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NBOP's Vision on Housing and Land Justice 

From Affordable Housing to Community-Control

Our collective vision of housing and land justice is one of liberation. Several equitable alternatives to market-driven development exist. Taken together, we refer to them as “de-commodified” housing. Co-operatives, well-financed public housing, housing land trusts and more illustrate the potential liberation of housing from a profit-driven market. De-commodified housing seeks to remove housing and land from the speculative market to maintain affordability forever and prioritize community control of land and housing  as a universal human right. 

One example of de-commodified housing is a housing land trust, whereby a nonprofit trust owns the land and leases that land on which a house (or multifamily complex) sits. The house is purchased and sold separate from the land with resale restrictions on profit potential, therefore maintaining affordability for the next buyer. We seek to increase the scalability of de-commodified housing locally through policy advocacy and organizational support. 

This is a community-led effort for self-determination and agency in housing governance. Our community continues to express support for affordable housing alternatives that radically shift power into the hands of tenants and individual owners and away from corporations and developers. De-commodified housing is not just a project, but a process and a politic; it is a method to transform housing from a product to a promise: that dignified affordable housing is a universal human right and that no person or corporation has the right to profit in a failed housing market.  We believe a “failed housing market” is defined by high rates of homelessness, segregation, cost-burdened tenants, and the concentration of land ownership by a few wealthy landholders.

In the following sections you’ll read articles written to illuminate our position on community land trusts, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, public lands, and market-rate housing.

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Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act

During this pandemic, market speculation continues to displace Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and reinforce the rent burden of low-income earners, who in Sonoma County, are disproportionately Latinx. In short, housing speculation works against public health priorities for our most vulnerable residents. To address housing as a public health priority and move towards a system where housing is a human right, our vision must be both bold and our policies pragmatic. Tenants must have more power and affordable housing must be community-controlled.

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is a critical policy tool incentivizing community-control of land and housing. TOPA often creates two new rights for tenants: the right of first offer and the right of first refusal. It allows tenants the first opportunity to buy the home where they’ve been living when the landlord decides to sell and allows tenants the right to match a third party’s offer, if the landlord didn’t accept the tenants’ initial offer. Tenants can do this on their own or by partnering with a non-profit affordable housing organization like a community land trust.  Although bold, TOPA is not new. It was first enacted in Washington, DC in 1980. 


As a policy tool, TOPA is 

  • An anti-displacement measure

  • An anti-gentrification measure

  • An opportunity to create avenues to ownership for low income residents

  • Creates an environment for community organizing and resident governance

  • A cost-effective method to preserve affordable housing


Why TOPA instead of COPA?

Some cities have adopted a Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA). This means the city would approve a list of community organizations who get the right of first offer and first refusal, rather than tenants. However, the ambiguity of what qualifies as a community organization is a dangerous loophole which housing profiteers could exploit. That would lead to the same system going unchecked. TOPA directly empowers tenants, especially those most impacted by intersectional oppression. Under TOPA, tenants choose if they want to connect with grassroots organizations like community land trusts to help them purchase their homes and keep them permanently affordable. This means they decide who works in their best interest. 

TOPA is being proposed across cities and states all over the country; Oakland, Berkeley, Boston, Minneapolis, Massachusetts, New York, and even a provision in the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act authored by Rep. Ilhan Omar. 

(Source for TOPA here.)


Community Land Trusts

Part of our housing justice work is to understand the relationship between land, housing and racial justice in a profit-driven market. With historic fires, floods, a global pandemic and a deeply racist political economy, we dare to dream of community-controlled affordable housing as a human right that is not dictated by the whims of an extractive market. 

Enter the Community Land Trust

Community land trusts (CLT) were born in the rural south by civil rights activists under similar conditions of economic distress, racial segregation and unrest that we face today. While we must work hard to prevent displacement and protect tenants, the methods we choose speak to our commitment for restorative racial justice and our vision for a sustainable future. 

We must seek to create avenues for resident-led projects, community-control, equity and environmental justice in affordable housing. This is why we are excited to continue the work so many before us have done to bring the CLT model to tenants and those who have been dispossessed. 

How do CLTs work? 

No CLT is the same and that’s what makes them great! They can be molded to fit the unique needs of their communities. CLT’s are non-profit community-based organizations whose mission is to serve diverse moderate and low-income communities and to steward access to land and housing for generations to come. 

When a CLT acquires land, through purchase or donation, the land is removed from the speculative market. They then lease the land in long-term agreements to people who want to live or work there. These leases are often as long as 99 years, and can be renewed over and over. That way residents will have housing stability for generations. Individual residents, cooperatives, or other organizations can own structural improvements on the land, such as homes or apartment buildings, but the land remains with the CLT. If they choose to sell their building such as a home, an existing agreement dictates what percentage of profit can be retained instead of a price decided by market speculation- this ensures the home or other building remains affordable for the next buyer. 

CLTs are governed by residents, community members and other public representatives, creating truly community-controlled housing and land.


Public Land

Prior to colonization, territorial lands were collectively stewarded in the best interest of indigenous communities. When European settlers committed genocide and stole billions of acres of native lands, those lands were parceled out and either sold to the highest bidder- becoming commodified or given away to stimulate imperial expansion and economic gain. Since then federal, state, and local governments claimed title to millions of acres of land through multiple means and with taxpayer dollars including purchase, default, eminent domain, forced removal, and more. Together these lands are known as “public land”.

Public lands now include forests, parks, open space, buildings, rights of way, plazas, transportation corridors, reservoirs, dams, and much more. They are managed by various government agencies and in many cases do not require or provide the opportunity for public input in decision-making processes. Some public lands are leased to private interests for speculative and extractive market gains i.e. national forests continue to be logged for timber under the direction of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management leases land for mining and oil drilling in sensitive habitats. According to the U.S. Geological Survey nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are produced on public lands. 


California Public Land for Affordable Housing 

In 2019, a number of new laws passed that continue to allow profit-driven developers to purchase public lands under the guise of furthering affordable housing. Starting January 1st, 2021, local agencies must take inventory of their “surplus” public land for potential private buyers. They are required to submit notices for that land to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the public agencies in the land’s jurisdiction, and any developers on the HCD affordable housing list. These new laws, although a step in the right direction in prioritizing affordable housing, allow corporations and wealthy landowners to concentrate money and power in their own hands, leaving low-income and communities of color behind. Even after these new laws have gone into effect, public lands continue to be sold to the highest bidder at the county and city level requiring public interest law firms and organized communities to contest through court proceedings. For more information on public land for affordable housing click here.

What is our Vision for Public Lands?

Our vision for public lands is that they must be used for public good, and specifically to repair and redress racial colonization, redlining, and the speculative market. Tenants and Black, Indigenous and people of color demand systemic change in tangible response to the land that was stolen and the homelands many have been, and continue to be, forcibly removed from. We demand more than just a few more affordable units, paved over plazas, or indigenous lands leased for oil pipelines. We have a vision of housing that is permanently affordable, safe, accessible, and community-controlled. We envision a community where rivers are free of dams, access to public land for traditional indigenous uses is prioritized, community gardens are not limited by one’s income and the design of public spaces includes houseless folks rather than intentionally excluding them.

We believe surplus public lands are best held by the public i.e. collectively stewarded by community-based organizations to ensure community-governance and therefore, should be transferred to equity-driven community land trusts and similar grassroots organizations. 

Apartment Building

Market-Rate Housing and Why It Fails BIPOC Communities 

“Anything that is assumed to be self-evident is quickly revealed to be the work of ideology.” – Angela Davis

Market-rate housing is defined entirely by an individual’s income and the maximization of profit. It is based in an economic system that has excluded low-income communities and people of color since industrialization. Our communities have been systematically prevented from capturing the economic advantages of market-rate housing and, therefore, from building intergenerational wealth. If projects seek to be equitable and truly address the needs of our entire community, advocacy work must disaggregate data associated with project impacts and those communities served based on race, geography, and income. We need to affirmatively uphold the priorities of marginalized communities. 

We cannot capitalize our way out of the housing crisis. It is the unequal distribution of capital that creates a crisis of housing in the first place.  The wounds of income inequality, redlining, urban renewal policies, environmental racism and the resulting government-sponsored creation of racial poverty, gentrification, and displacement are ongoing and pervasive. 

Building market-rate housing or housing that is “affordable” for median income earners in Sonoma County does nothing to address or provide reparations for the historic housing and land injustices that continue to severely impact our people. Market-rate development fundamentally prioritizes housing as a commodity and functions as a sophisticated form of segregation. This pattern is clear locally where the majority of low-income and communities of color can only afford to live in a specific quadrant of the county as referenced in this map from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.   

haas institute for a fair and inclusive society–sonoma_di_oct18_rev.png

Pro-market policies tell the myth that if we build more housing valued at market-rate then trickle down economics will ensure housing availability for all of our community.  But those of us on the front lines know that it is not true. And when that model of housing development fails as it did in 2008, it is the banks that are bailed out by the government , not struggling families. 

Market-rate housing development is rooted in the liberal politics of Sonoma County under the guise of providing housing for “working class families” and “homes for all.”  This agenda is a masked handout and compromise in favor of developers whose only purpose is to maximize profit in an extractive economy.[1] More market-rate development does not necessarily equate to more local families having access to housing. 

The North Bay Organizing Project does not support local attempts to rebrand market-rate development as the inherent solution to house workers in Sonoma County while ignoring historic injustice. Any theory of change related to housing access and affordability in Sonoma County that does not explicitly focus on race ignores the explicit and implicit biases of urbanization and suburbanization over the last 100 years. 

Market-rate is the legacy of a racist economic system based on the ideology that land and housing are commodities. This is the same development perspective that fueled the genocide of Native Americans and the commodification of their lands. It is the same perspective that prevents reparations for the 250 years of enslavement that African Americans survived while building the infrastructure of this country. It is, in fact, the same perspective that prevailed after WWII during segregation that led the US government to enact redlining. That same perspective continues to disenfranchise already marginalized communities that the North Bay Organizing Project seeks to uplift. Our communities do not see market-rate housing as a neutral form of development, but as an actively harmful ideology that in practice nearly ensures gentrification and displacement. In this, we do not seek equality, nor equity but the complete liberation of land and housing for our people. 

Who is market-rate housing for?

The minimum qualifying income to afford the median sales price of a home in Sonoma County, as of this writing, is roughly $112,000 (based on a ~$670,000 median home sales price). If the median household income for Hispanics [2] in Sonoma County is roughly $56,000, who exactly can afford to purchase market-rate housing? [3] And when ownership is segregated based on race and income, we must ask the question, ‘who can afford market-rate rent’?

What’s changed since COVID-19?

COVID-19 has cracked open housing precariousness nation-wide. What’s clear is that tenants including “anyone who doesn’t control their own housing,”[4] are at the mercy of banks and corporations. Housing insecurity is impacting more and more people every day, from mortgage holders to renters and people seeking housing. Preservation of housing is foremost on the minds of housing experts nationwide. We are seeing an immediate shift in priorities from policies incentivizing building affordable housing to policies that protect our communities from displacement and eviction. Restructuring housing advocacy locally in this new landscape is the only way to ensure the protection of frontline communities who were already experiencing housing insecurity. This is not a matter of whether an organization focuses specifically on tenant protections or not. It is a moral imperative of these circumstances in which we find ourselves as a community. We have an opportunity to right the wrongs of exclusive development practices that concentrate wealth in Sonoma County, to capture financing and build intergenerational equity where it has long been withheld. 

The economic fallout of COVID-19 could be much worse than the mortgage crisis of 2008 in terms of increasing income inequality. Those with more money will capitalize on those properties lost to families experiencing hardship. And how many times must we experience this to imagine that another world is possible? Market-rate housing is neither the solution to the problem nor one of many, but an illusion that allows certain leaders in our community to advocate for developers and support an extractive market. We say, “enough!”    

[1] We define an “extractive economy” as an economy based on the extraction of limited natural resources and the exploitation of labor. 

[2] “Hispanic” is a term used by government agencies including the Sonoma County Economic Development Board to define, “those people who classify their origin (ancestry) as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Argentinean, Colombian, Costa Rican, Dominican, Ecuadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, Salvadoran, from other Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean or Central or South America, or from Spain.” The North Bay Organizing Project does not endorse the use of the term “Hispanic” as it categorically defines the diversity of peoples of the Americas through a European colonial lens and ignores the historic and ongoing trauma of colonization. 

[3] Sonoma County Economic Development Board, & Morgan, K. (Ed.), (2017). 2017 Hispanic Demographic Trends Report. Retrieved from SONOMA COUNTY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BOARD.

[4] From “101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union (You Can’t Do Politics Alone),” by T. Rosenthal, 2019.

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