Friday, December 20, 2013

Connecticut group trains renters and landlords to ‘bridge the divide’

Helping residents of its diverse community achieve homeownership is a core mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain (CT). In fact, the organization – which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year – was chosen to participate in NeighborWorks America’s pilot program when it first started training housing counselors in 1982.

But homeownership isn’t feasible or the desired option for some people, and as Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported this month, there is a growing shortage of affordable rental units. According to the report, the share of renters paying more than a third of their incomes for housing, traditionally considered the minimum threshold of affordability, rose to 50 percent in 2010. Much of the increase was among renters facing severe burdens (paying more than half of their incomes for housing) – a group now representing nearly 27 percent of tenants. 

That reality can be seen in central Connecticut as well. The area, which has a large population of Hispanic and Polish immigrants (giving the neighborhood around the organization’s office the nickname, “Little Poland”), has lost a lot of manufacturing operations over the years and now relies on service businesses for its livelihood. Unemployment is nearly 12 percent.  

The mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain is to help fill the gap in the supply of affordable housing – in part, through developing rental units, of which it now manages 25. The goal, says Executive Director Maureen Voghel, is to add 10 plus units annually for the next three years, along with two to four single-family homes. 

However, renting poses unique challenges – for both tenants and landlords. And while counseling is offered by many organizations for new homeowners, such training rarely is provided to people on both sides of the renting “equation.” NHS of New Britain is taking the lead by offering preparation classes for both existing and prospective renters and landlords.

“Sometimes, renters become landlords themselves,” observes Evelyn Branch, supervisor of Homeownership and Foreclosure programs for NHS. “It can make sense, once they are ready to purchase, to buy a multi-family unit – like a duplex – and rent out the extra space for some income. But becoming a landlord isn’t easy.”

Participants in the NHS-NB training class for landlords
hear from a police officer.
In the last year, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority began requiring landlords to receive education on their responsibilities, and with the closest alternative site a less-frequent program in Hartford, the NHS class attracts a regular attendance of about a dozen for each monthly, three-hour session.

The “Landlord 101” workshop, says Branch, covers everything from making the decision to purchase a rental unit and become a landlord, to how to screen tenants, maintain the property, manage their finances and – if necessary – evict residents in accordance with the appropriate protocols. Recently, the curriculum was supplemented to include the importance of green maintenance practices to keep costs low for everyone.

In October, NHS began offering a similar class, but for tenants. In the tenant class, participants discuss how to effectively communicate concerns to their landlords, ways they can bring down energy costs and their rights during eviction. In the future, NHS hopes to forge a partnership with other community-based organizations to provide legal services through pro bono attorneys to both tenants and landlords.

“It’s a two-way street,” explains Branch. “Both have rights, and both have responsibilities. But no one prepares them for that. Our goal is to help them build a good, professional relationship, based on open communication. ”

‘Aging in place’ transformed from dream to reality in Ohio

As with other communities across the country, the Rust Belt town of Springfield, OH, is aging. With high unemployment and the resulting exodus of young people, the population of the small town in southwestern Ohio is increasingly in need of affordable housing tailored to the needs of older individuals who want to stay in their communities, but need a little help to do so.

“Springfield is very segregated in terms of income,” explains Tina Koumoutsos, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Partnership (NHP) of Greater Springfield, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. “Most of the new development is on the north side, where the more affluent residents live. People in the southern neighborhoods don’t have as many options.”

NHP-GS is doing its part to change that, however. In 2011, it partnered with the City of Springfield to leverage funds from the second round of HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created to assist communities whose viability is at risk in the wake of the wave of foreclosures. This funding, says Koumoutsos, was a “blessing. We had no debt to service, and could use the project instead to generate a revenue stream to invest back in our work.”

One year later, NHP offered 12 two-bedroom duplexes for rent, specifically for individuals age 55 or older who are making 50 percent of the area median income or less. In addition to reasonable rents, affordability is assured through green building practices that keep energy costs low.

“We designed these units with ‘smart growth’ in mind,” says Koumoutsos, who was the city’s housing coordinator before she became the founding director of NHP. “That means people and their special needs were our focus, not cars.”

For example, the new development was positioned to be “walkable,” with a YMCA, government offices and a performing arts center within easy reach. The property manager of the complex owns another, larger senior-service project and provides case-manager services to both developments, including recreational activities and transportation when needed.

Front porches (without steps, so people with disabilities
can easily access them) are main features of the new
walkable community for seniors.
In the units themselves, garages are positioned to the back of the homes, shifting the focus to front-yard porches where residents are encouraged to socialize with each other. The University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, which is following more than 7,000 individuals, concluded that living in a neighborhood where you have strong social ties has as much physical benefit as not smoking.

In addition, the development was built with a goal of “zero steps.” Koumoutsos explains that NHP wanted the residents to be able to safely age in place, as well as to welcome disabled friends and relatives. That means no stairs that could become wheelchair obstacles, as well as special touches such as walk-in showers in the bathrooms and accessible kitchen cabinets. At the same time, however, the NHP team worked hard to make the look inviting, rather than institutional, and the second bedroom in each unit offers plenty of space for visiting children and grandchildren.

“All of the units filled almost immediately, and we have a waiting list of about 100,” says Koumoutsos. “We are in discussions now with the city about building more, since we own the adjacent land.”

“Impact” is what Koumoutsos and her team strive for. A recent study documented that in the last five years, NHP of Greater Springfield has contributed $43 million to the local economy, supported 74 jobs and generated $51 million in first mortgages.

“We used to have to struggle to make the case that providing affordable housing has an overall impact on the community at large,” she says. “Now no one questions it.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

West Virginia group demonstrates big impact despite small staff, few resources

Imagine you lead a four-person organization that serves a city with a population of just more 7,000 people, 20 percent of whom are below the poverty line, and a lack of traditional funders like big banks. That’s the challenge John Elza, executive director of the HomeOwnership Center (HOC) of Elkins, WV, faces daily.

And then there is the additional dearth of communications channels. “Reaching customers is challenging. There’s not a lot of media and only one daily newspaper. Getting information out is hard,” Elza says. “A lot of folks don’t have a computer.”

However, the smallness in size and resources haven’t stopped HOC from working to achieve a big impact in the 15 years since its founding, despite the lingering impact of the Great Recession.

“Getting to 15 years after the recession was challenging,” Elza admits. “Production numbers were down, but are starting to come back.  We just ended Fiscal Year ‘13 with a 26 percent increase in production over the prior year.”

HOC grew out of the Randolph County Housing Authority, which Elza describes as the incubation unit for the group. “It decided to spin off a private nonprofit that could do different things.”

The organization became a licensed state mortgage broker and then a NeighborWorks charter organization in 2001. This transition was important for HOC.

“The Housing Authority couldn't go after private funding or foundations because it wasn't a 501c3,” Elza explains. “We wanted to become a licensed broker to be more effective. Initially, the focus was on pre-purchase counseling, since there were certain types of mortgages that didn't require a broker's license. When we received our broker's license, it opened the doors to assisting others.”

HOC assists a mostly rural population, providing education and counseling, financing and development primarily to low- and moderate-income households. “We serve an eight-county service area of 130,000 people,” Elza elaborates. “Randolph County is 146 square miles. We’re up in the mountains. Tourism is a big economic factor here. There’s not a lot of actual industry, and only one regional lender in the area. From a fundraising standpoint, that’s a challenge. We don’t have a big banking presence.”

HOC’s mission is to provide safe, affordable housing, focusing on sustainable homeownership, self-sufficiency, sound environments, healthy quality of life and communities that can sustain these values. To fulfill these goals, HOC provides homeownership education and counseling to more than 200 families each year, with more than 50 becoming home buyers. The organization has been so successful in stretching its resources to achieve its mission that its staff often works with individuals elsewhere in the state who want to offer similar services.

Elza recalls one particular family’s story that illustrates the impact that can be achieved, even on a small scale.

Heather Sackett-Scott, William Scott and their two
children in front of their new home.
Heather Sackett-Scott and William Scott have four children, including one with disabilities. They needed to find a home that was both affordable and accessible to a disabled child. HOC provided counseling and education for the family, helping them to become mortgage-ready. The organization then engaged several partners to provide affordable financing. Highland Community Builders provided a lot, CommunityWorks provided the first mortgage at a below-market rate and Woodlands Development Group constructed the accessible home and also provided partial subsidized financing. HOC processed the blended mortgage loan.

Sackett-Scott said afterward, "I’m just grateful that there are programs like this. And I’m pleased to know that there are people doing these things for other people. If it weren't for this program, my family wouldn't be able to get a house like this, a nice home. It just wouldn't happen."

Written by Lindsay Moore, senior media relations specialist for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Salt Lake City group fights crime by putting youth to work

Safety is one of the most basic requirements of desirable communities. If residents are afraid to walk down their streets, or even to socialize in their own front yards, they will flee the first chance they get – and certainly won’t engage with their community, much less their neighbors.

“We learned early on that we couldn’t just focus on housing,” says Maria Garciaz, executive director of NeighborWorks Salt Lake. “What’s the point of developing more housing if the crime rate is going up and people are afraid to live there?”

That’s what her organization discovered when it first began serving the west side of Salt Lake City (the quintessential “other side of the tracks”). It was 1982, and as members of the organization talked to stakeholders in the community, one problem kept surfacing: the neighborhood was increasingly ruled by gangs. Thus, the West Side Youth Project was born.  It gave youth hanging out on the street corners productive work, along with the skills and motivation to forge a new direction for their lives. Garciaz was probation officer for the local juvenile court at the time, and many of the youth were her charges. It was a natural fit for her to come on board, first as a volunteer, then as director of what came to be known as the YouthWorks program. Garciaz was named executive director in 1989, just a few years before the organization joined the NeighborWorks network – a milestone for which it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Other services offered by NeighborWorks Salt Lake are commercial-development projects to reverse blight in retail districts, development of affordable housing and resident leadership training.

In the early years, YouthWorks targeted hard-core gang members, with youth enrolled for a year at a time. “We saw some amazing changes in their lives,” Garciaz recalls. “Last Monday, a young man who graduated from the program in 1989 walked through the door. I said, ‘I’m so glad to see you’re alive!’ He was so much more than alive…He now has a successful job as a machinist. Another graduate is now on our board of directors!”

A YouthWorks team frames a new, affordable home.
Today, YouthWorks focuses on prevention -- helping larger numbers of young people before they become “hard core.” About 14 youth are enrolled in each three-month “crew” – mostly 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year, and as young as 14 in the summers. Three days a week, they work from 1-6 p.m. building one of the organization’s affordable homes – from framing the building to pouring concrete and painting walls (with expert contractors providing on-site training). “Being able to build a home, to see their work come to such concrete, successful fruition, teaches so many important lessons,” explains Garciaz. “For instance, if the framing doesn’t turn out right, they can take it apart and re-build it. What better analogy for life?”

On the afternoons when they aren’t working on a home or community project, the youth learn the financial-management skills they need to wisely spend the weekly stipend they earn while employed with YouthWorks. Sometimes, they do painting jobs for other nonprofits such as museums, in return for free tickets or a pizza party. “It’s a subtle way to engage them with the community,” she says.

Teamwork is a strong emphasis of the youth program.
Twice a year, female crews are recruited to assure that hormones don’t get in the way of the learning experience. The organization also actively recruits “new Americans” for all of its sessions. Since Utah is a federally designated resettlement state, many youth now come from families who emigrated from countries as far-flung as Afghanistan and Somalia. To date, more than 1,800 youth have graduated from the program.

“We define success as completing high school, staying out of the court system and – once they graduate – either enrolling in college or getting a job,” says Garciaz. Program participants are surveyed a year after they graduate from YouthWorks, but she knows that the impact has longevity. One group of about 100 graduates was contacted 10 years later, and 80 percent owned their own homes, with many starting their own businesses.

“This isn’t the kind of program that produces immediate results, and it will never be economically self-sufficient,” says Garciaz. “But think about it. Seventy-five percent of our kids are poor, often from families of color, who aren’t reached by any other program. They’d be lost to the streets without YouthWorks. What better investment is that?”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

‘Families and friends’ good for social support, not housing advice

By Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America

It’s been five years since the full force of the Great Recession hit the United States, with a combination of risky mortgages and declining housing prices forcing approximately 4.6 million families into foreclosure. While more than 13 million households are still underwater, saddled with homes worth less than their mortgage loans, the crisis is losing steam. Foreclosures fell 3 percent in 2012, according to RealtyTrac, and this year is looking even better. In October, foreclosure filings were 28 percent lower than the same month in 2012.

Still, many families are still struggling, and making smart choices will continue to be critical for both the next wave of new house buyers and existing owners working to hold on to their homes. In the aftermath of the crisis, are people now equipped with the information they need to negotiate the right mortgage, as well as to make other pivotal choices? If not, do they know where to go to get help that can be trusted?

To learn the answers to those and related questions, NeighborWorks America commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults, which was conducted by Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company, Sept. 23-26.  Among the many findings: Seventy-five percent of adults describe the the home-buying process as "complicated," and a quarter (24 percent) admitted to not being knowledgeable about the different kinds of mortgages.

So where, then, do they turn for advice when buying a house or avoiding foreclosure – a decision that is usually among the biggest financial choices they will make in their lifetimes? More than any other source, “family and friends” are relied upon most often.

When respondents who said they are considering buying a house were asked where they go to first for advice, more than a third (39 percent) cited family and friends who had already purchased a home. Distant runners-up were the Internet (17 percent) and real estate agents (16 percent). Far behind were housing counselors and (more specifically) non-profit homeownership advisers (3 and 5 percent, respectively).

The patterns for seeking information on foreclosure prevention are similar.  Individuals are most likely to turn to family, friends and co-workers (30 percent), followed by the Internet (27 percent), real estate agents (26 percent) or mortgage lenders (23 percent). Just 17 percent of respondents reported they are “very likely” to consult with a housing counselor. The reliance on friends, family and co-workers is especially seen among adults under 55 (37 percent) – particularly women.

Advantages of nonprofit housing counselors

There is nothing wrong, of course, with calling upon your social network. In fact, much research has documented the importance of family and friends in helping individuals cope with all sorts of stress. However, rarely are they professionals in the field of housing or banking, and even when they have gone through the process of home buying or loan modification themselves, each family’s financial situation is unique, not to mention the fact that rules vary depending on the lender and the timing.

“Having a supportive family is wonderful, and the Internet offers a wealth of information,” says Rose Marie Roberts, an advisor with the NeighborWorks Homeownership Center in Utica, NY. “But I wouldn’t go from there to action.” For example, when trying to prevent foreclosure, she notes, “rules and available programs, plus the related legal aspects, change almost daily. It’s a challenge to stay on top of them. But that’s the job of a housing counselor.” (Roberts talks about foreclosure counseling in a NeighborWorks America video.)

With the Government Accountability Office reporting that complaints about fraudulent “foreclosure rescue” schemes jumped from 9,000 in 2009 to more than 18,000 in 2012, it’s critical to have a professional advocate on your side. (Since 2007, NeighborWorks America has managed, at the request of Congress, the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling program. It funds more than 1,700 agencies that have assisted nearly 1.6 million homeowners struggling to stay in their houses – without charging a fee. In fact, one sure sign of a scam is an individual or program that attempts to charge for this service. Yet, the survey found that slightly more than a third – 33 percent – of people think that free help is not as good as counsel that you pay to receive.)

A nonprofit housing counselor can help head off
trouble during the complicated home-buying process.
While realtors and mortgage lenders are essential advisors as well, housing counselors with nonprofit organizations such as those that are supported by NeighborWorks America take a holistic approach to each client’s situation – helping them evaluate far more than how much a particular house is worth, which mortgage they can afford or whether they are eligible for re-financing.

“For example, some of the residents in our community are attracted to the less-expensive homes one county over,” recounts Letty Plasencia, a counselor with NeighborWorks Orange County (CA). “But you have to look at more than the sales price. How much time and money will it take to commute to your job, for instance?”

There is hard data showing that pre-purchase counseling by a trained counselor works. A study conducted of 75,000 loans originated between October 2007 and September 2009 showed that clients receiving pre-purchase counseling and education from NeighborWorks organizations were one-third less likely to fall behind on their payments during  the two years after receiving their mortgage.

It’s not surprising that most people don’t think first of turning to a nonprofit housing counselor. Most local organizations do not have the budget for extensive public education. (One of the most successful national campaigns was the “Nothing is worse than doing nothing” campaign launched by NeighborWorks America and the Ad Council, centered on a series of public service announcements for broadcast. Another is the Loan Modification Scam Alert website and hotline.) Instead, local organizations typically rely on referrals and word-of-mouth. The good news is that clients do spread the word to friends and family. And many states and organizations, such as unions, have institutionalized referrals to housing counselors for residents or employees who find themselves underwater.

“In New York, lenders are required to notify homeowners in trouble,” says Roberts. “The problem is that they often don’t trust the lender by that point, or they assume they are a lost cause and no one can help them. I’d say 75 percent of the time, we get these individuals late in the game, from a lawyer or Supreme Court judge who handles settlements.”

The challenge for housing organizations is to build and better leverage relationships with a diverse array of other community stakeholders, such as schools and health clinics, to spread the word about their services to people before they need it. (And of course, expanded demand would require increased staff.) It is clear, counselors agree, that the best time to see a housing adviser is early on, prior to any critical decision-making.

Kevin Washington, a counselor with Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City (NHS-NYC) who specializes in foreclosure intervention, gives this example: “By the time people get to me, they often have gotten advice from a neighbor down the block who has been through foreclosure before, and they end up getting further in trouble. For example, sometimes these clients close all of their accounts down to pay off their debts, but that’s very bad for their credit scores. Plus, you’ll need some money to cover down payment and closing costs (to buy a more affordable house). You don’t need to pay off your debts; you just need to make the required payments. If they get to us too late, and they’ve already made mistakes, they have to wait even longer (to buy) so they can build their assets back up again.”

But perhaps Ruth Pena, another counselor with NHS-NYC, sums up the value of a housing counselor the best: “We create an action plan, and then hold (our clients’) hands through the entire process. Who else will do that?”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Missouri group revitalizes neighborhoods with mixed-income housing and urban orchards

When we hear about declining downtown districts beginning to become trendy again, it’s good news. But there’s usually a downside: As property values shoot up, affordable housing becomes scarce and low-income residents are pushed out.

That’s the challenge faced by Kansas City, MO. And the Westside Housing Organization – a NeighborWorks member celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this year – is determined to assure that affordable housing remains central to the downtown community’s identity.

Westside serves a primarily Latino population, a demographic that first began making its way to the city in the 1920s and ‘30s for jobs with the railroad, explains Executive Director Gloria Ortiz Fisher, whose own family emigrated from Mexico. The organization was founded in 1973 to lead residents’ fight against the loss of their homes to two new highways. Although they lost that struggle, Westside (named for the neighborhood on the west side of the city’s downtown district) developed into a strong local advocate for residents, and is today the only community development corporation in Kansas City for which a significant focus is Latinos.

As the railroad declined, so did the town’s economy, with the West Side’s working-class residents finding employment in restaurants, hotels and similar, small, service-based businesses. However, that all changed in 2009 when the Sprint Center – an indoor arena for concerts and other entertainment -- was built downtown, followed by a host of other attractions.

“The West Side is now a desirable place to live again,” says Fisher. “There are new businesses coming in and lots of creative artist types. Our focus is to make sure affordable, multi-family housing remains in the mix.”

Westside is headquartered
in a renovated firehouse,
rehabbed to green
Westside has long been in the business of developing affordable housing to nurture mixed-income neighborhoods. In the 1980s, Westside Housing began acquiring and rehabbing older apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and now has a portfolio of 165 rental units. The organization also facilitated the development of 120 new, affordable houses. Today, it is accelerating that work and hopes to double its rental units to 300. Meanwhile, Westside is eying an old high school, long since closed as young families left the urban core, which it would like to acquire for housing as well as community space. Energy-efficiency is emphasized during construction, both to keep residents’ utility bills low and continue its leadership role. (In December 2012, Westside was recognized as a NeighborWorks America Green Organization.)

“We operate with an average 98 percent occupancy,” says Fisher. “There is always a waiting list.”

Still, it’s a challenge, and many working-class families from the West Side neighborhood are moving to less-expensive homes to the historic northeast district. So, Westside has expanded to serve them, since an older community development corporation in that neighborhood had closed down.

Two residents of the neighborhood water
one of the orchard's trees.
“You can get a house there for $35,000, but there is a lot of crime, and 25 percent of the buildings are abandoned or vacant,” says Fisher. “It’s a good place for fearful immigrants to stay under the radar.”

To help prevent crime through greater community engagement, Westside is recruiting resident leaders to organize clean-ups, advocating for sidewalk construction, starting community gardens and partnering with the police department to implement a program called “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design,” including window repairs and the trimming of shrubs and trees that can hide illicit activity.

One of its more creative projects is an urban orchard designed to accomplish several goals – increase resident engagement (and thus discourage crime), encourage sustainable living and alleviate the “food desert” the area had become. In partnership with SkillsUSA (a nonprofit that trains students in vital job and leadership skills) and TimberlandPro (a footwear manufacturer), and with the help of neighborhood volunteers, Westside Housing planted a 2.5-acre orchard in an empty grass lot behind a community center. Nearly two years later, the orchard is home to more than 200 fruit trees and berry bushes. The trees and shrubbery help improve the poor urban air quality and mitigate storm water runoff, and Westside offers the fruit free for all residents.

“I don’t see broken windows when I walk through a community,” says Fisher. “I see opportunities.”

If you'd like to see for yourself the good work Westside Housing is doing, attend the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Kansas City, MO! At the Dec. 11 symposium, "Real-World Solutions for Community Transformation," one of the "mobile workshops" will be held at its facility.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wisconsin group to transform old armory to indoor farm staffed by returning vets

When NeighborWorks Green Bay (WI) bought 815 Chicago St. in 2002, the organization assumed it would rehabilitate the building, like the others it purchased, into multi-unit housing. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was that the building, an old armory that long ago served the needs of local military families, had 14-inch-thick cement slab floors that made the cost of redevelopment prohibitively expensive. So the building sat vacant, waiting for the day when it would be demolished.

Workers clear debris from the old armory.
Today, after the better part of a decade spent in a holding pattern, there is budding hope that the old armory will get its long-deserved rebirth. As part of a partnership between NeighborWorks Green Bay and local green agro-businesses, the old armory is being assessed for its potential as Green Bay’s first indoor farm. The idea sprouted after Noel Halvorsen, executive director of NeighborWorks Green Bay, participated in a local social-innovation leadership program and learned about creative urban farming projects around the country. Shortly thereafter, Halvorsen was contacted by local hydroponics specialists who also saw potential in the armory.

Research now is underway to
determine what crops would
grow best in the "Farmory."
When completed, the “Farmory” – as it has come to be known – will not only supply food locally throughout the year but will also operate as an agricultural learning center with a focus on training returning veterans.

“We think converting the armory back into service as a training center for military folks returning from overseas would be a great life for the building and an asset for the neighborhood,” Halvorsen says.. The project is undergoing rigorous business planning and analysis to test its feasibility and the results to date are promising. NeighborWorks Green Bay hopes in the next few months to have a full business plan and training curriculum in place, with construction well underway in 2014.

It is this kind of creative thinking that characterizes NeighborWorks Green Bay’s success in the northeast region of Wisconsin it serves. The organization, which is celebrating its 20th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, started out as a small-scale local initiative that offered tool lending, homeownership preservation and small “scrape-and-paint” projects. Over the years, the geography it serves has grown, as has its local partnerships and programming.

For example, another creative local project that NeighborWorks Green Bay is spearheading is a volunteer time bank.  The time bank, led by a team that the organization sent to NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute two years ago, is an online system for recording and rewarding volunteer exchanges, enabling local “Samaritans” to capitalize on their skills. For example, one person can exchange an hour earned walking a neighbor’s dogs to get his or her home repainted. The plan received initial support from a CLI planning grant and is in a test phase this winter to evaluate the software platform. Next February, NeighborWorks Green Bay plans to launch it publicly in select neighborhoods before hopefully introducing it community-wide in the summer.

By bringing together unique local assets through innovative projects and programs, NeighborWorks Green Bay is building a better community.

Written by Lydia Wileden, program specialist for community stabilization at NeighborWorks America. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Forty-five years after founding, Pennsylvania group helps future homebuyers achieve ‘financial freedom’

When visitors walk into the NeighborWorks America offices in DC, one of the first images they see is a floor-to-ceiling painting of Dorothy Mae Richardson, along with the quote, “I believe people get their roots down when they own their own houses….take pride in them. That, in turn, is good for the whole city.”

Dorothy Mae Richardson
These wise words can be generalized to cities everywhere, but in 1968, Richardson – the “founding mother” of NeighborWorks America -- was speaking specifically about Pittsburgh, where she enlisted bankers and government officials to support her block club’s efforts to improve her neighborhood. Together, they persuaded 16 financial institutions and a local foundation to put up the loans needed to create opportunities for affordable homeownership. They named the program Neighborhood Housing Services, and it served as the model for other programs that followed -- today known as NeighborWorks organizations.

Forty-five years later, the NeighborWorks network encompasses more than 240 such organizations, and the group founded by Richardson is still going strong, known as NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. The dynamics of the community, however, along with the services needed by residents, have changed – and the organization has adapted along with it.

“More people own their own homes here now, thanks to our efforts,” says Margie Howard, education specialist with NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania. “But we’ve realized that more than homeownership education and counseling are needed.  Residents also need help keeping their homes in good shape, staying out of foreclosure and managing their budgets to make it all affordable. In particular, we are serving a growing number of low-income, single heads of household. Race isn’t the issue here; economics is.”

While the organization has offered financial education for youth for the past five years, recent support from the Heinz Endowments has made it possible to expand its efforts to include the entire family, combating generational poverty.

 “We saw that parents weren’t teaching their children about money management – mainly because they themselves didn’t learn it,” Howard explains. “You see lots of instances of a mom spending $300 on shoes for her child, yet there’s a shortage of food in the house, or maybe the family is about to be evicted. It’s not just about teaching parents how to budget; it’s about changing attitudes and behavior around money.”

Youth don’t get financial education in the schools either, says Howard. “Schools are test- rather than life-skills-oriented.”

One of the youth financial-education classes
The organization’s youth financial-education program enrolls participants as young as 14 up through age 25, with instruction provided in four, one-hour classes. The program’s practical approach encourages participants to analyze real-life spending choices, such as getting ready for prom.

“The average girl realizes it will cost about $3,000 for a one-day event; for boys, it’s more like $1,000.  Many are okay with these figures when it’s their parents who foot the bill,” explains Howard. “But then they are asked what will happen if their mom has been laid off, or is working a minimum-wage job. How will she afford that while keeping up with the bills? Some of the students find ways to cut back like having a friend style their hair or using a parent’s car instead of renting a fancy one. Others decide to skip the prom altogether. The goal is to teach them to analyze their wants vs.  their needs. We see how their thinking changes when they realize they might have to pay for things themselves.”

The key, says Howard, is to separate spending from emotional triggers, starting with tracking where the money is going with a daily log. Ideally, major spending decisions should be made collectively, by the entire family.  Although teenagers typically prefer to attend workshops with youth from their own age group, family members from different generations are encouraged to come to one of the workshops together. Howard recalls one time when a 10-year-old girl came with her mother to a class because she didn’t want to go to the gym with her brother. After the workshop, the little girl went up to the instructor and proudly reported that she had her own bank account. The teacher asked what the girl would do with the savings, and she replied, “I want to have a princess birthday party.”

“A 10-year-old is breaking the cycle by planning ahead to make sure she has the money she needs to meet her goals,” says Howard. “We’ve created a saver!”

Long-term results from the financial-capability workshops are still being assessed, but the anecdotes are promising. One recent evening, for instance, Howard was approached at a community event by Essence Howze, who completed the organization’s financial-education program five years before, when she was just 16. Always ambitious, Howze first began earning money at age 9, manning a refreshment stand in front of her home. “I would sell iced tea and lemonade to joggers,” she laughs.

Essence Howze
However, self-teaching could get her only so far. When she was in 10th grade, Howze saw a flyer on a bulletin board, promoting NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania’s youth financial-education program. Howze enrolled, and the practical skills she learned, she says, enabled her to open her own savings account and enter community college, where today she is a sophomore studying business management. Always ambitious, she has supplemented her studies with extracurricular activities such as an internship with The Salvation Army’s Career Development Center, and recently started her own business -- which she calls “Silver Linings,” through which she helps others overcome personal barriers like those she faced during a troubled family life.

“Taking the NeighborWorks financial-education course gave me my financial freedom. It helped me avoid so many mistakes, and now I’m helping others,” Howze says, recalling how she showed her college roommate how to read the “fine print” when a credit card company tried to sign her up. “I refer back to the materials I got in those workshops all the time. It wasn’t just financial management I was empowerment.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Youth in San Francisco's Chinatown transform historic alleyways

Youth lead a tour through San Francisco's Chinatown
Step off the main roads of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of alleyways.  At each turn there is history: opium dens, a barbershop where Frank Sinatra used to get the perfect cut and thousands of other, untold stories from one of America’s oldest ethnic villages.  You’ll also see something you wouldn’t expect: teenagers leading tours with expert proficiency, sharing their story of how they cleaned up these neglected public spaces.

Back in 1991, Norman Fong, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (which is celebrating its fifth year as a NeighborWorks network member), reached out
to local youth and asked them how they could help the community.  Their response was simple: Clean up the local alleyways that had been neglected by both the city and the community.  Chinatown’s historic alleyways are not considered public infrastructure, so the city would not take responsibility for their care; over time, they began to overflow with refuse and waste from the restaurants and businesses that filled the area.  Since traditional open space is limited, these students immediately saw an opportunity to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and went to work.

Students clean the alleyways. (Photo
by James Ng)
Fong’s inaugural group of eight Galloway High School students in the “Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project”  started by grading the alleyways just as they were in school, with marks of A, B, C, D or F.  They worked to have a local newspaper publish the grades, alerting the public to the dire state of their own space.   Then they got to work: washing walls and roads and sweeping away dirt and debris. Soon the community took notice.  Individuals began walking the alleyways again and local restaurants that had been dumping oil and refuse into the alleys began to take care of their waste properly.

A few years later, Fong set up a meeting at the city’s department of public works bureau of street use and mapping to discuss the alleyways.  Although the city had spent the previous several decades dodging the work of cleaning these alleys, the amazing progress of the students could not be ignored. The city commissioned its own master plan allowing the students an opportunity to expand their work and partner with the local government. Jointly, Chinatown CDC and the student volunteers worked to develop a master plan for the city’s entire network of 41 alleyways, describing the current state and the work needed to make them a place the community could use again.  They went door to door visiting with local businesses and residents to make the case for their plan, and in 1998 the city adopted the guidelines authored by students.

Murals now beautify many of the alleyways.
The students’ master plan went beyond cleaning the alleyways to include initiatives to reduce illegal parking, improve pedestrian safety and access for the disabled, add green features and include more beautification efforts like murals.  Since adoption of the plan, five phases featuring the renovation of 11 alleyways have been completed.  The public space transformed by the work of these youth benefits the community overall, including more commerce for local businesses that rely on the millions of tourists who visit each year.

Beyond their work creating clean and safe public spaces the youths have also started a small business that leads tours of the alleys.

Fong believes that the youth of a community are more than the future, but also very much the present. “The youth know what needs to be done like everyone else, but they took on the responsibility to do it and the results speak for themselves,” he says.

Written by Jason Powers, national public affairs and communications adviser for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Atlanta group helps homebuyers save ‘green’ with green housing

Whether housing is affordable is determined by so much more than its purchase price or monthly rent. High energy costs also can be a heavy financial burden on families whose incomes already are stretched. According to the national Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs, compared with 3.5 percent for other households.

Resources for Residents and Communities (RRC) in Atlanta, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a NeighborWorks network member this year, hopes to help homeowners reduce their costs by incorporating an array of green features in its new single-family development, Legacy Pointe.

Legacy Pointe will be a small subdivision within Atlanta’s Reynoldstown community consisting of eco-friendly, pre-fabricated homes for purchase.

“The uniqueness is the development will be mixed-income,” says Jill Arrington, CEO of RRC. “The [homes] that will be affordable will be held in a community land trust to keep them perpetually affordable.”

To earn its “eco-friendly” label, Legacy Pointe will feature energy-efficient LED lighting in the common areas, pervious concrete (highly porous material that allows precipitation to pass through and re-charge ground water levels) in the parking  lot and landscaping that requires very little watering.  Each home also will include separate lines for hot and cold water (thus reducing waste) and temperature controls that reduce reliance on the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system.

“We didn’t have to turn on the HVAC unit in our model home at all this summer,” Arrington says. “Even last winter, we never had to turn on the heat.”

The first model home in Legacy Pointe was assembled so
quickly it was like "magic."
With such features, it’s no wonder the Reynoldstown community is already abuzz about the new development.  Arrington recounts the day in 2010 that New World Home, a national green home builder and RRC’s partner in this effort, built the first house that inspired the idea of Legacy Pointe.

“They rolled everything in at 7 that morning, [put] the structure in place, and by 5 p.m. that day they locked it with a key,” recalls Arrington with a laugh. Reynoldstown residents were slightly surprised by a house that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.  “If you left early that morning, you saw a vacant lot.  So when you got home later that night and saw a house sitting there, it would have freaked you out.”

Reynoldstown, which sits less than 10 minutes east of downtown Atlanta, began experiencing growth in its housing market after RRC redeveloped the community in the late 1990s.  Mitchell Brown, RRC’s COO, notes that homes in the community are in high demand.

 “Reynoldstown is now one of the hottest neighborhoods in Atlanta. The average house is priced at $225,000 to $250,000, but they’re selling for around $300, 000,” he says.  “RRC has helped turn the neighborhood around to be a place where people want to live.”

Zach and Anastasia (shown with their daughter, Penelope)
purchased the first model home in Legacy Pointe.
This probably explains why the first model home for Legacy Pointe sold before the actual development is even complete.  The lucky homebuyer?  A client in RRC’s homebuyer education class.

 “The fact that we can provide a quality home for a relatively affordable price to clients in our homebuyer education classes is a win-win,” says Arrington.

As Reynoldstown continues to grow, RRC remains committed to ensuring its residents can stay in the community, in homes that are affordable.

“One of the goals of our founding CEO, Young Hughley Jr., was to provide units of permanent affordability,” explains Arrington. “Legacy Pointe is just one of the projects we have in the works to do this.”

Written by Constance Troutman, public relations specialist for NeighborWorks America. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Veterans in trouble need more than ceremonies and discounts

My father and mother at my daughter's
wedding -- his last public event before
he died.
When my father died in August, the funeral home director suggested to my mother that a military honor guard attend his memorial service, in recognition of his deployment with the Army in World War II. The two young men did not treat the assignment as routine or strange, as I would imagine it would be, to “intrude” on such a private event for someone you never knew. After the trumpet was sounded and the flag folded, one of them knelt in front of my frail, aging mother, looked her directly in the eye, and in a soft voice, thanked her – and my father – for his service. It was beautiful, and touching, and I was thankful for the recognition of a life well-lived.

Veterans and soldiers still in active duty are frequently honored in ceremonies such as this, and with special discounts at restaurants and theaters. But those small, albeit appreciated, gestures don’t quite seem to synch with the statistics I come across in my position at NeighborWorks America. Consider:

An estimated 13-17 percent of homeless individuals are veterans (a statistic hard to come by, since they are difficult to find, and thus count). No matter what number you choose, it’s far more than their 7-9.5 percent share of the overall adult population. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted its last “point-in-time” survey (one night in January, repeated ever year, in more than 3,000 cities and counties), it found 62,619 homeless veterans.

Many veterans who are not homeless are nonetheless “precarious.” Among the estimated 21.8 million veterans in this country, more than 1.5 million spend over half of their income on housing – well above the recommended maximum threshold of 30 percent. A similar number live in poverty.

Among the most recent veterans – 18-24-year-olds returning from Iraq or Afghanistan – unemployment was 30.2 percent in 2011 (compared to 16.1 percent for non-veterans the same age).

According to a recent survey conducted by NeighborWorks America of 1,000 adults, veterans are like the rest of us; 92 percent regard homeownership to be an integral part of what the “American dream” means to them.  To help them (and others) achieve that goal, many members of our network -- as well as the 3,000+ organizations that turn to us for training -- are staffed with counselors that offer coaching on financial management, navigating the home buying process and – for those who find themselves in trouble – mitigating foreclosure. For those 2 million-plus veterans who are struggling to merely survive, however, more focused, “aggressive” assistance is needed.

First challenge: tracking them down

“We spend a lot of time just trying to find these individuals,” explains Jamie Ebaugh, a social worker and director of supportive housing for NeighborWorks member Southwest Solutions in Detroit. “In the military culture, asking for help is often perceived as weakness. In addition, the traditional VA way of operating is for veterans to come to them. And then, in some cases – such as women who have been sexually assaulted during their service [estimated at one in three] – there is a lack of trust.”

Ronnie, who served in the Army for eight
 years and found help adjustingto life at
home again, from Primavera Foundation.
He remains at home with hiswife Denise.
Paul Andrew, director of the Project Action for Vets at Tucson’s Primavera Foundation, another NeighborWorks member, describes similar challenges. To find these often “invisible” individuals, his organization posts ads in bus stops, liquor stores, laundromats and public parks, and deploys outreach workers to look under bridges and comb the “washes” (dry river beds).

Women (about 10 percent of veterans) are a different story, however. “We don’t find them in the washes,” explains Andrew, who was raised by an uncle in the military and whose son was posted to Iraq while in the National Guard. “Women are more likely to live in cars (often with their children) or ‘garage hop,’ sheltering with friends until their welcome is worn out. They are harder to find.”

The root causes of increased homelessness among veterans are complicated as well. Some enter the military from troubled or rootless backgrounds, turning to the service to escape dysfunctional families, find a “direction in life” or as a last resort to finance school or job training. They may not have experience in living and managing their affairs on their own. As reported by Stars and Stripes last month, a new report in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that members of the military are more likely to be targets for predatory lenders as a result.

“Many of them, when they first come out of the service, aren’t good at managing a checkbook, paying bills, negotiating with a landlord…they’ve never had to do that. They enlisted right out of high school,” explains Ebaugh, whose organization – like many other NeighborWorks members – provides coaching in financial management among its services.

Others become physically or mentally disabled during their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.

Ebaugh’s own niece is a case in point. “She served in Iraq for four years,” he says. “She came back, got her own place to live in and started a dog-training business. But then the Fourth of July came, with all of the fireworks. The noise triggered her PTSD and she ‘crashed.’ She lost her house. I asked her, ‘why didn’t you call somebody?’ She said she thought she could handle it. I got her into professional help, and now she is doing better. She is seeing a therapist and living out of her business.”

For many veterans, their problems are exacerbated by weak social-support networks, broken down during extended periods of duty, and the fact that military training is not always perceived as transferable to the civilian workforce.

Second challenge: bridging to stability

Among the programs offered by Southwest Solutions is Piquette Square, an apartment project with 150
Joe Roth, a formerly homeless vet now
living and volunteering at Piquette Square.
affordable units where formerly homeless veterans can live as long as they want, as well as receive mental-health counseling, treatment for substance abuse, job training and other support services.

“The need is huge,” says Ebaugh. “Piquette Square was filled the day it opened (in 2010), and if we opened up another one we could fill it again. We estimate there are probably at least 3,000 homeless vets just in the Detroit area.”

Most of the vets Ebaugh and his team serve are from the Vietnam era, in part because there often is a “lag” before serious problems develop.  “At first, returning soldiers turn to family members,” he explains. “It can take a while before PTSD begins to manifest itself, as well as for the vets to exhaust their known resources – including the goodwill of their family and friends. A place like Piquette improves family dynamics significantly, by taking the pressure off. Once they have a home of their own, their families are more willing to re-engage.”

Over the next few years, Ebaugh anticipates seeing more vets from the more recent wars, as those conflicts wind down and more and more of those soldiers try to integrate back in. “We expect to 10,000 returning vets in Michigan alone during the next year,” he says. “The key will be to provide them with supportive services right away, along with the tools they need to find jobs. Employment is the key to preventing homelessness.”

Both Southwest Solutions and Primavera are able to do their work thanks to an escalating commitment by the VA to ending homelessness among veterans, including partnerships with nonprofits at the grassroots level. Three years ago, it launched the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, in which grants are awarded to private cooperatives and nonprofits such as Primavera and Southwest Solutions to seek out very-low-income veterans to help them and their families transition to permanent housing.

“There are a lot of services available to veterans,” says Andrew. “They just have trouble connecting with them. Navigation can be a nightmare.”

The challenges are daunting, and although Andrew estimates about 15 percent of veterans in the Primavera “system” drop out for reasons that are not always known, dramatic successes are possible. He tells the story of one female veteran who came to Primavera while living with her three children in her car, after seeing one of the organization’s bus stop ads. She had recently lost both her job and home, and was in “deep crisis mode. When you’re in crisis, your ability to plan is nil to none. You have to approach your situation in little pieces, one step at a time.” After a thorough screening, Primavera matched her to stable housing and placed her in a job with a large call center in Tucson. The children were back in school within three months.

Ebaugh agrees, and adds his own keys to successfully helping veterans in perpetual crisis:

  • Remember that they won’t usually come to you. You have to develop a plan to find and engage them. It’s particularly effective to involve the veterans themselves:  “One vet can take you to 10 other vets.”
  • Treat them with dignity. Veterans are very proud. Play to that, rather than making them feel belittled. Seeking help is not a weakness; it’s merely getting the “leg up” you need.
  • Allow vets to teach you too. When they feel comfortable enough with you, they will open up to you with stories that may be heartbreaking, but often very inspiring. 

“Families who know someone who served in the military ‘get it.’ But many others don’t realize how life-changing the experience is. War, and serving in the military itself, changes people in really deep ways, both good and bad.”

Ebaugh is right. I am very fortunate that two years before my father died, I took the time to record an interview with him (using a “home kit” from StoryCorps), in which I asked my dad at length about his stint overseas during the war – why he enlisted, how it changed him, whether he would encourage young people today to join the military. I had never really taken the time before to listen to tales that seemed, as a child, to be “ancient stories that didn’t relate to me.” But once I asked, and listened, I was amazed at his resilience, his insight into the dynamics shaping the world today, and the person who was also my father.

Veterans in trouble deserve more than a day in their honor, or a discount at the movie theater. They need our focused attention and commitment, every day of the year.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pathfinder Services evolves in surprising directions to meet Indiana’s changing needs

Of all of the organizations we have researched for this anniversary series, Pathfinder Services of Huntington, IN, has evolved the most dramatically over its 47-year history (the last five as a charter member of NeighborWorks America). And it is among the most diverse as it reaches across sectors – housing, education and job creation to name just a few – to serve its community and fund its programs. Its story is a tale of flexibility, nimbleness and a willingness to take calculated risks.

The roots of the organizations extend back to 1966, when it began as a local affiliate of the Indiana Association for Retarded Children. At the time, a movement was sweeping the country to de-institutionalize people with developmental disabilities – allowing them to live at home, instead of being warehoused in “asylums.” A group of parents in Huntington recruited supporters and funding, then opened a school (“mainstreaming” had not yet arrived to public education) and a sheltered workshop that offered training and employment.

The organization grew rapidly in the following years, including its first foray into housing, when it opened a halfway house for individuals transitioning to independence. But it wasn’t until the early ‘80s that the organization began to widen its focus to serve the community at large – first, persons with all types of disabilities, and then the broader “collective.”

Transitioning from a focus on disability to broader community development 

John Niederman (light green jacket) mixes with local residents.
“The change in orientation began when the ‘movement’ (for disability rights) began focusing more on integration,” explains John Niederman, who has served as president of the organization since 1985. “Inclusion became a core value, and research showed that too often, people in the community thought of us as ‘that place down the street.’ One of the best ways to integrate is to develop assets – to plug ‘service gaps,’ if you will – that benefit the community as a whole.”

Just before Niederman’s arrival, the organization changed its name to Pathfinder Services, reflecting that broader mission. “We see ourselves as providing the pathways to improve residents’ lives,” he explains. Today, its services include:

Affordable child care.

Employment generation, including interview coaching, job training and placement assistance.  In fact, through its “outsource manufacturing” division, individuals with disabilities and others in need of a stable working environment provide businesses with services ranging from assembly to packaging. It’s a win-win-win for all involved: Businesses receive quality work at reasonable cost, Pathfinder earns revenue that funds its programs and employees are able to support themselves while gaining valuable skills. (Pathfinder is a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to creatively leveraging its core competencies to generate income – including product sales and consulting. A future blog post will focus on this topic; sign up in the field to the right of this feature to receive articles in your inbox!)

Training in personal financial management, including educational courses and assistance in setting up individual development accounts (IDAs) to encourage savings. Reflecting its highly responsive organizational culture, it offers a tailored version of its IDA program customized for newly re-settled refugees, to help them buy a home, start a business or go to school. (Surprisingly, nearby Fort Wayne is thought to have the largest number of Burmese refugees in the United States!)

Housing-related services ranging from development of low-income housing, homebuyer training (including a recent session offered in Burmese) and assistance with home rehab.

Niederman is proud of the fact that in 1996, Pathfinder became the first and only organization in Indiana to receive funding for its housing initiatives from the newly established rural component of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and is one of the USDA’s highest-volume partners when it comes to assisting low- to moderate-income individuals apply for rural-oriented "502 direct mortgage loans."

Building social connectedness

A sign promotes one of the
block parties organized by
Pathfinder staff
One of Pathfinder’s more recent community-development initiatives is an outreach program to foster “social connectedness” in targeted neighborhoods. The organization started in an urban neighborhood of Fort Wayne, with the help of a grant from the Indiana Association for Community Economic Development, funded by JP Morgan Chase Bank.

Pathfinder focused on one particular zip code with a population of 17,000, where residents broke into small groups to identify quality-of-life goals on which they most wanted to focus; those that attracted the most support were selected. A strategic plan was drafted to guide the democratically chosen steering committee, which meets every other week. The committee decided that it will not run its own activities, but will instead support and promote existing neighborhood groups and associations through mini-grants and a Facebook page that keeps everyone informed, connected and involved. Pathfinder provides staff to help coordinate the effort and acts as a fiscal agent, working to help identify funding sources.

With “aging in place” a growing trend for older communities, the organization is now moving into the Drover Town neighborhood of rural Huntington, with the encouragement of the town's mayor..

“We received a planning grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority to develop ‘communities for a lifetime,’ which means making it possible for residents to stay there as long as they want, regardless of age or disability,” explains Jan Baumgartner, community connections director and recipient of a professional certificate in neighborhood revitalization from NeighborWorks America. Increasingly, research is showing that resiliency through social connections is as important as factors such as affordable housing when it comes to the feasibility of aging in place. Consider, for example, a new study from the University of Michigan that found that people who felt connected to their neighbors suffered significantly fewer strokes.

Each community must be approached differently, says Baumgartner, with residents choosing what to focus on and how to operate.

“We’re a facilitator…an enabler,” says Baumgartner. “We’re here to help the people who live in our service areas tap into the resources they need to fully exploit their own strengths.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Toledo group generates goodwill – and funds – with ‘buy a shingle, save a home’ campaign

How do you raise money quickly for a pressing community need, while at the same time building public awareness and buy-in? (Isn’t that all nonprofits’ “holy grail”?) William Farnsel, executive director of NeighborWorks Toledo Region in Ohio, has developed a winning formula to do just that.

Farnsel’s organization, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, serves a majority African-American community with higher-than-average unemployment (8.9 percent). Many of the houses are in need of the organization’s weatherization-assistance program for low-income families, which it administers with funds from the federal government, Columbia Gas and Toledo Edison. (To date, NTR has installed more than $23.7 million in insulation and other materials for 15,000-plus customers in Toledo and the broader Lucas County.)

However, if a house has a leaky roof, weatherization isn’t going to do much good. One of the city’s anchor businesses, Owens Corning, donated the necessary shingles (along with a lifetime warranty for the resulting roofs), but a lot more money for time and materials needed to be raised, and quickly, in order for the weatherization program to continue before cold weather arrived.

“It’s a chronic problem we face,” Farnsel says. “Government funding comes with processes and forms that take time to sort out. Plus, it requires bringing the entire house up to code – an even more expensive, time-consuming endeavor. So, we decided to seek private funds.”

Farnsel didn’t want the typical meal or golf outing, however. He wanted his donors to feel a more visceral connection to the impact of their giving. That’s when he hit upon his theme: “Buy a shingle; save a home.” The goal: to raise enough money to finance the replacement of four roofs – one in each of four targeted neighborhoods. The CEO of the local hospital was recruited as chair of the planning committee, which helped attract representatives of local businesses, organizations and affluent families in the community to the fundraising dinner. Attendees were invited to “purchase” a shingle (or a bundle of them, or a box of nails, depending on the amount given) – with an onsite exhibit showing exactly what is needed to tear off an existing roof, complete structural repairs and install a new one.

The next challenge was how to choose which roofs to replace first, when there were so many low-income families who could benefit. Farnsel also wanted residents in the targeted communities to feel like they were active participants and partners in the campaign. His solution: a lottery. Tickets were sold to residents for $3 each at local churches, banks and other community locations. If your roof didn’t need replacement, or you knew someone else more in need, you could buy the ticket to “gift it” to someone else.

“One woman was so desperate for a new roof that she borrowed $100 from friends and family to buy as many lottery tickets as she could,” says Farnsel. “Her roof was so bad she literally had skylights, and she was forced to use kiddy pools to catch the water when it rained.”

Joanne Born (middle) weeps with joy when she learns
she has won the "lottery."
On the day of the drawing in that neighborhood – during NeighborWorks Week of 2013 -- a young couple was seen hanging out by the street corner where the winner would be announced. Farnsel later learned that the couple was the daughter and son-in-law of Joanne Born, who had bought all those lottery tickets. She was too nervous to watch the drawing in person, and sat instead in a car at the curb. And yes, she did win that drawing. Today, she is the relieved owner of a new roof – at the cost $12,000, which she could never have afforded on her own.

NTR raised $37,000 through this event, including $900 from resident-purchased raffle tickets. The second annual event already is scheduled, for May 3, 2014.

If you’re thinking of holding a similar fundraising/public-awareness campaign, Farnsel has a few tips to offer:

Recruit supporters from the business community. In 2013, the CEO of the local hospital was enlisted as the fundraising chair, which generated both a good-sized contribution from that institution and those of his friends. In 2014, Farnsel plans to reach out to the local utility industry.

Joanne Born in front of her house, with
a new roof. (Habitat for Humanity is
set now to help refurbish her porch.)
Don’t be discouraged when the unexpected occurs. Farnsel’s campaign was very creative, and would normally have been a great local media hook. But on the same day as the drawing, an 18-month-old girl was reported missing in the neighborhood. It was a tragedy, and understandably, the event got almost zero media coverage as a result. (Note from the writer: As a veteran PR professional, I can attest to that reality; if a bigger, competing news story occurs in the same timeframe as your event, you can pretty much forget any hope of attracting media coverage. That’s why it is so important to build in other ways to measure success. And Farnsel and his team did – both in terms of money raised and partners/residents engaged. In 2014, he is planning to incorporate “impact stories” from this year’s winners as well as a “tell-a-friend” campaign.)

When developing goals and budgets, make sure you know the real costs. Don’t low-ball! The roofs that NHS ended up replacing were significantly more expensive than anticipated. Farnsel’s team had estimated $8,000 to $9,000, and Born’s, for instance, cost $12,000.

Don’t under-estimate the effort and expertise needed. NTR hired a consultant to assist with messaging, outreach and event logistics, and Farnsel says it was one of his best decisions. “There are lots of day-to-day activities required to pull a campaign and event like this off, but at the same time, we still had our ‘real’ work to do. Consider hiring outside help,” he says.

Don’t lose sight of your end goal. “You have to give something to get something,” Farnsel cautions. “Make community impact and goodwill the principal goal – not general fundraising for your organization.” About 82 cents of every dollar raised by NTR for the “Buy a Shingle, Save a Home” campaign went to the roof-replacement program. Over time, he says, events like these will help “nourish” the organization’s coffers, but that’s not the focus of the events. “The goodwill pays off over time,” Farnsel promises.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!