great effect on community involvement. First generation CLTs were founded in a time of civil rights movements. More likely to be confrontational towards existing structures, these CLTs chose a community organizing route to rally the members of their community to create structural change. On the other hand, second generation CLTs were established in an era where, to survive, they needed to run more like a business—creating strict business methods and becoming more self-sufficient (Thaden & Lowe, 2014, p.18). Newer CLTs chose a user-centered, community building approach. Saegert (2006, p. 276) points to reliance on actors outside the community, structural inequality, and incompatible goals as fundamental problems that community building has on its members.

Defilippis et al. (2017) suggest that this shift is normal for social movements as they become formalized institutions or organizations. To fit into “existing power structures” (Defilippis et al., 2017, p. 757), organizations, like CLTs, must let go of oppositional politics that initially characterized them lest they endanger themselves through funding cuts. Williams (2018) notes that, regarding CLTs, private and government funding were given to encourage economic development through producing affordable housing, not encouraging community engagement. 

B. Social Capital

Social capital and its definition were widely discussed across the literature. For the purposes of this proposal, social capital can be defined as: “an asset representing actionable resources that are contained in, and accessible through, a system of relationships” (Hyman, 2002, p. 197). Social capital is a vital aspect to community engagement as it provides a measure of success and streams back into the community through a positive feedback loop (Briggs, 1997).

Social capital is one of the main potential benefits that both an individual and a community can experience as a result of community engagement (Saegert, 2006). It builds trust, combines resources, and greatly increases civic efficacy in communities. Coleman (2000) even creates a direct correlation between increased social capital and increased human capital (individual skills and capabilities). The formation of social capital within CLTs directly relies on the trust’s fostering of community engagement. “Social capital presumes and depends on civic engagement as a vehicle for building relationships…” (Hyman, 2002, p. 198).

C. Community Control

Community control is a population’s collective ownership and ability to make decisions over resources. This type of control is at the top of Arnstein’s (1969) Ladder of Citizen Participation, meaning it is the highest form of decentralization and gives the citizen the most power. Community control was the primary goal of the traditional CLT model to empower low-income communities to build economic and social power where resources were scarce and recognize their agency in a broader political landscape (Thaden & Lowe, 2014). Community control has since been sacrificed for a housing affordability focus, dropping citizen participation potential to the middle of the ladder.

Many articles in the literature point to the three-part board structure many CLTs hold as a potential source for the loss of community control. In a system that treats CLT members, outside residents, and relevant officials equally, there exists a tension between the need for professionalism and the commitment to the community that must break somewhere (Williams, 2018). This structure Defilippis et al. (2017, p. 759) critique, “community land trusts, as they are, do not have an inherent capacity for community control…”

III. Prior Work

I interviewed Selina Mack, the Executive Director at the Durham Community Land Trustees, a CLT established in 1987 in the West End neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina. This interview was helpful in understanding how a CLT operates from upper management’s point of view. For example, Mack equated residents in their served area and owners of businesses in their served area—suggesting that the two have similar motivations. She also qualified the goal of engaging the community as for “primarily the public advocacy for affordable housing” indicating that engagement is simply a means to an end rather than a continued goal in itself. These insights into the mindset of a CLT representative are a vital comparison point when considering the perspective of a served resident.

To see discourse similar to a CLT board meeting in action, I observed the section of a Raleigh City Council meeting that is open to comments and concerns from citizens. The purpose of this observation was to realize the motivations behind a city resident speaking publicly to their council to aid in highlighting potential pain points in the process and lead to a more efficient conversation and greater citizen support. While the context may be different, the takeaways on the meeting dynamic translate directly to a CLT board meeting. Primarily, incentives for citizens to speak vary widely and can’t be generalized. This suggests that including the served community into the designing of a board meeting structure is imperative because their needs aren’t always cut and dry.

Both the interview and the observation study emphasized the need for further investigation into the perspective of the CLT resident. The reviewed literature suggested multiple problems linked with the lack of community engagement in CLTs, especially within board meetings. The lack of focus on this issue from CLT upper management means that pain points in the process will need to be uncovered through citizen participation. Only through working with served residents and understanding their point of view will the design of such an essential engagement touchpoint as the CLT board meeting be most efficient in supporting the voice of their community.

IV. Study Proposal

A. Research Question

How might we involve residents of a community land trust in evaluating the effectiveness of their board meetings in terms of community control, comfort, and representation to design an improved system of regular, organized engagement?

B. Participants

The target group of this study is rental and homeowner residents of a community land trust regardless of race, gender, or economic status. This particular study will focus on residents served by Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT). If successful, the study may be repeated in other CLTs across the country. According to the DCLT website, of the almost four hundred served citizens, about one hundred and twenty-five are youth who will not be included in the study (DLCT, 2017). Ideally, there will be twenty (or more) residents participating in the study. Residents will not be excluded depending on their past participation in board meetings (or lack thereof) to address their disengagement as its own pain point. That being said, residents who have attended CLT board meetings in the past would preferably make up at least half of participants. The remaining two-thirds of the tripartite board structure—including non-resident community and government representatives—will also be participants in the study and ideally have at least ten participants each. 

C. Methods

A survey will be issued to all residents served by DCLT as a way to collect data while also recruiting participants for the study. The survey will be a mix of qualitative and quantitative information regarding their background with their CLT, satisfaction with community engagement, and experience specifically with board meetings. This will provide a baseline satisfaction level to weigh against later on.

Workshops involving exclusively CLT residents will be conducted to garner their experiences with engagement in the past. Participation will be limited to residents only at this stage to build productive confidence and comfort discussing with their peers and researchers without outside pressure. In groups of three to four, residents will discuss their experiences with board meetings and create a shared journey map in each group. Using Post-it notes, residents will define their motivations for engaging with the CLT, the process they went through, and any outcomes they perceived. Facilitated by a researcher using information gathered by the survey, pain points and needs from the residents will be identified in the map of the process. This workshop will help determine potential points of intervention from the perspective of the residents.

Informed by the previous workshop, another charette style workshop will take place. This workshop will include non-resident community and government representatives in addition to the previous residents. Using the card sorting method, the determined pain points and needs will be grouped into categories based on participant-identified similarities. Participants will then be split into groups by category. Facilitated by researchers, creative ideas will be generated in response to the pain points and needs. The methods of this generation will vary depending on the types of pain points identified but could include: sketching, discussions, collages, and creative toolkits. During regular intervals, one group member will transfer to a different team for a new perspective. At the end of the workshop, each team will finalize their solution and present it to the entire group. A final discussion on the generated ideas will help capture similarities and differences across the groups. The purpose of this exercise is to assist participants in visualizing potential solutions outside of a normal board structure.

A final workshop will be conducted including all past participants to determine how best to merge ideas and translate them into an actualized process. Identifying underlying themes in presented solutions will help to understand how certain problems may be solved. A survey modeled after the previous one will be answered in regards to the new system to mark any improvement or issues. Depending on the solution developed, methods such as prototyping, A/B testing, and usability testing may be required.

D. Data

In the series of workshops, I am hoping to find pain points and needs that have been previously unrecognized. I believe that the data will show a deeper reasoning for the lack of engagement within CLTs that can only be seen from the point of view of their residents. I also hope that the workshops generate creative solutions that will lead to an improved system. Presenting this new or improved system as a workflow, mirroring how the data on previous engagement experiences was gathered, will lead to better mutual understanding and action moving forward.

Names and identifying information of residents will not be published while other participants with relevant titles, such as government representatives, will be given the option of anonymity. Residents will have the option to not attend workshops that include non-resident representatives to maintain their anonymity within the workshops.

E. Resources

For this study, I will need the following resources:
  • names and addresses of all DCLT residents;
  • participation from DCLT and their board members,
    • including non-resident community and government representatives;
  • between five to eight researchers to facilitate workshops;
  • large, accessible room in a central location to the DCLT’s served area;
  • post-it notes;
  • paper
  • writing utensils; and
  • moveable whiteboards and dry erase markers;

F. Timeline

  • March 2020— Request resident information from DCLT and send out survey
  • Late March 2020— Analyze survey responses and set date for first workshop
  • Mid-April 2020— First workshop conducted and analyzed
  • Early May 2020— Second workshop conducted and analyzed
  • Mid-May 2020— Final workshop and survey conducted and analyzed
  • May-July 2020— Testing of new system, methods TBD
  • August 2020— Implementation of new system



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Thaden, E., & Lowe, J. (2014). (Rep.). Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/resrep18451

Williams, O. R. (2018). Community control as a relationship between a place-based population and institution: The case of a community land trust. Local Economy: The Journal of the Local Economy Policy Unit, 33(5), 459–476. doi: 10.1177/0269094218786898