What are community land trusts, anyway?

For the last five years, I’ve been reading, studying, and working with a form of tenureship called the community land trust (CLT).  I’ve become very personally involved, serving both on the research and policy development committee for the National Community Land Trust Network and as a board member for the Essex Community Land Trust in Essex County. But what are they, you might ask?

A CLT is a participatory, community-based nonprofit organization that owns and holds land in trust for the common good. It leases that land to households that purchase the improvements (houses and whatnot) located on the trust’s land. When these households sign the ground lease, they are granted all the rights of more traditional homeownership. The main limitation in the lease comes with the resale of the home. They can only realize a certain percentage of any increase in the home’s value (usually between 10-15%), and can only sell the home to a household that falls within a certain income range. This allows them to realize a certain amount of equity while keeping the home affordable for the next low- to moderate-income household.

It was originally created in the late 1960s as a means for black farmers in rural Georgia to gain and control land. While it remained on the fringe of the affordable housing scene for a few decades after that, its star has been on the rise for the last ten years or so. It has attracted the attention of HUD, the Ford Foundation, and a few other major players on the community development scene. Why did I get interested in it? After spending time walking through neighborhoods in Essex County that had been hit hard by the housing/foreclosure/credit crisis, I became interested in forms of tenureship that would prevent housing from being entwined in the volatility of finance markets and speculative ownership. CLTs and another form of tenureship called limited equity cooperatives caught my eye, and the rest is history. My research is currently focusing on how CLTs are handling their emerging popularity and whether or not their radical ideological heritage as the means to fundamentally altering property relationships will survive the attempt at making them a viable alternative to traditional homeownership.

Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment! I love talking about this stuff.

The Garden State

New Jersey’s nickname of ‘The Garden State’ always seems to be a surprising one for people who haven’t heard it before. New Jersey is not known for its acres of agriculture and natural beauty but for the refineries and decaying industrial areas that line the Turnpike. However, there is much more to the state than is immediately obvious, especially if you have only seen the state from the freeway. If you take the time to put some distance between yourself and the Turnpike, you’ll find that New Jersey offers quite a bit in terms of landscape and natural beauty.

The nickname ‘Garden State’ is tenuously attributed to Benjamin Franklin. There is a clearer connection to a man named Abraham Browning, who in 1876 described New Jersey as a barrel full of good food, with New York and Philadelphia indulging themselves from both ends. It was added to the license plate in 1954 and has been the cause of surprised faces and remarks of ‘no kidding?’ ever since.

Though officially enshrined above the bumper of every car registered in New Jersey, the agricultural aspect of New Jersey has long since been surpassed by pharmaceuticals, finance, and technology. However, if we are to trust wikipedia (and honestly, who doesn’t these days), New Jersey remains a significant producer of agricultural products. It is the second largest producer of blueberries, the third largest producer of cranberries and spinach, and is fourth in the production of bell peppers, peaches, and head lettuce. In addition to its crops, Jersey also has a significant amount of woodland. Half the state is wooded, with oaks in the north and the (in)famous Pine Barrens in the south.

There are 52 state parks, forests, and historic sites covering over 375,000 acres, many of which figured prominently in the Revolutionary War. The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park runs through New Brunswick and provides a beautiful place to ride your bike or go for a run. Riding your bike from New Brunswick to Princeton along the canal path is a great way to spend a spring day. Or, you can visit Island Beach State Park and get a taste of what the shore was before the boardwalks went up. Wharton State Forest is the largest of the parks at over 122,000 acres, and features a historic village that gives you a sample of what early 19th century industry was like.

There is much more to New Jersey than its status as the ultimate bedroom community, and much more to do than simply taking the train into the big city of your choice. Spending a little time away from the freeways can be very rewarding for anyone looking to escape the concrete jungle of Philadelphia or New York. It’s a beautiful state, trust me. You just have to know where to look.

“Teaching Assistant” is a state of mind

Working as a teaching assistant implies a very wide variety of experiences. For some, it’s a full semester of two hours sitting in a lonely office every week and very little else. For others, it requires two new lesson plans every week, with staggering piles of homework and tests to grade. For me, being a TA has landed somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I’ve had my hours of boredom in the office and I’ve had stacks of grading to do.  The most notable thing about my experience as a TA is that I’ve mostly worked with graduate students, who claim to be a different breed from undergraduates. In that sense, I feel like my experience has been a little atypical, devoid of the frustrations usually referred to by popular representations of academia (I’m looking at you, PhD Comics).

Despite the atypical nature of my experience, there are at least a couple things that I’ve come across that seem to be common threads for TAs. First is the frustrating duty of enforcing the rules set down by the professor and the University. There always seems to be at least one person that neglects or ignores his responsibilities as a student. TAs are usually not the ultimate authorities but they do bear a responsibility to keep people honest. It’s frustrating to work with people who are unwilling to make the effort to engage, or are blind to the effect their ambivalence has on those around them.

That being said, there are significant upsides to being a TA which often outnumber the negative aspects. Being a teaching assistant always brings the potential for engaging and educational interactions with students. While these interactions are often superficial they also contain the potential to be meaningful for both the student and the TA. On the student side, engaging with the TA shows dedication to learning and succeeding in class. It also gives undergraduates an opportunity to speak with someone that has taken a deeper interest in academics and may have some advice about careers. For the TA, speaking with students can deepen their understanding of the class’ subject. Being responsible for someone else understanding difficult concepts can clarify and sharpen one’s own understanding.

Working as a TA always reminds me of a saying I once heard: ‘you can’t truly understand something until you can bring about that understanding in others.’ That is more relevant for some TAs than others. Teaching an entire class on the history of planning in the United States is probably a bit more revelatory than helping half a dozen students with their GIS problem sets over the course of a semester. That being said, I think working as a TA has helped me refine not only my professional interests (do I want to be a teacher?), but my pedagogical interests as well (what do I want to teach and how?). It has made me a better student, a better teacher, and a better person all around.

Impressions of New Jersey

I thought I would make my first contribution to the blog some thoughts about what everyone at Rutgers seems to have an opinion on: New Jersey. One of the most stigmatized states, you’ll get different responses when you ask someone what they think of the Garden State. Stereotypes abound, from MTV’s unfortunate Jersey Shore to HBO’s The Sopranos. But what is actually there in the space between New York City and Philadelphia? The truth, unsurprisingly, is significantly more subtle.

For most of my life, New Jersey was a myth. There’s nothing intrinsic about New Jersey that caused this. Its just that I grew up in California. For me, the entire eastern coast was a legendary place, populated with Yankees, Knicks, Mafiosos, skyscrapers, boroughs, and sunrises over the water. I was 25 when I made my first trip past the Mississippi to visit my girlfriend’s family up in Connecticut. The closest I got to New Jersey was a day trip down to New York City for what turned out to be a rain-soaked whirlwind tour of Manhattan. I didn’t have any plans on coming back until we were both accepted to graduate school, me to Rutgers Geography and her to the School of Social Work at Columbia. We packed up our lives in Seattle, stuffed the cats into the back seat, and drove ourselves across the country. It was only the second time I had ever been east of Colorado. I was heading back to a mythic land. This time, to stay.

I’ve been here for five years now, and it will be six years before I leave Rutgers. In that time I’ve had some thoughts about New Jersey. Most importantly, I am compelled to point out that New Jersey does not smell. Parts of New Jersey smell, just like parts of every other state smell. If you get away from the cities and the major freeways, you’ll find the New Jersey that nobody ever sees. It shouldn’t be a surprise with a name like the Garden State, but there are still beautiful agricultural pastures in New Jersey. Just take the time to get away from the sprawl and you won’t be disappointed.

To be continued…