MSW, CSW. Community Practice Social Worker

Community Organizing Case Study: The Durham Community Land Trust

If you’re interested in affordable housing and/or the South, give it a read. It’s on the Durham Community Land Trust and how they approached community decay and rising housing prices.

a model of a house sits next to a key on a ring

This is a community practice research paper submitted for the course Assessing and Engaging Community for Social Change. When I can, I like to select topics related to the Southern US region. I found this case study on the Durham Community Land Trust and chose to explore it from a community organizing lens. As I’m not a local of Durham (have never even visited), I looked to many sources that incorporated voices from the community and researchers in the area. I hope I have done well in carrying these voices forward. Given that many in the South are exploring their own solutions to a lack of affordable housing and community degradation – including my hometown of Ruston, Louisiana where the Zion Traveler Community Development Corporation and the Real Change in Ruston initiatives were formed in 2020 – I also hope this work is read and considered and can positively inform change actions for the region.

Issue and cause

Durham, North Carolina, was founded in 1853 and “known as a banking and tobacco center” and hub of industry, education, and health within the state (City of Durham, n.d.). It was dubbed “The City of Tobacco” due to being home to “the largest producers of cigarettes in the world,” the American Tobacco Company and Liggett & Myers (Gray & Galande, 2011, p. 242). The Hayti community “started to coalesce about the turn of the century as formerly enslaved peoples settled in and began building” just outside the city and “remained an important place to the black community in Durham” through the first half of the 20th century (Morris, 2019, p. 25; Ward, 2012, p. 92). Hayti grew into a thriving community where Black citizens “had a sense of belonging,” and it was home to a “black-owned financial district that was located on four blocks of Parrish Street in downtown Durham” that was given the name Black Wall Street (Ward, 2012, p. 92; p.25). The community did so well that:

By the 20th century, Hayti comprised over 600 owned business and homes that gathered around streets today known as Fayetteville and Pettigrew. There were tobacco and cigar factories, textile and lumber mills, a drug and insurance company, a bank, movie theatre, bakery, barbershop, schools, churches, and a variety of retail institutions”

(Davis, 2013, p. 68)
An historic plaque commemorating Durham, North Carolina's contributions to music. Photographed by Michael Helms on July 9, 2006.
An historic plaque commemorating Durham, North Carolina’s contributions to music in the early 20th century.
Photo by Michael Helms, CC BY 2.5

At the middle of the 20th century, “more than half of the city’s African Americans” lived in the Hayti district (Whittemore, 2017, p. 238). However, the prosperity of the community was disrupted. In 1956 the city rezoned “60 acres of residentially zoned land southeast of the Hayti for industrial use” at the request of the Durham Industrial Development Corporation and within a decade residents complained the area had been environmentally degraded and there were “very few jobs available to Negroes in the industrial complex” (p. 242). This was one of the earliest instances in a pattern of upzoning/urban renewal efforts that ripped the Hayti community, but perhaps the most well-known is the construction of the Durham Freeway which required razing 200 acres of the Hayti district and dividing the community “right down the middle it cut us off. Part of us is on one side and part of us was on the other” (Davis, 2013, p. 103). While Black leaders in Durham supported the project based on the predominantly white city government’s promises to “fully compensate those who lost their homes and businesses, and to rebuild the historic Hayti district while addressing many of the problems that had been at the root of public discontent” these promises were not met (Ward, 2012, p. 93).

By the mid-1980s, citizens in Durham faced “rising housing prices, absentee landlords, and housing disrepair” (Durham Community Land Trustees, n.d.-b). American Tobacco Company left in 1987 and Liggett & Myers followed 13 years later, taking with them the city’s foundational industry. Thus, the environment was ripe for discontent leading to demands and actions for change. The Durham Community Land Trust (DCLT) began in 1987 “as a grassroots community organizing effort, from the bottom up rather than the top down” to address gentrification and a lack of affordable housing while promoting development of community leadership (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 244). DCLT “is sandwiched between downtown Durham (former home of the Black Wall Street, the Hayti district, and the tobacco warehouses and factories) and Duke University’s West Campus” (Gray and Miller-Cribbs, 2012, p. 403)

Community Practice Model

As stated in the previous section, the Durham Community Land Trust began as a bottom-up community organizing effort. Minkler and Wallerstein note “strict definitions of community organization suggest that the needs or problems should be identified by groups within the community, and not by an outside organization or change agent” (2012, p. 37). Community organizing is also “a craft that requires building an enduring network of people who identify with common ideals and who can engage in social action (Chávez, et al., 2010, p. 89). DCLT meets this definition as it was founded by neighborhood residents (most of the founders lived in the community) who “wanted to preserve homes that low-income owners and renters could continue to afford as neighborhood property values increased” and “to restore the community to the vibrancy of years past” (DCLT, n.d.-b). According to current Executive Director Selina Mack, “The residents of West End were basically fed up with being fed up” because “We were losing families who had lived in the community for several generations and there was very little investment in our infrastructure” (Childers, 2021).

Minkler and Wallerstein offer three different models of community organizing, and DCLT included a mix of all three. The first of these, community capacity development, “stresses consensus and cooperation as an organizing approach and building group identity and problem-solving ability as key goals” (Minkler and Wallerstein, 2012, p. 41). During the early years of DCLT, it “recruited and trained new neighborhood leaders” and “nurtured fledgling neighborhood associations” (Gray and Miller-Cribbs, 2012, p. 404). Staff and community members recruited and developed by DCLT renovated houses, “fought neighborhood crime, and helped open a community center for youth” (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 245). All this “changed the spirit of the neighborhood” and made residents feel cared for as people (p. 246).

The second model of community organizing is social planning and policy which “stresses the use of data and rational-empirical problem solving, while also making room for new approaches, including participatory planning and policy development” while the third, social advocacy, “emphasizes the use of pressure tactics, including confrontation, to help bring about concrete changes to redress power imbalances” (Minkler and Wallerstein, 2012, p. 41). These tie into community organizing as a craft that builds an enduring network as DCLT, armed with quantitative and qualitative data about housing prices and community safety, successfully pressured the city of Durham to pave dirt roads, install streetlights, and to direct resources to affordable housing. In the process they also built relationships with the city, law enforcement, local universities, and other organizations/associations which facilitated their work.


The impetus of forming the trust was for the community to address the problems of rising costs of housing, absentee landlords, gentrification (fostered by proximity to Duke University and North Carolina Central University), and disrepair of neighborhood properties. From the outset, the community took part in “identifying winnable and specific targets of change that unify and build community strength” which was used to “identify issues through community participation; decide targets as part of a larger strategy” (Minkler and Wallerstein, 2012, p. 45). Early on, they chose targets for action that were challenges but not insurmountable.

DCLT’s initial efforts began with a group of neighborhood volunteers who would get together on weekends to make necessary repairs on the homes of residents. Then it got a few dwellings donated by absentee landlords for low-income homebuyers, after which, Mack says DCLT began to acquire additional homes and land through donations or purchase, often using federal funds passed through the city of Durham.

(Childers, 2021, par. 6)
Woman using a sledgehammer on wooden floor to renovate a house.
Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

This illustrates that DCLT began with smaller wins that encouraged confidence and a sense of self-efficacy and built toward bigger targets that became winnable. They were first communities connecting resources – for example connecting those with skills for repairs to properties that needed repairs. Then they were activists making demands of their targets – a neighborhood requesting/demanding landlords donate neglected properties and pressuring the city to put funds toward affordable housing. The issue selection processes “[contributed] to community empowerment and [served] as a positive force for social change” and allowed DCLT to “build community research capacity along with leadership development, critical for building strong and sustainable organizations and coalitions” (Minkler and Wallerstein, 2012, p. 48).

The DCLT community explored possibilities and grew to do this more throughout the years. In the “middle years” they “created a separate community organizer position” which was devoted to “work on community outreach and community participation” (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 245). Though fluctuations in funding caused DCLT to terminate this position in later years, it offered the position again in 2018 to “work closely with the property management team listening to, and working to empower, over 250 residents across seven neighborhoods where DCLT owns properties in Durham” (DCLT, 2018). This role, therefore, is poised to engage with the Durham community and help generate and facilitate possibilities for growth. As it has grown, DCLT has also encouraged resident leaders to be involved in community groups that facilitate the exploration of possibilities. This will be discussed further in the next section.

Encouraging participation

In the beginning, most of the trust’s founders lived in the community” and “were white and recognized the need to involve black residents of the community” (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 244). In retrospect, some members of the community “felt the recruitment and retention of black residents was a struggle, probably due in part to Durham’s racial history” (p. 245). However, during DCLT’s “middle years…the executive director used organizing tactics (such as door knocking) to recruit new renters and homeowners and to develop leaders” (p. 244). To address the distrust due to racial tension and power imbalances (such as between the local government and residents), DCLT literally met hard-for-them-to-reach participants where they were to listen and learn and build trust.

The demanding nature of community organizing led to the creation of a community organizer position to help balance the organization’s housing development and property management responsibilities with its desire to encourage community participation. This was crucial for generating solutions and acquiring support because “stakeholder participation in planning is important for practical reasons of wanting more and better ideas and for legitimacy reasons as well—wanting a meaningful community mandate” (Briggs, 2003, p. 25). In 2018 the community organizer role was to “improve organizational communications, provide tenant education, connect residents in-need with social services, while guiding others to leadership development” with an understanding that “supporting neighborhood-level connectivity among and beyond DCLT’s residents will be key” (DCLT, 2018). Several responsibilities of the role were related to encouraging community members’ participation in change efforts, including:

  • Strengthen DCLT resident relationships, enhance residency advocacy and cultivate residents for meeting, speaking and community engagement opportunities.
  • Develop a pipeline of residents poised for leadership. Help them access trainings offered locally, regionally and nationally, including Durham CAN, Durham for All, and NeighborWorks America.
  • Build capacity among resident leaders to be active in Durham CAN, as well as other housing and city-based coalition initiatives. (DCLT, 2018)

DCLT is a member institution of Durham Congregation, Associations, and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN) and encourages its resident leaders to be active with Durham CAN. Durham CAN is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation with a mission “to develop local leadership and organized power across religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines to improve the conditions of families in Durham” (Durham CAN, 2022, p. 8). Therefore, whether DCLT has the funding for a full-time community organizer on staff or not, they can still have resident leaders involved in community organizing through Durham CAN and other efforts.

Metal art sculpture, with the word listen.
Metal art sculpture, with the word listen.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Durham CAN’s website states that “Every CAN campaign begins with listening. We come together to share stories about the issues that affect our lives, our families, our communities, then choose issues we all can support” (Durham CAN, n.d.). This fits with the first two steps of Freire’s code-centered five step approach. The educators of CAN are already community members, so they have already fulfilled the step of “[immersing] themselves in the community in which they will be working” and can easily progress to step two which is to “listen actively for generative themes—for pressing issues that community members mention and discuss” (Gamble, 2013, p. 332). While resources do not offer whether DCLT, Durham CAN, or its members engage in steps three and four of Freire’s approach – creating a representation of the generative them and sharing with the wider community in a decoding process – it seems quite possible these steps occur during campaign building and leaders “struggle through dialogue” with critical questions to collectively reach “a more critical understanding of their situation” (p. 332). After Durham CAN members share stories and choose issues to support, they “act strategically, holding government and corporate power players accountable for the common good” and “evaluate continuously” (Durham CAN, n.d.). This is the process of conscientization or consciousness raising in popular education that allows the learner to go “from passive to questioning consciousness, from questioning to analytical consciousness, and from analytical to active critical consciousness” (Gamble, 2013, p. 331).

Messaging and communications

Two fists painted on a wall. One is a light tan, the other is brown.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The trust’s initial goal, according to Executive Director Selina Mack, was “to stabilize and revitalize Durham’s West End neighborhoods” (TooMuchTv Inc., 2021). Early in its history, DCLT “was invited to renovate housing on the 700 South block of Buchanan Blvd with a neighborhood march to ‘take back the streets’” (Durham Community Land Trustees, n.d.-b). This march challenged narratives that the community was not worth investing in – narratives conveyed by decades of policy that led to disinvestment illustrated by a lack of infrastructure, decaying houses, and properties with absentee landlords. The idea that the residents of the neighborhood would “take back the streets” conveyed the message that they were invested in the neighborhood and deserved to feel safe and proud there, and they deserved stability and revitalization. This message was further communicated by the physical acts of renovating houses – reclaiming their physical and spiritual community in the process.

This message was also shared in the organization empowering people who previously “couldn’t even think about buying a house” to feel “a sense of pride” because “maybe one day they were going to have something to call their own” (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 246). Not only did DCLT develop and manage properties and facilitate home ownership, the trust also was involved in efforts to address other issues in neighbors’ lives which, in the words of one resident, “conveyed that the organization really cared about the person and the community, and buying a house is important but we care about you as a person” (Gray and Galande, 2011, p. 246). That combined with DCLT’s empirical successes – acquiring streetlights and paved roads, improving the quality of houses, partnering to create safe streets, etc. – further demonstrated the neighborhood was invested and deserved stability and revitalization and encouraged participation. DCLT’s messaging was successful enough and encouraged participation to the degree that it “acquired 100 units of affordable housing” and “two commercial buildings” within its first 25 years and got buy in from neighborhood members and community allies such as Partners Against Crime and local police (p. 244).

Though history of the DCLT and specifics of its messaging through the years is scant in the literature (including the trust’s own website), it is strong messaging. The trusts current values statement includes the main points “we believe in community,” “we believe in equity,” and “we believe in sustainability” with bullet points focused on the trust’s roles of property development and management (DCLT, n.d.-a). Messaging has likely (and necessarily) changed over time as the trust has grown, achieved success, faced setbacks, and reevaluated its position in a changing community across 35 years. A useful improvement to DCLT’s current messaging is to dig into the through-line from the past to the present to the vision for the future to tell more stories about where they started, what they went through and accomplished (and how), where they are now, and where they see themselves (the organization and the community) going. They can incorporate their history and goals in “storytelling to move people from feelings of stagnation to feelings of motivation” (ACLU of Ohio, 2020, p. 2)

Evaluating their success

Black exterior wall with "rents too high" etched in chalk
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

DCLT was so successful at increasing participation in the trust that they grew from an organization that renovated a handful of houses to an organization that owned dozens of properties within the first 25 years. They also were successful in stabilizing the neighborhood and preserving affordable housing – so much so that from 1990 to 2000, when “the mean per capita income… remained statistically significantly higher in Durham than in the DCLT tract, the DCLT tract owner-occupied housing rate nonetheless increased, and Durham’s did not” (Gray and Miller-Cribbs, 2012, p. 410). As rents increased over the decade, they increased less for properties managed by DCLT. “Between 1990 and 2000, the Durham rental mean increased by $218 (33% increase from the 1990 rate), but in the DCLT tract the rental mean increased only $158 (43% increase from the 1990 rate” (Gray and Miller-Cribbs, 2012, p. 411)

Many community members responded positively to the progress made by DCLT. In a case study by Gray and Galande, “Respondents almost unanimously felt that the physical appearance of the community improved over time” and “most respondents credited the CLT and the organizing work by residents for many of the positive changes” (2011, p. 245). However, at the time of that study and within the few years before “no community organizing or mobilizing occurred” and some residents felt this was neglect of a vital piece of the work.

We’re not doing the community organizing piece anymore, so its like all the work that’s been put in has things starting to go back in a different direction. And I understand that a lot of it has to come from the community people, but a lot of times people need somebody to nudge them along, and they don’t have anyone right now that’s doing that, so it’s starting to revert back to a lot of negativity…

(p. 245)

These comments and this study (which included 29 interviews and two focus groups with stakeholders) occurred prior to the 2018 community organizer job announcement and may have preceded deeper organizing involvement through Durham CAN and others in DCLTs network. It is possible DCLT may have used this study as well as the impact study by Gray and Miller-Cribbs a year later to evaluate success and make adjustments. This evaluation may have helped the trust with challenges of the moment so that a few years later DCLT was described as “an amazing, POC-led organization that provides and protects housing for vulnerable communities here in Durham, acting in direct opposition to capitalist housing and developer-based markets” while a resident offered they had gone “from no connection to City Hall… to grand connections in all departments” (Triangle North Carolina RG, 2018; TooMuchTv Inc., 2021.) The trust also gathers quantitative impact data it shares on its website which can be useful in evaluating accomplishments. Additionally, DCLT is “controlled by and accountable to a board of directors” that is one-third land trust residents and one-third people from communities where DCLT works, so board meetings may also function as regular participatory evaluations and help facilitate other self-evaluation such as focus groups and interviews of residents and community members. If DCLT is not using these methods, it could benefit from starting to do so because these provide useful qualitative data.


ACLU of Ohio. (2020, December). Story of Self Workbook.

Briggs, X. S. (2003). Organizing stakeholders, building movement, setting the agenda (pp. 1–28). Cambridge, MA: Community Problems Solving Project at MIT.

Chávez, V., Minkler, M., Wallerstein, N., & Spencer, M. S. (2010). Community organizing for health and social justice. In L. Cohen, V. Chavez, & S. Chehimi (Eds.), Prevention is primary: Strategies for community well-being (pp. 87–112).

Childers, L. (2021). Durham’s Community Land Trust Allows Generations of Families to Continue Living in Their Hometown. Shelterforce.

City of Durham. (n.d.). Welcome to the City of Durham.’s%20official%20birthday%20is%20April,land%20to%20build%20a%20station.

Davis, C. R. (2013). Black Durham residents’ fight to regain their power through rejecting the trickery of the Blue Devil (Order No. 3562715). Available from Ethnic NewsWatch; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1400009887).

Durham Community Land Trustees. (n.d.-a) About DCLT. Retrieved from

Durham Community Land Trustees. (n.d.-b) History. Retrieved from

Durham Community Land Trustees. (2018). Job Announcement – Community Organizer.

Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods. (n.d.) How to Get Involved.

Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods. (2021). Durham CAN 2021 Action Report.

Gamble, D. (2013). Chapter 14: Participatory methods in community practice. In M. Weil, M. Reisch, & M. Ohmer (Eds.), The handbook of community practice (2nd ed., pp. 237–344). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Gray, K. A., & Galande, M. (2011). Keeping “Community” in a Community Land Trust. Social Work Research, 35(4), 241-248.

Gray, K., & Miller-Cribbs, J. (2012). The Durham Community Land Trustees. Journal of Community Practice, 20(4), 402–413.

Minkler, M., & Wallerstein, N. (2012). Improving health through community organization and community building: Perspectives from health education and social work. In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing and community building for health (pp. 37–58). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Morris, G. D. L. (2019). Go to Durham, You Need the Inspiration. Financial History, (128), 24-27.

TooMuchTv Inc. (2021, September 8). Durham Community Land Trust. [Video file]. YouTube.

Triangle North Carolina RG. (2018). Triangle NC RG’s campaign to protect Durham housing!

Ward, A. R. (2012). Echoes in a changing urban landscape: Memories and place identity in Durham, North Carolina (Order No. 3549707). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1284160986).

Whittemore, A. H. (2017). Racial and Class Bias in Zoning: Rezonings Involving Heavy Commercial and Industrial Land Use in Durham (NC), 1945–2014. Journal of the American Planning Association, 83(3), 235–248.

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