NYC TBD: An Artist-Led Land Trust

How can I, a thirty year old artist who is surrounded by unemployment, soaring rents and a graduating class of 100,000 creative debtors each year in this nation, dream about belonging to one neighborhood for life? I am part of a growing community of makers, artists, internet activists and community organizers who recognize that urban community land trusts (CLTs) are a reliable model for cultural production and neighborhood resilience in New York City and beyond.

Relationships take time to develop, so I want to stay put. I want to commit to one neighborhood for life, so that I can know my neighbors, make art for my community and work with my community board. I want to build lasting relationships of trust and shared resources: cooking, childcare, knowledge-sharing, open software, healing and community organizing. What if computer engineers built open software for the neighborhood? What if artists and designers made site-specific art, clothing and furniture for the neighborhood? What if community organizers connected people and facilitated conversations across race and class? This happens on Fourth Arts Block in New York City because a community land trust, overseen by the Cooper Square Committee, preserves truly affordable housing. It also includes experimental theater (La MaMa), cooperatives (4th Street Food Co-op), collective spaces (WOW Cafe Theater) and non-profits (Creative Time), which create a vibrant cultural economy that cannot be displaced by the real estate market.

With New York City To Be Determined (TBD), I am working toward a community land trust for creative technologists, internet activists, artists, designers, makers and community organizers. As we are learning, by working with the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), a community land trust is a non-profit organization that owns property, traditionally land, and leases it for truly affordable housing, local businesses and non-profit initiatives. The deed to the land, the community land trust bylaws and the lease all require that the housing be permanently affordable. The land can never be traded or sold to the highest bidder on the private market.

I am excited about the importance of community land trusts and worker cooperatives as living examples of resilient institutions that keep individuals in dialog over time, creating livelihoods for underemployed creative people. I am inspired by Fourth Arts Block as an example of a just, democratic and sustainable solidarity economy that will remain an option for future generations because the land is held in trust. The $30,000 I received as a Fellowship stipend at Eyebeam in 2013 is seed funding toward a community land trust for rigorous, generous people in New York City.

I built out and co-managed an 8,000 square foot studio space for forty artists from 2008 to 2013 off the L train, but our five-year lease is up. I know what I’m getting into. I still want more collective spaces! I would love to talk to philanthropists who are interested in land reform and the benefits of land stewardship, where bequests of land take space out of real estate speculation for the long haul, to support resilient neighborhood culture and civic engagement.

The Collective: Text by Susan Jahoda, Stephen Korns, and Caroline Woolard

TBD is an artist-led urban development project. We are an intergenerational collective of artists who ask: How might artists support truly affordable housing in New York City? We insist on the unity of artists and community organizers. Working in conjunction with NYCCLI, we learn together, make art, and initiate relationships across social spheres in order that we might belong to the city, and to each other, more equitably. The Context: A Housing Crisis + Artist-Led Placemaking If studio space and housing in New York City are too expensive for artists, what does that mean for all working poor and unemployed people? A Picture the Homeless report found that from 2002 to 2012, as the number of people in the shelter system in New York City doubled, 3,500 vacant buildings were counted in just twenty out of fifty-nine districts. How can these buildings be used?

Within this housing crisis, interest in artist-led urban redevelopment is increasing. In 2013, Esther Robinson ran an unprecedented number of workshops at ArtHome. Crowds of artists attended an impromptu meeting about buying a building in Bushwick. PS.109 neared completion. ArtPlace entered a fourth year of funding. And the Journal of Planning Education and Research stated that,”in a survey of American cities, forty-five percent of respondents had built or were planning to build artist housing as a way to revitalize neighborhoods.”

2014 is a critical year of opportunity for artists to catalyze the housing struggle in New York City. With Bill De Blasio in office, the NYCCLI pilot in East Harlem gaining momentum, an increasing interest in artist-led urban redevelopment from artists, philanthropists, and developers alike, we aim to educate and organize ourselves (and other professionalized artists) whose personal and cultural geographies are shaped by dreams of affordable live and work space, despite rising rents.

Artists have historically created opportunities for developers, other businesses and gentrification, while experiencing instability and alienation, typically viewed as a Bohemian lifestyle that serves to stimulate creativity and the capacity for self-expression. We believe that community land trusts, co-housing, intentional living and limited-equity cooperatives, among other sustainable housing models and strategies, can bring wealth to neighborhoods rather than opportunities for displacement.

Communities: Artists + Housing Organizers

Transformative engagement relies on sustained human relationships. Artists do not need to be physically or conceptually separate from larger, more comprehensive and heterogeneous communities where they live and work. The on-going project of our group, TBD, is to deepen the mutual interests and accountability of artists within communities.

For us, socially engaged art is about mutually respectful commitment, not representation. While Martha Rosler’s 1989 project If You Lived Here… pushed the contemporary art world to look at housing struggles by bringing community groups into an installation to hold meetings, TBD pushes contemporary artists to think through their own practices of belonging in neighborhoods and to work with existing housing coalitions such as the NYCCLI.

Recognizing that artists are not a singular and un-complex constituency, we are interested in how “artists” can join coalitions comprised of all sorts of people who desire to live affordably and intentionally. We see TBD as a bridge between communities of interest. Coming to affordable housing work from a particular artistic community (made up largely of conceptual, visual and socially engaged artists with creative degrees),TBD can organize and speak to fellows artists, making the most compelling arguments for joining a broad coalition and an issue-based community.

NYCCLI is comprised of policy advocates, a governance working group, educators, and diverse academics and activists working together to foster community ownership of land, and long-term affordable housing solutions. NYCCLI is an issue-based community whose constituents possess a wide range of references and norms.

TBD collective members have joined the Education and Outreach working group of NYCCLI to learn about community land trust strategies for New York City and to collaborate on cultural action and media production projects for the East Harlem Community Land Trust pilot.  We are currently working together to make a video about the process Picture the Homeless uses to count vacant properties. Just as NYCCLI is working on a pilot in East Harlem with tenants rights organizations, TBD will work with professionalized artists and—a project toward property ownership instead of student debt—to articulate the implications of affordable housing on future generations of artists in New York City, together with working poor, unemployed and low income people.

Vision + Aims

Art has the power to encourage honest dialog, cultivate empathy and inspire hope. Artists move to New York City to make art with honesty, empathy and integrity, but often understand themselves as itinerant strangers, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood without commitment to any one place. TBD aims to make space for artists who want to stay put—artists who see dialog, collaboration and exchange with one’s neighbors over time as integral to a practice of social belonging.

Through information sharing, conversation and art installations, we aim to alter public discourse and collective imagination in elite art schools: moving artists from a position that is itinerant and temporary toward an increased regard for artists with an enduring commitment to place-based work. We continue to learn together, asking: What conditions made land stewardship possible in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s? What knowledge might contribute to our current actions? We aim to create a resource for artists and a network of community land trusts with NYCCLI that provides affordable housing and work space to all people in New York City. By providing models for artist-led urban redevelopment, we insist on affordable space that extends beyond the creative class.

TBD Collective Members

We are Stephen Korns, Susan Jahoda and Caroline Woolard. Stephen Korns brings thirty-seven years of living in New York City, designing and implementing large-scale public art works in this country and in Europe. Susan Jahoda brings twenty-five years of work in collectives, socially engaged practice, and teaching. Caroline Woolard brings five years of experience co-founding collaborative platforms, a studio project that has provided forty artists space since 2008, and barter networks and, now used by 10,000 people in fifty cities internationally. We have worked together for over a year, and with NYCCLI since late 2013. To join us, email

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