Tuesday, July 31, 2012

NextGenCD: Valuing Mentors

In honor of the upcoming NeighborWorks America Young Professionals symposium, we have collected several blog posts from those under 35 asking their feelings on the meaning of community development. This first post is a variation on that theme.  Share your comments on Twitter using #NextGenCD.
Kate Titford, NeighborWorks
America, General Counsel

When I was first asked to blog on “What Community Development Means to Me,” I spaced out for a few minutes — not unlike the kid in A Christmas Story after he is assigned the theme “What I Want for Christmas.”  And as I reflected on a career that has held at least as much excitement and joy as a Red Rider BB Gun, it was the faces that stuck out to me more than the accomplishments.  So I am exerting some editorial liberty and assigning myself the more relevant theme:  “What my Community Development Mentors Have Meant to Me.”

Marcea, my boss at that first job, broke me into office life and introduced me to the different moving parts of the community development scene.  When the going got tough at the national housing intermediary where we worked, Marcea encouraged me step up to the plate on challenging new projects that stretched me professionally and cultivated my passion for this work.  I laugh to think about my early days in the 9-to-5 world:  I was a spirited 22-year old who wouldn’t be caught dead in a suit. 

Marcea and Me
Some years later, when I was mired in a law school funk, another mentor — Brenda— scooped me up and helped me stay connected to local housing issues.  Her own career and activism were a constant reminder that my exile in law school would ultimately contribute to my work in community development.

I owe much of my happiness in my professional life to these mentors.  Their generosity of time and knowledge helped guide me through the critical junctures to where I am – who I am – now in community development.  They made an investment that will pay off for the entire field of community development.  As we descend on Cincinnati to discuss the opportunity of welcoming the next generation of leadership to community development, let’s pause and remember what mentors have meant to each of us in our careers.  Let’s pay tribute to those who helped each of us find our own special place in the field.  And —above all— let us recommit ourselves to mentoring the young professionals who will usher community development into its next era.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Working Together for Maximum Impact: NeighborWorks Rural Initiative

David Dangler,
NeighborWorks America,
director of Rural Initiatives

 The NeighborWorks Rural Initiative in 2012 is a far cry from the dozen or so rural groups who came together in the early days of the NeighborWorks network. Now there are 91 organizations participating in the Rural Initiative – and they include many of the network’s most productive members. In 2011, Rural Initiative members made direct investments into their combined communities of over $1.574 billion in 45 different states. When we drill down into the statistics, we find the Rural Initiative members are consistently in the top 25 producers in the NeighborWorks America network. This is supported by the data below, taken from a recent report on the NeighborWorks America Network entitled "It Takes a Network." All data is for 2011.

These high production figures become even more impressive when measured against the relative size and population density of many of the communities being served. For example, Wyoming Housing Network (WHN) runs a statewide program which created more new homebuyers in 2011 than any other NeighborWorks chartered network member. That in itself is impressive, but the story is larger than that. For many of the rural communities WHN served, their new homebuyers represented a significant percent of the total market activity. To illustrate, let’s use a purely fictional town we’ll call Antelope Falls, Wyoming which represents real towns I’ve seen throughout our rural network. There may have been only 10 total first time homebuyers in Antelope Falls in 2011, and of that 6 people were buyers educated by WHN – meaning WHN’s work affected 60% of the total market. In many urban environments the total number of homebuyers educated might be larger, but the percentage impact on the market is often smaller.

Another key element of the Rural Initiative network’s success has been collaboration across markets and lines of business. For example, we’ve been working closely with CFED and the  Ford Foundation to create asset-building opportunities with factory built housing in rural and urban environments.  These efforts have supported two of the most innovative and impactful social enterprises in the community development field ROC USA and Next Step. ROC USA helps residents purchase their manufactured home parks from absentee owners, and Next Step helps to replace substandard manufactured homes with Energy Star rated factory built homes. To succeed, both ROC USA and Next Step rely upon the NeighborWorks network for key lines of business – community building and organizing, home ownership education and training, rental property development and management and affordable lending.
Members of the NeighborWorks Rural Initiative, Rural LISC
and RCAC at the June conference in Visalia, California
Another key program component, which our partners have come to rely upon, is the rigor of the NeighborWorks standards for evaluating lines of business and organizational health.  Our member organizations are assessed regularly and measured against their peers and industry standards.  In addition, NeighborWorks Rural Initiative members share best practices with one another at events like this year’s June rural conference in Visalia, California. At this event, we not only collaborated within our own network, but also with two other major rural networks – Rural LISC and the Rural Communities Assistance Corporation (RCAC).

Looking ahead, we’re excited about expanding our asset-building strategies to include rural rental housing and a range of green applications that will be good for both built and natural environments. I’ll be writing more about these efforts in future blogs so stay tuned. You can subscribe by entering your email in the right side of this page.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Collaboration and Innovation for Green Housing Success

By Leila Finucane Edmonds
NeighborWorks America, Director
National Initiatives and Applied Research
Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Christiansburg, Virginia has served low wealth and low-income communities for over 30 years with striking results. CHP has almost 6,000 rental homes in its portfolio, a NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center and a LEED Silver corporate headquarters. It’s a great example of diversified, resilient and mission-focused organization that has built its strength on being collaborative, open to early innovations and adaptive to conditions in its local markets.

I recently spent two days with CHP Executive Director Janaka Casper and his team. Also on the trip were Michelle Winters, NeighborWorks America Green Strategies senior manager, and David Dangler, NeighborWorks America Rural Initiatives director. Our goal was to learn more about their successes, and, in particular, their New River Center for Energy Research and Training. The center is one of only a small number of Department of Energy Legacy Weatherization Training Centers, and the first to be accredited by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council for energy efficiency training. CHP has trained more than 30,000 people at the center for jobs like retrofit installers, energy auditors, quality control inspection – so I wanted an on-the-ground view of operations. 

Grandma's House
Touring the facilities, we were able to see demonstrations on uniquely designed pressure houses, how to perform blower door tests on multi-family buildings and model homes for hands-on-training – a manufactured home and “Grandma’s House,” a model frame house.   Overall, I was impressed by CHP’s integrated use of technology in their training programs, their commitment to sustainable practices and the talent and breadth of their leadership team. 

During our visit, I heard moving stories about what CHP has accomplished, including that of CHP’s first multi-family project, a housing complex for seniors.  Back in 1980s, school consolidation was common in rural areas – and Pembroke, Virginia was no exception. When the local elementary school closed, one of the planning district commissions, which act as development consultants for local government, invited CHP to help redevelop the property. CHP successfully applied to convert the property into affordable senior housing and named the complex for Sam Robinson, a former principal of the original school.

S.A. Robinson building. The entrance still reads "Pembroke School"
CHP converted the 660 square foot classrooms into apartments of a similar size. CHP also worked to retain the character of the building. For example, CHP made chalkboards into tables where people could place their keys.  “Green housing” wasn’t much discussed in the 1980s, but CHP was conscious of energy efficiency – all windows were double glazed to more effectively regulate indoor temperature.

Residents of S.A. Robinson
The project was finished in 1987 and it is now a major resource for this small community. It provides 27 apartments for seniors making 80 percent or below federal area median income. Some of the early residents turned out to be graduates from the school. Janaka is most proud of CHP’s long-term ownership. Residents feel at home and nearly every door is decorated with crafts that express a personal sense of belonging.

On the drive back, my team and I spoke about further exploring and highlighting connections between our green program for NeighborWorks network members and our affiliates serving rural communities. Our goal is for two thirds of the NeighborWorks America network to adopt sustainable and energy efficient practices across their operations. With this visit, we are gaining a new understanding of the energy efficiency and weatherization work already underway in local markets and regions. Now, we look forward to collaborating with the network creatively to expand and share that knowledge.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Environmental Justice and Community Education at NOAH

By Sara Varela 
NeighborWorks America
Community Building and Organizing
communications specialist
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston, MA. The visit was part of a Community Building and Organizing Peer to Peer connection, a program we run to encourage our network members to visit and learn from each other. I was there as an observer. The visiting organization was San Juan Neighborhood Housing Services (San Juan NHS) from Puerto Rico. It was wonderful to meet and reconnect with the staff from both organizations

The agenda was so packed with content that, in one day, I learned more than I ever thought possible. We started our day with an interactive process where Kim Foltz, director of Community Building and Environment demonstrated how to engage a group using popular education techniques.
Members of the Chelsea Creek Action Group Youth crew
helped residents of all ages build new raised-bed gardens,
increasing access to affordable, healthy food in East Boston.

Popular education is a process which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning and to effect social change. Popular education indicates a collective effort in which a high degree of participation is expected from everybody. It was great to learn about this training tool as we actually saw it in action. Then Kim went on to engage the group in talking about environmental justice.

According to the EPA, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” NOAH, takes this to heart. Their website states: "Community Building and Environment Department (CBE) works with community members to improve the environment, enhance the quality of life, and develop the leadership skills of residents in East Boston and beyond."

Staff from NOAH and San Juan NHS work together in a
hands-on activity prior to visiting the local neighborhood.

As I participated in this interactive session I couldn’t help thinking I was lucky to work in a place where I get to learn about these concepts, meet people who work making our world a better place, and see the results first hand.

Our morning sessions were followed by a walk around the neighborhood and lunch in a local restaurant. After lunch we had a tour of the different places where NOAH engages community residents and youth. This organization really puts the concept of popular education and environmental justice to work; they engage residents to identify and become part of the solution for their environmental topics. We met a youth leader who encourages youth and neighborhood children to engage in the local community garden, and involves children in summer activities; we visited the Chelsea Creek, and learned about the community’s effort to improve environmental conditions in this part of the neighborhood, and we learned about all the great youth activities this organization supports.

It was an excellent day to be outside, visiting the neighborhood and seeing how a group from East Boston exchanges ideas with a group from Puerto Rico. And, as if that weren’t enough, the whole day was ran in Spanish! The staffs at NOAH are bilingual, and bicultural and excellent at their job of engaging people.

I am a fan of social media and online tools, but there is nothing better than meeting the people I work with in person. Three cheers for the community building and organizing peer to peer visits! Read about them or share your stories via Twitter @SaraVarelaCBO #peertopeer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Giving New Meaning to Summer Break

Photo of author Alexandra Chaikin
By Alexandra Chaikin,
Online Media Project Manager
Summer break is in full swing and many local NeighborWorks organizations  are using the time off from school to get kids involved in their communities. Below are a few of the many great projects going on around the country:

Ava and Maria in the vegetable garden
Youngsters from the Detroit Country Day School Junior Community Service Club are helping Lighthouse of Oakland County by tending a vegetable garden with zucchini, spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, and peppers. The fresh produce supports Lighthouse of Oakland County's emergency food pantry and provides important nourishment to seniors.

A nonprofit called Little Acts of Love (West Lawn, Pa.) paired up with Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Berks (Reading, Pa.) to get Berks County youth to help the elderly by painting, roofing, and doing various other chores to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate.  Ten houses on Second, Front, Pear, and Buttonwood streets were improved by the efforts. This project was featured in the Reading Eagle news.

Virginia and Maryland
Research from Johns Hopkins the shows that two-thirds of the 9th grade academic achievement gap between disadvantaged youngsters and their more advantaged peers can be explained by what happens over the summer months during the elementary school years. To combat this, Arlington-based AHC Inc. is helping more than 120 children combine education and fun over the summer. This year's theme is the Olympic Games. Along with swimming each week, campers participate in a variety of educational activities and field trips to such places as local museums, Imagination Stage, and Upton Hills Water Park.

This summer, Alamo Area Mutual Housing is running a Dr. Seuss-themed reading program at one of its community Learning Centers. The program culminates in an end of summer bash, where kids will be able to celebrate their reading achievement - and the top 4 readers will participate in a field trip to Splashtown waterpark this month. In addition to the reading program, Alamo Area Mutual Housing is offering a 4-H math and science camp, gardening opportunities, and a chance to perform in plays and talent shows.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lit Review: Interesting Articles from the Boston Federal Reserve

Reposted from the "Stabilize" blog of the NeighborWorks America Stable Communities program.

The latest issue of New England Community Developments from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has a couple of articles particularly interesting for those engaged in stabilizing neighborhoods.  In the first, the author discusses preliminary findings from ongoing research exploring the effect of foreclosure and NSP intervention on neighborhood social stability, with surprising results. The second presents a logical framework for deciding what REO is best marketed as rental property.

In "What Do the Neighbors Think? Assessing the Community Impact of Neighborhood Stabilization Efforts," author Erin M. Graves describes her research assessing residents’ perspectives on neighborhood-level social capital and social disorder.  She hopes to assess the impact of foreclosed properties on those residents before and after NSP intervention.

Graves used a standardized “Sense of Community” survey administered door-to-door, and also assessed property conditions of all parcels in the subject neighborhood.  In the article, Graves describes three themes that emerged from the first round of the survey. The first theme was that residents did not view the vacant foreclosed homes on their street as the primary threat to stability in the neighborhood; nor did they often realize which were due to foreclosures.  If they did know of a foreclosure, they saw it as an individual problem rather than a community problem or trend.

Second, existing crime and gun violence were the main concerns of these neighborhood residents. Residents in this neighborhood did not see vacant properties as attracting crime, and they viewed vacant lots as a greater threat to their sense of community than vacant homes.

Third, residents did believe in the efficacy of government institutions, including the police, to solve community problems, but felt underserved by them.  In order to deal with the safety and property abandonment issues on their streets, Graves says residents defined ever-smaller boundaries for what they consider their [good] part of the community – a street, a section of a street, or sometimes only their house.  These carefully drawn boundaries allow some residents to enjoy and stay in their unstable neighborhoods longer than outsiders would expect them to.

For Graves’ discussion of policy implications, see the full article.

In "New Ideas for Old REOs : A Disposition Framework for Marketing REOs for Rental Properties,"  Prabal Chakrabati and Mariana Arcaya propose a four-step rationale for sorting a community’s REO portfolio to find those properties that are the best candidates for disposition as rental units.  The criteria include:
  • whether or not the property is GSE-owned,
  • whether the property has been REO for less than or greater than one year (greater than one year means it is unlikely to  be taken up as a homeownership property),
  • whether the property is located in an area of high need for affordable rental units (vis a vis Massachusetts’ 10% mandate for municipal subsidized housing inventory),
  • whether or not the property is also located in an area that lacks rental housing options (since rental housing demand is on the increase, the model assumes places without those options need them, and that mixed-income communities are a goal).
Additional considerations, such as proximity to transit and jobs, are also mentioned. The article includes an easy-to-read chart, and a specific analysis of Massachusetts REO inventory.

New England Community Developments is published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  Free subscriptions are available here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Building Grassroots Leadership in South Carolina

By Hillary Rowe Wiley,
NeighborWorks America
public affairs and communications
advisor, Southern District

NeighborWorks America began in 1968 as a result of resident leaders who took up a charge to improve their neighborhoods (history here), so it makes sense that resident empowerment is still a crucial component of what we do.  One of the best ways we have found to promote resident leadership is to strengthen ties between local groups so they can develop their own networks, share and build best practices, and ultimately work toward solutions for complex challenges.

Last weekend NeighborWorks America’s Southern District, in collaboration with South Carolina Associations of Community Development Corporations (SCACDC) sponsored a Grassroots Leadership Institute (GLI) in Greenville, South Carolina. In keeping with our goal of engaging a variety of public and private partners, our partner SCACDC attracted the support of the City of Greenville, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, TD Bank, GCRA and Homes of Hope.

The GLI attracted around 150 diverse grassroots leaders, ranging in age from young adults to retired citizens, all banding together to experience “Empowering Your Community from the Ground Up – with Real Solutions for Real People in Real Neighborhoods.”

Classes taught residents a variety of skills, including how to build safer communities, promote healthy living, develop political clout and strengthen personal leadership skills. Panelists included Southern District Director Donald Phoenix, South Carolina State Representative Chandra Dillard, and SCACDC President and CEO Bernie Mazyck. “Connecting with the community - being in conversations with emerging leaders to retired residents, sharing best practices and learning from folks at the grassroots level is the foundational work necessary to stabilizing and transforming communities,” said Phoenix.

Donald Phoenix with Rep. Chandra Dillard and Bernie Mazyck
During the event, I spoke of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s leadership principle: “looking for the gold” or positive in every situation. I chose this theme because I know community development can focus on everything that isn’t working – blight, drugs, poverty, all the things that can undermine a neighborhood’s stability and success. As a result, sometimes we forget to look at community assets. All too often we get into what is known as the failure habit – which is focusing on and complaining about everything and anything that’s not working. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, so it’s important to celebrate successes and focus on the positive.

I hope that as a result of the institute, many community leaders will return to their neighborhoods with new connections and new knowledge that can support their projects, and with expanded sense of possibility for what their communities could become. So far, what we heard at the conference supports this goal. One local pastor who had just returned to Greenville after a four-year stint in England, was initially unsure of the GLI saying he knew few people in Greenville and did not yet feel part of the community. However, by the conclusion of the institute he was fired up saying, “This was great! Now I’m connected to so many people, and I now know what to do to help create and change community on a level that’s very different from my traditional pastor role. Thanks so much. This was really great!”

I am proud what we’ve achieved already and I look forward to the stories and photos we’ll be gathering from all the local successes.