The Community Land Trust Bruxelles (CLTB) was formally incorporated in 2012, after four years of planning and organizing, an initiative led by activists from several existing housing and neighborhood associations. CLTB was established to serve all of Brussels (population 1,100,000), but it has been especially active in the poorest communities like Anderlecht, Molenbeek and Schaarbeek. CLTB was recognized relatively soon after its formation by the Brussels Region, the governmental authority responsible for housing policy in Brussels.
The origins of CLTB are closely related to the housing crisis that emerged in Brussels in the years following 2000. Traditionally, housing policy in Belgium has been largely focused on the support of homeownership. Through social loans, tax benefits and other subsidies, residents are encouraged to purchase their own home. This means that, compared to neighboring countries such as the Netherlands and France, Belgium has few units of publicly owned rental housing (also known as “social housing”).
This policy came under severe pressure after 2000. In the Brussels Region, house prices doubled between 2000 and 2010. Although the demand for social housing greatly increased, hardly any new public housing was built. People applying for such social rental housing were being forced to wait up to ten years and longer. At the same time, existing programs were no longer able to make homeownership affordable for low-income groups. Many families had to choose: either keep on living in an unhealthy and small apartment or leave Brussels.
As a reaction to this mounting housing crisis, several new initiatives emerged. Two of them would be important for the creation of a community land trust.
Buurthuis Bonnevie, a community center based in Molenbeek, one of Brussels’ poorest neighborhoods, initiated the L’Espoir project. Together with a group of migrant families with low incomes, a social housing corporation and the municipality were persuaded to build 14 new affordable homes. In 2009, after a long preparation, the families became the owners of their own flats. Partly because of the intense involvement of these families in the process of planning and developing this project, L’Espoir became a great success.
L’Espoir was one of the first passive solar, energy efficient housing buildings in Brussels, showing that sustainable housing doesn’t have to be exclusively a privilege of the well-off. The project also demonstrated that, despite all efforts to keep the building costs as low as possible, this type of project is not possible without a substantial public investment in order to make it affordable for low-income groups. The project’s initiators did manage to find the needed funding, but they realized there needed to be a better, more sustainable way to invest public funds in this kind of housing, if it was to be reproduced more widely.
Another initiative that was trying to help low-income families become homeowner within a context of rising prices was initiated by CIRE. In 2004, this association created the first solidarity savings group to help poor families to gather the downpayment to buy a house in the Brussels Region. Highly participatory, these groups not only helped the members financially; they were also a place for training and empowerment. Since its creation, this system has allowed 80 low-income households to purchase a house and 8 groups are currently active. Yet rising housing prices made it more and more difficult for families to make use of this alternative system of savings, especially those with the lowest incomes.
During the same period, other people in Brussels were looking into alternatives to traditional public housing programs. There were various reasons for this, including rising housing prices; the lack of flexible and adaptable housing policies; the growing problems in existing social housing blocks; emerging gentrification in various poor neighborhoods after urban renewal operations; and a national and international economic crisis that simultaneously heightened Belgium’s housing problems and caused an atmosphere in which innovation was possible.
In 2008, representatives from several of the organizations that were searching for alternatives heard about the community land trust (CLT) at a convention on Housing Cooperatives in Lyon, France. A few of them started studying the model in order to evaluate whether it could be used in Brussels.
In September 2009, four members of this group were invited by the Building and Social Housing Foundation in England to participate at an international study visit to the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, a CLT that had just won a United Nations World Habitat Award. After a week, they returned to Brussels, more than ever convinced that the CLT model might be what they were looking for.
During a convention on cooperative housing in Brussels, they publicly launched the idea and the plan to start campaigning for the creation of a CLT in Brussels. Many participants were interested. That eventually led to the drafting of a charter for the establishment of a Community Land Trust in Brussels, signed on May 25, 2010 by fifteen associations. During three public meetings, the concept was explained and discussed with the wider civil society and with families in need of a home.
Out of this dynamic eventually grew the Platform Community Land Trust Brussels. This nonprofit organization set itself the aim to promote the CLT model in Brussels. At the request of the Platform, the Brussels Regional government ordered a feasibility study in 2011. Some members of the Platform, assisted by legal and real estate experts, conducted the research.
The study was completed In June 2012. The report showed that a CLT could play a major role in Brussels and offered a series of proposals for legal, economic, and operational implication of the model. As a result, the Housing Minister supported the creation of a CLT which would operate in the Brussels Region and awarded a grant to launch the first operations and to recruit staff.
The Platform changed its name to the Community Land Trust Bruxelles (Brussels). The Articles of Association were amended. The objective of CLTB’s organizers was no longer the creation of a CLT, but the realization of CLT projects. A year later, a three-part board would be seated, conforming to CLT principles common in the United States, equally composed of representatives of (future) residents, civil society, and regional authorities. In addition, a second organizational structure was established, the Foundation Community Land Trust Brussels. This Foundation, with a similar board composition, would become the owner and lessor of parcels of land scattered throughout the region, while CLTB would be responsible for the development of residential projects located upon these community-owned lands.
A team of four persons started to work for CLTB in September 2012. The same year, the Community Land Trust model was included in the new housing bill of the Brussels Capital Region. Soon after, the Regional government included the community land trust as an operator of the Housing Alliance. This investment program for new affordable housing in the Brussels region provided that between 2014 and 2018, 2 million euros of grants could be invested each year for the development of new CLT projects.
Since 2014, some 150 families have registered as prospective buyers of CLT homes. Most of them belong to the lowest income groups. They are presenty scattered across all of the 19 municipalities that make up the Brussels Region.
For the financing and construction of housing and for providing mortgage loans to buyers, CLTB works closely with a large social housing organisation, the Fonds du Logement (Housing Fund).
A key component in the operation of CLTB is the participation of the future owners in the design of their homes. Whenever a new piece of land is acquired, a group of future owners is compiled. Together with them, CLTB develops a program that is integrated in the specifications for the tender. The future residents are also involved in the selection of the architectural project. For the social guidance of the future homeowners, CLTB works closely with a variety of local partner organizations.
This approach is very time-intensive , but we believe this is necessary, especially because all of our homes are part of multi-unit buildings, that will have to be managed by their owners. The upfront participation of the families in the design and development of their homes prepares them for their future responsibilities as homeowners. It is a way towards empowerment and strengthens the future community.
The last two years, we invested a lot in strengthening our organization, developing legal models, procedures, etc. Today, in addition to the 150 families who are prospective homeowners and in addition to the CLTB’s founding members, we have recruited about 100 new members.
Up to now, CLTB has received subsidies for the realization of four projects: the renovation of an old parish center in the municipality of Anderlecht (good for 7 homes, a community room, and a semi-public garden); the construction of Arc-en-Ciel in Molenbeek (32 new homes and a day care for children and the elderly; the construction of Mariemont along a canal in Molenbeek (9 new housing units); and construction of a project in the North Quarter (15 homes and a community space).
Several other projects are on the drawing table, often in collaboration with local municipalities. We hope to provide some 30 new homes every year, alongside spaces for social and economic use.
In five years’ time, we have gone a long way in Brussels. When we started, the CLT model was completely unknown in Belgium. Today it is considered an interesting tool in combating the housing crisis and strengthening social cohesion by politicians and members of civil society alike. Interest from the general public is also great.
Our inaugural project at the Quai de Mariemont in Molenbeek was formally dedicated on September 18, 2015. These were the first CLT homes on the European continent. They will not be the last. The development pipeline created by the Brussels Community Land Trust ensures that a regular stream of permanently affordable homes on community-owned land will be produced for years to come.