Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Community Gardens, Food Co-ops, and Farmers Markets Provide an Oasis in ‘Food Deserts’

by Erica Hall, MA, Community Economic Development, Assistant Corporate Secretary/Senior Paralegal, NeighborWorks America

As part of her Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity, Michelle Obama said we must eliminate “food deserts” in this country. I couldn’t agree more.

Food deserts are low-income areas where full-service grocery stores are scarce and fast food chains are often plentiful. Access to healthy, affordable foods and beverages is limited, resulting in higher rates of obesity and diet-related diseases in residents.

As a community economic development (CED) practitioner, I am particularly passionate about the role community gardens, community supported agriculture, produce co-operatives, and farmers markets can play, not only in promoting a healthy lifestyle, and lifting community spirit and pride, but also creating opportunities for community economic development. Community food growing is also a source of satisfying labor, neighborhood improvement and allows for interaction with nature and the productive use of land.

I also understand that while supermarkets are anchors which bring economic development, supermarket development can take years. In the meantime, alternatives must be created to traditional supermarket development. I believe that if you can grow your own food while owning a stake in the business of food, it provides opportunities to promote entrepreneurship, ownership and microenterprise development.

In the NeighborWorks network, we see community gardens and farmers markets sprouting up all over the country. Take for example the Brooklyn Centre Community Orchard being planned in Cleveland, Ohio. This summer, residents hope to turn their Brooklyn Centre neighborhood, labeled a food desert, into a food oasis. A vacant expanse of land, which had fallen into disrepair and a magnet for crime and drugs, will be the site of the neighborhood’s first large-scale, resident-run community orchard.

Darren Hamm, sustainable housing specialist with Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland is leading this effort. Hamm, who is also president of the Brooklyn Centre Community Association, said that a course on neighborhood stabilization he took at the NeighborWorks Training Institute was his inspiration to develop the orchard.

In California, the NeighborWorks Homeownership Center of Sacramento was recently awarded a $20,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to help create a farmer’s market in the Oak Park neighborhood they serve. The new Oak Park Farmer’s Market, which opened on May 15, improves access to affordable, high-quality fruits and vegetables in an area where just one supermarket exists. It is also a source of income for a diverse group of farmers, including smaller, local and immigrant farmers from the Sacramento area. The homeownership center worked in partnership with community residents, community garden advocates, backyard growers, and fresh produce sellers to launch the farmer’s market, and the group intends to make Oak Park the sustainable food center of the Sacramento Region.

Youth get excited about growing their own food too. In Worcester, Massachusetts, Oak Hill Community Development Corporation’s Charlie Buffone Community Garden is run entirely by neighborhood youth. The vegetable and fruit garden is cultivated with all organic materials and toxic chemicals are strictly prohibited. They give away the produce to neighborhood residents, including making fruit and vegetable baskets for senior citizen homes. Check out the website, which is also maintained entirely by the young volunteers. If you’re on Facebook, see photos of their garden.

I recently had the opportunity to complete my graduate work which involved obesity prevention among African Americans, while increasing access to fresh foods, green spaces and safe places for low income communities in Washington, D.C . I became involved in a novel approach to increase access to fresh produce and other healthy foods to two of the district’s poorest areas: Wards 7 and 8. Wards 7 and 8 (east of the Anacostia River) have the District's highest poverty and obesity rates and are home to large food deserts.

The project, called the DC Healthy Corner Store Program, sought to increase access to fresh produce and other healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, and to increase small grocers’ capacity to sell healthy foods successfully. It is led by D.C. Hunger Solutions, with support and funding from the D.C. Department of Health, and in partnership with KAGRO (Korean American Grocers Association), community-based organizations, and small retailers in the city.

Please go to nw.org to learn more about this wonderful program, as well as the funding opportunities available for similar efforts through the Obama administration's $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

For more information about farmer’s markets, including funding, how to start one and where to locate them in your state, visit the USDA’s website.

More information about community gardens, including funding, locations, best practices and tips can be found at the American Community Garden Association’s website.

Monday, June 28, 2010

NeighborWorks America Urges Families to Declare Their Financial Independence

This Independence Day, NeighborWorks America urges consumers nationwide to become financially ‘fit’ and declare their financial independence in 2010. In order to build a solid financial foundation for families and be better prepared for homeownership in the current market, NeighborWorks America and its network of local nonprofits offer free financial education courses that teach residents better money management skills which will help decrease debt, increase resources, and make affordable homeownership more achievable.

Not only does financial education help consumers learn money management and planning skills needed to make the most of their income, savings and assets, it can also help them become more aware of common challenges, including loan modification scams and predatory lending practices, and how to avoid them.

To help more families kick-start their efforts to asserting financial independence this Fourth of July, NeighborWorks America offers several useful tips:

  • Set realistic financial goals. What is it you want to achieve? Evaluate your progress to meeting your goals on a regular basis.
  • Create a budget and track every expense for an entire month. This can help you identify areas where you can trim spending.
  • Reserve for the future and start a savings plan. Think of this as creating a financial reserve for your family in the event of an emergency or other incident you hadn’t planned for, or if you are interested in becoming a homeowner, the savings plan can help you save for a down payment on a home.
  • Pay your bills on time. Late payments have a negative effect on your credit score and your wallet, thanks to late payment fees.
  • If you face a financial crisis such as foreclosure or become victim to loan modification scam, consult a nonprofit, HUD-approved counseling organization that offers foreclosure counseling. To find a nonprofit HUD-approved housing counseling agency in your community, visit http://www.findaforeclosurecounselor.org/.
  • Consider taking a financial fitness course at one of the more than 85 NeighborWorks affiliates to develop sound money-management skills. Most of the classes are free or are offered at a low-cost. Courses help homeowners learn how to plan financially, set financial goals, manage income and expenditures, and plan for retirement and more.
  • If you want to go back to school or start your own business but don’t have the funds, consider opening up an Individual Development Account (IDA). IDAs are designed to help individuals who want to purchase a house, receive job training, further their education, or start up a business. Accounts are offered by community development organizations and are funded by public and private sectors.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Will Louisiana See a Surge in Mortgage Defaults After the Oil Spill?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, housing nonprofits expressed fear that the oil spill in the Gulf may cause a surge in mortgage defaults as residents lose income and business from the ongoing crisis. With the caveat that its way too early to know what will be the long-term economic impact of the oil spill, economists, real estate agents and nonprofit leaders interviewed for the piece, pointed to some “worrisome” signs.

Lorna Bourg, president of NeighborWorks member Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA) based in New Iberia, Louisiana said, "It's a real crisis." She added that many fishermen rely on the summer shrimp season for most of their income.

Lauren Anderson, chief executive officer of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, another NeighborWorks organization in Louisiana, said in her interview that she expects a surge in mortgage defaults within the next few months from people whose income has been hurt by the spill.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Louisiana has been spared from the worst of economic recession due to a boom in rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina, as well as stable employment from the oil and fishing industries. With jobless and mortgage default rates currently below national averages, some are worried that Louisiana’s rebound will be lost.

Read more about it in the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, June 21, 2010

NeighborWorks America Salutes Operation Stolen Dreams for Efforts to Stamp out Mortgage Fraud

NeighborWorks America salutes the efforts to stamp out mortgage fraud undertaken by Operation Stolen Dreams. As reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, the task force has gone after more than 1,200 criminal defendants who are responsible for more than $2.3 billion in losses, and made 485 arrests.

“We applaud Operation Stolen Dreams and all of the interagency partners for getting these mortgage fraud scam artists off our streets and away from the innocent people being victimized,” said Marietta Rodriguez, national director of homeownership programs and lending for NeighborWorks America. “The homeowners who are being ripped off by these scam artists are facing foreclosure and desperate to listen to anyone who claims to be able to help them. These scam artists use slick sales pitches and advertising to lure in homeowners, guarantee to give them loan modifications, charge for their services in advance and then leave homeowners facing foreclosure and without anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.”

In October 2009, NeighborWorks America and a host of local, state, and national partners launched the Loan Scam Alert campaign to raise awareness of loan modification scams, inform consumers about the signs of a loan modification scam, and encourage consumers to report scams occurring in their communities.

“The more we continue to raise awareness of loan modification scams through public education campaigns like the Loan Scam Alert campaign and encourage homeowners who have been scammed to report being scammed, the more we can help Operation Stolen Dreams track down these criminals and prosecute them,” said Rodriguez.

For more information about the Loan Scam Alert campaign or to report being scammed, visit http://www.loanscamalert.org/.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

NeighborWorks and WNBA Team Up on Mortgage Fraud

If you're watching women's professional basketball this month, don't be surprised to see our loan scam alerts up near the scoreboard. In honor of National Homeownership Month, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and NeighborWorks America are teaming up to raise awareness on homeownership loan issues and fraudulent activities. http://bit.ly/dCzeyi

NeighborWorks America will host awareness nights in WNBA games in June, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. Experts will be onsite to provide information and collateral materials that will help homeowners protect themselves against loan modification scams, find trusted help to protect themselves against such fraud, and report illegal activity to authorities.

This partnership is part of the Loan Modification Scam Alert campaign, which was launched in October 2009 and is the largest national effort to educate homeowners on scams. For more information, visit www.LoanScamAlert.org.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NeighborWorks America Reflects on 2010 NeighborWorks Week

More than 320 events celebrated local communities and informed consumers June 5-12, 2010

During the 2010 NeighborWorks Week (June 5-12) NeighborWorks America and local NeighborWorks organizations held more than 320 community revitalization and 150 loan modification scam awareness events nationwide.

The theme for the 27th anniversary of NeighborWorks Week was informing homeowners on how to identify, avoid and report mortgage modification scams. The educational events ranged from canvassing neighborhoods with tip-sheets to holding one-on-one and group workshops about reputable mortgage modification programs.

One such event took place on Friday, June 4, hosted by Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, a NeighborWorks affiliate. Held in Times Square, the event featured dozens of volunteers talking to thousands of people, and NeighborWorks loan modification scam Alert campaign materials were featured on the Times Square jumbotrons.

Tents were also set up where homeowners could talk to NeighborWorks representatives about scams, foreclosures, mortgage payments or any other issues associated with homeownership. This event raised awareness of loan modification scams, educated New Yorkers on how to buy their first home and celebrated the surrounding communities.

In New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, joined NeighborWorks America and the Newark-Essex Foreclosure Task Force to launch the Loan Scam Alert Campaign for Community Outreach Day in Newark. The event was held at a vacant, foreclosed home, which is to be re-developed into a community park.

In addition to the mortgage modification scam prevention events nationwide, NeighborWorks organizations held community celebrations and hands-on community building activities, including home repair and painting events, landscaping projects and mural painting.

Pictures, videos and more stories can be viewed here. More information is also available in the NeighborWorks newsroom.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

National NeighborWorks Week is Your Chance to Get Involved in Your Community

By Omar Velarde-Wong
Project Manager, Communications and Marketing
NeighborWorks America

National NeighborWorks Week has been a core part of NeighborWorks America’s fabric for the past 27 years. But this year it has taken on special meaning for me. This is my first time managing it and it has been an absolute pleasure to witness first-hand the dedication of our member organizations to their communities. There are more than 230 organizations across the country but this particular program is the one that connects us on a single week and embodies the mission of the organization.

We have more than 300 volunteer events planned so far during NeighborWorks Week, June 5-12. About half of them will involve local NeighborWorks organizations spreading the word in their communities about loan modification scams. The proliferation of these scams is a huge problem in our neighborhoods, and we’re doing all we can to inform homeowners facing foreclosure how to avoid loan modification scams and report them to trusted authorities.

This year’s National NeighborWorks Week will be no different. We will be holding our traditional community building activities, including home repair and painting events, landscaping projects, and mural painting.

I’m looking forward to getting involved myself. I’ll be one of dozens of volunteers on Saturday, June 5, who will be landscaping the Willowbrook Condominium, a tenant purchase project developed by our local D.C. member organization, Manna, Inc. I also will be canvassing the Brookland neighborhood and inviting residents to a Loan Modification Scam Alert seminar later in the day.

I encourage you all to get involved in your community during this volunteer week and beyond. Find an event near you here. If you’ve already selected an event, please share your comments, pictures and videos with us! Contact me to find out where to send them in.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

NeighborWorks America Salutes 2010 National Homeownership Month

NeighborWorks America announces a series of consumer outreach efforts to support affordable, sustainable and healthy homes and communities during the 2010 National Homeownership Month.

“For more than 30 years, NeighborWorks America and its network of affiliates around the country have supported and encouraged affordable and long-term homeownership,” said Ken Wade, CEO of NeighborWorks America. “From providing daily homeownership tips to urging homeowners facing foreclosure to talk to the right people, throughout National Homeownership Month we are working to get good information in the hands of potential homebuyers and current homeowners so they can achieve and sustain the American Dream of homeownership.”

NeighborWorks America and its network have planned a series of activities in June, including:

  • Featuring a “homeownership tip of the day” on NeighborWorks America’s National Homeownership Month Web page, NeighborWorks America’s Facebook page, and via Twitter.

  • Broadcasting videos that feature homeowners and nonprofits who discuss what homeownership means to them. To see current examples, visit the NeighborWorks America YouTube channel.

  • Urging homeowners who face foreclosure to contact the right people through a new public service announcement campaign designed to educate homeowners about where they can turn for help if they are at risk of foreclosure. The campaign urges homeowners to call the Hope Hotline – 888-995-HOPE (4673) – where they can speak to nonprofit HUD-approved housing counselors in English, Spanish, or more than 20 additional languages. To view the ads, or for more information about the campaign, visit http://www.foreclosurehelpandhope.org/. Homeowners at risk of foreclosure can also find nonprofit, HUD-approved housing counselors in their community by visiting http://www.findaforeclosurecounselor.org/.

  • Encouraging homeowners who face foreclosure to avoid loan modification scams by linking homeowners to the Loan Scam Alert campaign web site, which contains tips on how to avoid loan modification scam artists and where to report loan modification scams. The campaign web site is available in English and Spanish, and also has materials available in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

  • Holding a series of homeownership education classes, fairs, and loan modification awareness events during National NeighborWorks Week, June 5-12, 2010.

  • Participating in industry training and education events that strengthen the nonprofit housing counseling community to meet the needs of homebuyers and existing homeowners.

For more information about NeighborWorks activities during National Homeownership Month, please contact Erin Angell Collins, ecollins@nw.org or 202-220-6317.