Collective Ownership is Key

CJ Trowbridge


USP 560 – Urban Poverty


            I have spent a lot of time this year traveling to radically sustainable experimental communities across the country and asking countless questions about infrastructure, ownership models, and governance models and now I’d like to propose a solution to urban poverty.

The Community Development Corporation model is an exciting alternative model for housing development, ownership, and administration. This special kind of non-profit community-ownership model is motivated not by maximizing shareholder profit or as a meager form of public relations for a large corporation, but rather as a serious attempt to solve the problem. Legally, a CDC makes decisions on the basis of actually building and providing affordable housing to the community and facilitating community development rather than maximizing profit for the small, elite class of capitalists in the community.

In San Francisco there are two CDCs with many more on the way. In the Tenderloin and Chinatown, the CDCs have made incredible progress in dramatically increasing the available affordable housing inventory while also making sure that housing goes to those people who actually need it. Meanwhile the corporate PR housing projects from Mercy Housing, and those projects from private developers, have tended to either have no impact at all or — more often – actually make the problem worse.

I have spent much of this year meeting with the arts districts of San Francisco to help them launch CDCs in all the districts, so that every neighborhood in the city can seize control of the housing and wrest it away from greedy and exploitative capitalist landlords. Today housing is a commodity to be invested in with a goal of maximizing return. Tomorrow, with the help of CDCs, housing can transition back to being a basic human right that everyone has access to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think CDCs are a great solution for cities like San Francisco which by any social problems measure is arguably the worst city in the world, but I think where CDCs really shine is in new community development. I visited a new community being built in rural Tennessee around permaculture, collective ownership, mutual aid, and egalitarianism. They’re part of a larger network called the Permaculture Mutual Aid Network. They are on a project of acquiring land all over the country to create new communities focused on teaching people how to live sustainably while also providing for the needs of the surrounding population, be that through mutual aid, growing food, or however else they can help. These amazing new communities allow anyone to just show up and live there for free. It’s very exciting because they are being very conscious of sustainable development and especially conscious of equity and inclusion. They already have solved for the basic needs of everyone in the community. Everyone gets housing, everyone gets water, everyone gets food, everyone gets community, and no one has to pay for anything.

One of the most exciting challenges facing these new communities is defining their collective ownership model. Other networks of permaculture communities, such as the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, use Land Trust to put their land into a collective ownership model. The problem I see with land trust is that it’s not a legal entity. It can’t execute contracts or qualify for grants or funding.

Compare The Permaculture Mutual Aid Network therefore to Arcosanti, a non-profit-owned community very much like a CDC but much older than the CDC model. Everyone who works there gets housing, food, water, power, etc but they often have to pay for some or all of these things. The community makes decisions together about what to do with the land and the resources. They are also able to take on new projects as a legal entity which can commission construction, maintenance, etc.

Personally, I think that the nonprofit model is a better approach to collective ownership of communities than the land trust model. In a hypothetical new permaculture community, a nonprofit model would be able to get government grants and special dispensation to experiment and conduct research on urban issues relating especially to infrastructure and poverty. I see this as a very exciting potential project for our generation. We have been left with a world full of problems, and poverty is at the heart of those problems. It’s clear to almost everyone under the age of forty that more capitalism is not going to fix capitalism. It’s also very hard to see an alternative, but I think this example shows that there is an alternative.

We’ve all read the horror stories of the company towns (like Pullman). These towns were owned by a company that would deduct your rent and groceries from your paycheck so that you often ended up owing them money to live there and work in their factory. But I also had a different takeaway from those stories; a town full of workers was exploited by a company, and that company thrived on what it stole from them. Imagine the same scenario only without the factory and without the capitalism. Imagine a nonprofit company-town whose only goal is to be a good place for people to live. That’s really exactly what Arcosanti is, and they’ve been doing it half a century. Clearly it can work.

The world bank says we can expect 140 million climate refugees within the next twenty years. (World Bank) Crop failures are already widespread in America due to zone changes. (New York Times) This year alone is likely to be the worst fire year in history. (New York Magazine.) The American power grid was built seventy years ago with a fifty-year lifespan and it’s been running past 100% for decades. (Popular Science) For all these reasons and more, it’s more critical than ever that we act now to create resilient communities where people can survive what’s coming. I am convinced that this nonprofit collective ownership model is the best way to make that happen.


Works Cited

New York Magazine. (2021, June 16). California’s Last Fire Season Was a Historic Disaster. This One Could Be Worse. Intelligencer.

New York Times. (2021, April 1). What’s Going On in This Graph? | Growing Zones. The New York Times.

Popular Science. Ula Chrobak. August 17, 2020. (2021, April 26). The US has more power outages than any other developed country. Here’s why. Popular Science.

World Bank. Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050: World Bank Report. (n.d.).