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Sustainable Communities Thought Leadership

Community Ownership in Practice: Lessons from SPARCC in Atlanta

By now we know that historic (and nearly always intentional) disinvestment and extraction in communities of color has driven a dramatic gap in wealth and ownership by race. This disparity means people of color face steep and complex barriers to owning and controlling their homes and businesses. As the federal government debates upwards of $3.5 trillion in potential investments that could shape the future of our communities for a generation, we need to ask: how do we invest differently in our communities to change the systems that create and perpetuate these inequities? One answer: community ownership.

The idea of community ownership is a straightforward concept: a community owns the “thing” (usually property) under consideration. The people of the community then must determine which of the many forms of community ownership fits its needs. This can include collective ownership of land and buildings through land trusts and co-operatives; it can also include entrepreneurial and cooperative ownership of the businesses that might occupy them. Community ownership envisions opening the ownership of homes, commercial property, and backyard cottages to the people who have built and who maintain the culture of the community. It also opens a pathway for low-income and people of color to assume local control of community assets. It contemplates the way that people build resilient networks, expand political power, protect and elevate shared culture, and seed personal wealth.

In the last five years, the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) has partnered with local collaboratives, supported by 300+ organizations, funders, thought partners and resident experts in six different cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It is no coincidence that community ownership has risen in prominence in these six major US cities. Community ownership models vary greatly in each city and are often responses to the unique histories of each place, including their experience with segregation, redlining, disinvestment, and gentrification. 

In Atlanta, we have partnered with Transformation Alliance (TFA) as our local collaborative partners to drive our community ownership work. Through TFA, SPARCC is working closely with The Guild—a place-based community wealth building organization focused on closing the racial wealth gap through real estate, entrepreneurship programs, and access to capital. The Guild’s latest initiative, Groundcover, aims to seed, develop, and scale cooperative real estate models. The pilot involves rehabilitating a long-vacant property and adding a much needed grocery, three commercial kitchens for emerging food entrepreneurs, community gathering and co-working spaces, and 18 permanently affordable apartments. The project would be owned by a Community Stewardship Trust (CST) composed of neighborhood residents, giving those previously locked out of wealth-building opportunities the chance to collectively own and steward the assets in their neighborhood. The Guild’s work in Atlanta exemplifies what I meant when I wrote You Can’t Carbon Copy Community Ownership: each community’s needs will dictate its asset types and community ownership projects.

You can learn more about The Guild’s work directly from its founder, Nikishka Iyengar, as she presents it in SPARCC’s Building Community Wealth & Transition to A Liberation Economy webinar. I also recommend the first “Black Paper,” co-written by Nikishka Iyengar, Building Community Wealth: Shifting Power and Capital in Real Estate Finance.

We stand in the midst of a tremendous opportunity to channel once in a generation investments to the places and people that need them most. Federal regulators and local governments have an opportunity to review policies related to Notices of Funding Availability (NOFAs) from HUD and funding documents to ensure that community ownership projects are eligible and the innovative community groups leading this work are encouraged to apply. Grant makers have an opportunity to help groups like The Guild to control land and get ready for new funding opportunities. Last, but not least, national intermediaries like Enterprise have an opportunity to shape our programmatic work to share lessons, lift up examples and put our knowledge and networks in service of community innovators looking to expand ownership and shrink the racial wealth gap. 

Devin Culbertson is director, National Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners.


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