What startups can teach community land trusts about narrative

 You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

Recently, Grounded Solutions Network, which is the national umbrella organization for community land trusts, received $1 million from Citibank’s development arm to form an accelerator to launch more CLTs. As a housing advocate, a startup founder, and a tech educator who runs an accelerator, I’m excited. I’ll talk about the accelerator in a moment, but I’m particularly excited because it finally gives me a chance to talk about all three through the power of narrative. Forming a strong narrative is drilled into startups from the get-go, but the housing community, so far, has failed to appreciate its importance, or at least how to do it right. That might be changing.

A bit of background first. I got involved with the community land trust movement 6 years ago to help solve the foreclosure crisis in Brooklyn. As part of a grad school studio at Columbia, we were contracted by the New Economy Project (they were NEDAP at the time) to come up with a way to protect minority homeowners from losing their homes or to regain their lost homes from the particularly heinous predatory lending practices that laid waist to many majority-minority communities. (The foreclosure crisis has never endedin these communities, by the way.)

While working with visiting professor Jeffrey Lowe and the legendary Peter Marcuse, we were able to study the CLT model in great depth. I visited and researched the Lake Champlain CLT in Burlington, VT (the biggest CLT in the country) and Dudley Street Neighbors Initiative in Boston, MA (the first community group to be granted powers of eminent domain).

I was and remain enamored by the story of these organizations and the people that made them possible. The CLT model changed the destiny of these communities. It created permanent, community-controlled affordable housing in places largely abandoned by the public and private sectors. These people showed how working together against unbelievable odds could make something big happen.

Their stories made me believe that CLTs could happen in NYC. By the end of the studio, we began crafting a vision for how the model could work and how it could help these homeowners and communities who had been sacked by the financial industry. It was a very exciting time.

However, most people in city government had no idea what a CLT was or flat out laughed at a bunch of lefty grad school students and community groups for suggesting that it could work in the real estate capital of the world (that is slowly changing). This is despite the presence and decades-long success of Cooper Square, the first CLT formed in NYC. Even in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, when the city was taking over hundreds of properties, the model never found an audience. In retrospect, we put a lot of work into research and policy, but failed to appreciate how crafting a good narrative could get people’s attention.

At the same time, on an entirely unrelated note, I was launching my first startup company, Brightbox. (Going to grad school for urban planning and building a tech company confused a lot of people -including my parents- at the time) Brigthbox is a secure cellphone charger for bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that allows people to charge their phones when they need to. My good friend Adam Johnson came up with the idea while we were bartenders in NYC’s Meatpacking District dealing with this problem every night. Our experience as scene-y bartenders gave our product two key insights —highlight security and sexiness. Through some grit, dumb luck, and smart luck, we got funding and began the Quest to Scale into other markets and sectors with some notable ups and downs.

Along the way, there was one key lesson that we could always come back to for guidance — no matter who we worked with, whether it was a dive bar or Disney, as much as they liked seeing the product, they loved hearing the story about how we were bartenders. We saw an everyday problem first hand and did something to solve it. It is a great story.

To this day, it is clear to me that the power of that narrative — simple, plucky, aspirational — is what took Brightbox from a literal cocktail napkin idea to a business with hundreds of kiosks across the country and world. (One of my former coworkers just shared a Facebook memory from Internet Week 2012, where Brightbox shared a small booth in the back corner of an event with Uber. We obviously didn’t learn how to scale compared to them.)

Telling a good story is the foundation for growing a startup company (or a campaign or a religion). It’s what attracts users, talent, and investors that ultimately help build the product and the business. I have kept that lesson with me as I have started my second company, homeBody, and we drill it in to my students at CUNY Startups: Everything is built on the power of your unique narrative. There’s a big problem a lot of people have. But there’s an elegant solution. You’re the one who can make it. You’re the one who can get it to people. A lot of people. And it’s going to change everything.

This urgently needs to happen with the affordable housing crisis. The crisis is massive and painful, but housing advocates have not been able to craft a narrative to solve it that captures the nation’s attention. Coincidentally, as I worked on this blog this week, Citylab had an article about the nonprofit agency Public Interest who is trying to make an “Inconvenient Truth” type doc about the crisis to do just that. I hope they do it.

That’s why I’m so excited about Grounded Solutions CLT accelerator. It shows that a powerful narrative is forming about how to solve the housing crisis: communities taking control. First, the fact that Citibank is investing in it shows that at least some major financial institutions are coming around to the model. I have no love for the financial industry or its role in creating the housing crisis, but there is no way to solve it without them playing some role either. Second, creating a formal structure to grow more local CLTs spreads the model to more organizations and more communities. The more people hear about CLTs, the more they like them. The more they get started and succeed in one place, the more they will get started and succeed in other places.

The Ground Solutions accelerator isn’t like a traditional startup accelerator, but calling it that shows a willingness to adopt a startup vernacular, which is an important signal to the public (and press) that there is something cutting edge going on in the housing crisis. I hope that insight is embraced within the accelerator as well — Leveraging technology to form and manage CLTs; Adopting branding and growth hacking techniques to gain support; telling a compelling story to secure stakeholders in the community.

I’m excited to see the beginning of a convergence with my startup experience and my housing experience. Of course there are unique complexities in trying to scale a community-based model of housing that don’t compare to scaling a hardware startup, but there is at least one major similarity. It’s a heck of a story.

There is a massive, wide spread problem (phone batteries die, housing is too expensive) with a really simple, elegant solution (secure phone charger, community-owned housing.) As the accelerator gets off the ground, I hope that Grounded Solutions, their local partners, and other housing advocates continue to embrace the tools startups use to craft their narrative. The CLT model can be a game changer in the housing crisis if more people hear its story.