Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On the Ground Before and After Hurricane Isaac

NeighborWorks America has made significant investments in the Gulf region to help rebuild post-disasters, and this includes those areas like New Orleans which were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For an inside perspective on the impact of the recent Hurricane Isaac, we contacted James Ross, a NeighborWorks America employee on the ground in New Orleans. 

By James Ross
Management Consultant, Southern District

Hurricane Isaac, image courtesy
of NASA Goddard, Creative Commons
Hurricane Isaac hit on late on Tuesday, August 28, 2012, almost exactly seven years after Katrina, bringing with it painful memories and panic lines in residents’ faces. At church the previous Sunday, my preacher told everyone to evacuate — and people took him seriously.  Throughout the region, everyone was rushing to stores to get batteries and fill up their cars with gas, leading to long lines and high prices at the gas stations.

My family and I decided to weather the storm at home because the stress and expense of evacuation was more than we felt was worthwhile for the predicted category 1 hurricane. True to forecasts, Isaac turned out be significantly less force than Katrina’s category 4 strength. However, Isaac was slow and stayed over New Orleans for two days, causing a large amount of flooding and power outages. The power at our home went out quickly and stayed that way for six days.  After three days in the heat and darkness, we moved to my in-laws house, in Orleans Parish because they were lucky enough to have electricity. 

All told, there was significant damage to the storm, but a much smaller loss of life than we had seven years ago. With Isaac, one of the biggest issues was a lack of power.  After Katrina, the local utility company, Entergy, started charging an extra fee which was to go toward infrastructure improvements.  While newer communities have underground power, older communities had power lines fallen in the street — and, of course, no electricity.  To protect its employees, Entergy waited until winds had calmed before sending out work crews. This angered some people who felt repairs should have been made earlier, and led to lots of finger pointing, which is typical of New Orleans.

Image of Plaquemines Parish flooding, courtesy of Creative Commons
The new levy system, installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of Katrina, held up well.  However, some areas were outside the federal levee system, and they experienced heavy flooding and damage. Plaquemines Parishwater, for example, flooded up to the rooftops and cows and horses battled the waters to survive.  Some cows even ended up in people’s homes as the animals tried to make it to higher ground and safe haven. In another flood zone, Braithwaite, two people drowned because they couldn’t get out of their homes.

As a NeighborWorks employee, I took steps before and after the storm to check in on our local allies. The Friday before we got at least two phone numbers from each of our affiliates and our partners in those areas predicted to be impacted by the storm. Later, I reached out to all our network organizations, talking via text messages and Facebook to make sure everything was ok, which people really appreciated. 

The Southern District is planning to assist organizations in impacted areas.  So far, NeighborWorks America has issued $110,000 in new grant funds to our partners impacted by Isaac in Louisiana and Mississippi. The grants will increase these organizations' capacity to coordinate outreach and volunteer efforts in their targeted communities.  A full list of the recipient groups is below:

United Houma Nation: ($35,000) United Houma Nation’s area of concentration includes lower Jefferson, Terrebonne & Plaquemines parishes which includes the cities of Braithwaite, Houma and Lafitte which all experienced significant damage and home loss due to the floods. In Houma, the United Houma Nation, a Louisiana state recognized Native American tribe, estimates a total of 3,300 tribal citizens were directly impacted by Hurricane Isaac. This represents 25 percent of the total population of tribal citizens residing within the UHN service area.

Hope Community Development Agency: ($20,000) Hope Community Development Agency seeks to enhance its outreach to the residents/homeowners in Biloxi, Mississippi affected by the flooding along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The agency is also focusing on assisting Biloxi’s elderly population with emergency home repairs. The grant will provide needed resources to organize and execute a volunteer outreach campaign.

Hancock Housing Resource Center: ($30,000) The property damages caused by Hurricane Isaac drastically increased the demand for Hancock Housing Resource Center services. The grant will increase HHRC capacity to provide home repair/minor rehab project for residents of hard hit areas of Bay St. Louis and Waveland.

Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans: ($25,000) There was massive flooding on the north shore, including the city of Covington. Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans is providing services to this community.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Exceeding Expectations: Matt Huerta and NHS of Silicon Valley

In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, the NeighborWorks America blog is profiling Matt Huerta, one of the many accomplished Hispanic leaders in our network of affordable housing and community development nonprofits. Huerta is executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Silicon Valley (NHSSV), a position he attained at the young age of 32. This interview was conducted by Alexandra Chaikin, online media project manager at NeighborWorks America.

Matt Huerta
What is your background and how did you get into affordable housing?

My grandfather was a bracero who came from Mexico City to the US during World War II as an agricultural laborer. He moved around a good deal, but eventually settled in Visalia, California. Eventually, he switched from working in the fields to working as a baker, enabling him to buy a home, which set the stage for a stable family life. His son, my father, married young, and started a family right after high school. To help make ends meet my parents took advantage of rental housing for several years before eventually purchasing their first home.

I was the first in my immediate family to go to a four year university. I graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Community and Regional Development. During college, I participated in the California Coalition for Rural Housing Project (funded now, in part, by NeighborWorks). I also interned with Community Housing Opportunities Corporation, where I learned about farmworker housing, tax credits and the whole world of affordable housing and community development.  After that, I became an affordable housing advocate for life.

How did you become executive director at such an early age?

I had a good deal of prior experience before coming to NHS of Silicon Valley. In 2000, I ran for and was elected to be president of the associate students at UC Davis.  I was the first Latino ever to hold that position there. It was a challenge, but I was able to work with a large coalition of other progressive students and allies to push for greater accessibility for underrepresented students at the campus and across the UC system. I was also one of the first students to bring the issue of affordable housing to the forefront. Davis, like many other college towns, has inflated housing prices. As the primary representative for 20,000 students, I was able to participate in both local and state policy advocacy. For example, I worked on a team that amended the City of Davis’ “General Plan” to specifically target affordable student housing. This was important because 5,000-10,000 students were Pell Grant eligible, meaning there was a large number of students who needed access to affordable housing.

After college, I worked with Applied Development Economics where I wrote grants and helped cities and counties across the State access Community Development Block Grant funding.  In 2005, I became a project manager at South County Housing (a NeighborWorks Chartered Member based in Gilroy, CA) where I lead the effort to rebuild a farmworker housing community for 60-70 families and created a safe, healthy, and affordable housing development. I believe my success is because of my approach to work. I always choose the most challenging projects which has allowed me to exceed my personal expectations and those of others.
Salinas Road in Pajaro, California in 2005
photo courtesy of Matt Huerta

Salinas Road in 2006, with new farmworker housing
photo courtesy of Matt Huerta

What should readers know about Neighborhood Housing Services of Silicon Valley (NHSSV)?

NHSSV was founded in 1995 by community leaders along with the San Jose Housing Department and NeighborWorks America. Silicon Valley is renowned for its technological advances and high incomes, but not all residents have opportunities to take advantage of technology or tech jobs,.  Many people are new immigrants who have limited education, and have to work two or more lower-wage jobs to make a decent living. They don’t have access to financial resources  but dream of owning a home. The other large group of low and moderate income people in Silicon Valley are teachers, young police officers and administrative employees. They need downpayment assistance to buy a home due to the high cost of living and house prices.

NHSSV works to increase opportunities for low and moderate income families by providing homebuyer education, foreclosure prevention services, mortgage lending, and community building and organizing.  Our services are important in this area because low and moderate income buyers can not compete with the large population of all cash buyers and investors. One of the reasons we are able to offer affordable housing is because we are the only nonprofit realty in Silicon Valley and the only non-profit first mortgage provider. We work with financial institutions to access real-estate owned properties and short sales. We also act as a resource to local governments who need assistance managing their affordable for-sale inventories. If a client of ours has to go through foreclosure, we not only help that client navigate that process, but also reserve the home for other low and moderate income families rather than letting it go to the highest bidder. 

Our commitment to improving our community does not end with creating homeownership opportunities. NHSSV supports neighborhood leaders through several key initiatives including sponsoring the Neighborhood Development Training Conference at San Jose State University which serves 400 leaders with capacity building workshops each year so that they can complete their own high priority projects and programs. In partnership with neighborhood leaders, NHSSV has established the Responsible Landlords Engagement Initiative which responds to requests to help hold landlords accountable to making lasting physical and social improvements at their properties.

This is great work. What motivates you to get up in the morning?

I’m motivated by the feeling that I’m part of something bigger than myself and that every day I can see the results of my efforts. I truly believe that affordable housing development is a movement which contributes to social justice.  Now that I have a family, a wife and three young children, it’s even more important to me to work toward a brighter future for them, and for all those in our shared community.

Thank you. We’re pleased to have you as part of the NeighborWorks network.

For more on NHS of Silicon Valley, visit or connect with them on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Housing Education, Counseling and the Future of the Housing Economy

This thought piece was originally published September 6, 2012 on the Bipartisan Policy Center's website. The question was: What is the role of housing education and counseling in the future housing economy and finance system?

Photo of Eileen Fitzgerald
By Eileen Fitzgerald
Chief Executive Officer
NeighborWorks America
NeighborWorks America is a strong proponent of homeownership education and counseling. As the current economic crisis demonstrates, objective pre-purchase homeowner education — before shopping for a home or a loan — is the buyer’s best defense against delinquency and foreclosure. It is a critical element of sustainable homeownership — which is a homeownership opportunity that makes sense for a consumer’s current and expected budget and income, family situation and mobility needs. Homeowners receiving upfront homeownership education and counseling learn how to develop a budget, responsibly manage credit, and budget for and handle home maintenance. They also learn how to navigate the complicated home acquisition and financing process so that they can make the best choices for their situations. These homeowners find themselves facing foreclosure with far less frequency than other homeowners.

We encourage lenders, government sponsored enterprises, state housing finance agencies, USDA, VA and FHA to create meaningful incentives, such as higher loan-to-value requirements, or other preferred terms or rates for consumers to take advantage of pre-purchase education and counseling well in advance of applying for a mortgage. We also strongly urge these entities to track which borrowers receive homebuyer education and counseling and report on the performance of those borrowers in aggregate. This would provide all of us with a much better understanding of the impact and value of homebuyer education and counseling.

Core support for a homeownership education and counseling infrastructure is critical so that broad access can be available across the country. Standards of quality are essential for housing counseling agencies, and the current National Industry Standards provide a strong framework. The HUD Counseling Grant dollars and the new HUD Office of Counseling play a key role in ensuring access and standards of quality. However, HUD or any other governmental funding will be insufficient to meet the scale of the need for quality homebuyer education and counseling. So it is essential to integrate a market perspective. Lenders should provide significant product incentives or rebates to counseled borrowers to reflect the value the lender is receiving — a quality new borrower who is prepared, less risky and ready to go. If the market reflects the value of this service through incentives, then potential new homeowners will be more willing to pay a larger portion of the cost of the homeownership education and counseling since they will be refunded that cost and more (through additional product incentives).

There are many variations of this concept — different splits in payments between potential homeowners and the lenders, payments funded through the transaction and reflected on the HUD-1, or full cost recovery to the counseling agency, but with a small portion of the funds held back for two to three years and paid to reflect borrower performance.

Sustainable homeownership is essential to prevent a repeat of the current housing crisis. Homebuyer education and counseling is a critical element, and we must determine how to use a small amount of core federal dollars to leverage a market approach that will achieve greater scale and create more successful homeowners.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Generation Volunteer: Creating Opportunity for Youth Engagement

By Liz McLachlan
development associate
Lighthouse of Oakland County
 Calen Knight is no ordinary nine year old. Last June, she independently organized a school-wide food drive which she donated to Lighthouse of Oakland County's emergency food pantry in Michigan. The project was part of a charity she helped created called, which she founded at the age of eight. 

"My parents have taught me that I am so lucky to have many nice things like toys, books, DVD's, and new clothes. So, now I want to help other children have something to smile about too," says Calen. The goal of is to create awareness within other children in hopes that they will also realize their good fortune and become inspired to lend a helping hand.

Calen with emergency pantry supplies
Calen’s early commitment to volunteerism is impressive, but not that unusual. In its annual survey, reported that 8.3 million volunteers between the ages of 16-24 dedicated 844 million hours of service to US communities in 2010.

At Lighthouse of Oakland County, we see the start of the new school year as the perfect opportunity to lay the foundation for youth volunteer engagement.  Benefits to the volunteers include:
  • Volunteering can teach skills that they will use later in life.
  • Volunteering can teach them compassion and responsibility, and gratitude for the things they have.
  • Children who volunteer are less likely to engage in risky behavior, more likely to feel connected to their communities, and tend to do better in school. (source: World Volunteer Web)

Boy Scouts from Troop 1032 volunteering in the
Lighthouse food pantry, which serves ~650 people/month
At Lighthouse, our main priority is to develop solid relationships with  local schools, churches, and families. Reaching out to this core audience allows us to share the work we do in a familiar environment known to the children. This is necessary because many have never volunteered before; this is our opportunity to really hear what the student's volunteer interests are. From that point forward, teachers, parents and students are able to identify meaningful projects that resonate with their group.

Does your organization offer projects for younger volunteers and their families?  The following strategies can be incorporated into existing volunteer recruitment, planning, and placement activities to encourage community involvement and adapting volunteer projects for younger volunteers.

1.    Know your audience. Review your current donor base and volunteers actively participating within your organizations. Are there schools, churches, or groups who work with children? Contact these individuals first; invite them to tour your location with their children.

2.    Develop age-appropriate opportunities. One of the biggest mistakes an organization can do is offer an opportunity that is not meaningful to the volunteers. Yes, we all have the "must-get-done" projects, but when you develop a project that leaves a lasting impression, those volunteers will be back. Kids get bored easily, but when they are excited and engaged they will remember that project long after they leave.

3.    Encourage volunteer autonomy. Kids have great ideas. If you are in need of a food drive, get the kids involved in the planning process. The more they "own" their project, the more successful they will be in achieving it.
Lilly created "Parties in a box" to provide
birthday supplies to other children

4.    Planning is key! Families are busy and timing volunteer projects is crucial to successful volunteer engagement. Take time to know school schedules and plan projects around after school hours and planned days off. Offer projects on holiday breaks, teacher development days, and half-days.

5.    Don't forget teams. Do you need a large project completed? Coaches and parents are great resources to help get the work done quickly. Volunteering is a great opportunity for team building.

These are just a few ideas to get started and now it's your turn. We would love to hear how your organization engages kids in community service and volunteer projects.

Please leave a comment below and share your ideas. You can also read more stories of our young volunteers here.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Back to (After)school

Carrie Sauer, NeighborWorks America
intern, Northeast Region
Education is said to be the great equalizer for students from all social and ethnic backgrounds. However, many youth from distressed neighborhoods lack the resources and the support to successfully navigate the opportunities that schools or the community may provide. Youth in such situations are apt to feel disconnected from their school, to feel socially isolated, and experience an overall sense of unpreparedness. The solution? Schools and communities should focus on engaging the students. 
This is exactly what the folks at Madison Park Community Development Corporation in Roxbury, Massachusetts are doing as a part of their newly established mentoring initiative, “the Circle for Success Initiative (CSI).” This effort connects 9th grade students with peer mentors who guide, advise, and assist with the various issues that accompany the transition to high school.  Members of the resident services program at Madison Park collaborate with the parents to help students decide on a career or education path, and then develop a strategic plan towards that goal. This ensures that the participants understand their potential and are exposed to the career and educational prospects that will allow them to realize their potential. 

Madison Park Community Development Corp. summer youth staff
Mentoring programs like this one address a wide spectrum of potential barriers including social, psychological, educational and emotional issues all by introducing a strong role model. Mentoring does not have to be formal, though. By getting engaged in the community in any sort of youth program, students strengthen their networks and build relationships that foster similar social and emotional growth — and such progress carries over to performance in school. 

According to studies by the Afterschool Alliance, the Urban Institute and the Public Health Agency of Canada, students who are involved are less likely to skip school and more likely to feel a sense of belonging in their school.  These positive thoughts and behaviors translate to hefty gains in test scores and graduation rates.  Furthermore, these impacts are more significant among disadvantaged students, confirming the need for community development agencies to incorporate youth programming into their mission. 
Mentor and mentee
As students return to their studies, it is important to remember that school makes up but a fraction of a day.  What happens in the afternoon can make all the difference to an individual’s development both as a student and as a young adult.

Learn more about other youth programs offered by Madison Park Community Development Corporation, including their summer mural project, by visiting their Facebook page or watching this video