Wednesday, August 28, 2013

From parks to circuses: Oklahoma NeighborWorks group goes ‘out of the box’ to fight poverty

If there is a common challenge that afflicts all nonprofits, no matter  their scope of work, it’s finding a way to fund everything they want to do – especially infrastructure needs like staffing and space. The Little Dixie Community Action Agency, which proudly labels itself a “survivor” 45 years after its founding, has found a creative way to become more self-reliant:  managing parks for the State of Oklahoma.

“We bring in about half a million dollars from user fees every year,“ proudly explains Becky Reynolds, associate director. “At the same time, we’re saving money for the state government, creating additional opportunities for training and employment, and preserving camping, boating and other recreational activities for residents.”

Little Dixie first experimented with park management in the 1970s, when it was asked to manage the group camping area that served as the “home” for one of its youth programs. But it wasn’t until 1997 that park management became a planned strategy.

Cabin by the lake at Hugo Lake State Park, OK
With a magnificent water view on three sides,
cabin #16 is a favorite at Hugo Lake State Park.
Expert at finding and qualifying for grant assistance, Little Dixie received funding via the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Act of 1993 to draft a 10-year strategic plan for the three counties in its service area. During the resident dialogues that followed, community members vented their anger over the planned closing of two parks that generated tourism income as well as offering much-needed “green respite” through a marina, hiking trails, rental cabins and more. Little Dixie came to the rescue. Today, they are among four state parks managed by the agency.

Thinking out of the box makes Little Dixie 'go-to' agency

This “out-of-the-box” approach to generating income and providing service is why the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  has relied on Little Dixie to provide technical assistance to other rural community action agencies in 11 states – well beyond its “home zone.”  Little Dixie is one of 10 affiliates in the NeighborWorks network to receive a Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) from the HHS, a program created as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty to increase self-sufficiency, improve living conditions and promote community pride in low-income regions.

“We’ve been a CSBG agency since 1972, and that means we focus on giving a “hand up” instead of just a “hand out,” explains Reynolds. For example, each of the families who transition to homeownership through the agency’s Self-Help Housing Program join with their friends, family and neighbors (usually a team of four to 10) to build their new home – what Little Dixie calls “building sweat equity.” The agency staff provides homeownership training, assists families with their loan applications to USDA Rural Development, secures sites for home construction and subcontracts skilled work such as plumbing and electricity. It’s a little like the Habitat for Humanity model, but with a lot more support built in.

Overcoming chronic unemployment by focusing on town's 'curb appeal'

With Little Dixie’s three primary counties ranked first, third and seventh in the state in terms of unemployment, one of the agency’s other significant challenges is working to support job creation, including nurturing a nascent tourist industry.

“We like to say that southeast Oklahoma is one of the best-kept secrets in the country,” laughs Reynolds. “Most people hear Oklahoma and they think of the desolate panhandle. But this part of the state is very beautiful, with lots of pine trees, lakes and rivers. People from Arkansas to Texas come here to hunt, tour the trails with four-wheelers or just relax in a luxury cabin.”

Through Little Dixie’s Small Business Loan Fund, it is helping residents nurture this growing source of revenue, as well as more unusual ventures – such as the renovation of an abandoned building for a circus museum and training gym for novice performers. Since 1937, as many as 22 circuses have called Hugo, Oklahoma, home during the winter – including three that currently tour the country during the warmer months. Performers who have long since stopped touring are buried in their own section of the town cemetery, called “Showmen’s Rest.”

A low-interest loan of $80,000 from Little Dixie is helping that dream become reality – and in the process bringing visitors into town and putting residents to work.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vermont quarry closing brings economy down; NeighborWorks affiliate rallies residents

It’s a story that’s been repeated across America: What builds a town up is also what, eventually, brings it down. In Detroit, it was the auto industry. In West Rutland, Vermont, it was marble quarrying.

When high-quality marble deposits were discovered in the 1830s – followed by the extension of the railroad into town – Rutland was suddenly put on the map. The simultaneous decline of the famous quarries of Carrara in Tuscany, Italy, transformed it into one of the leading marble producers in the world. (The name of the main “drag”? “Marble Street,” of course.)

The double-whammy of a large strike in the 1930s and the Great Depression, however, took a toll from which the town never quite recovered. In 1986 the quarry was forced to close, plunging the outwardly idyllic enclave of “cows and jeans” into economic decline.

West Rutland today
“At its height, the quarry alone employed 2,400 people,” recalls Ludy Biddle, executive director of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont. “Now, there are only about 2,500 people living in the entire town and the county is the second-poorest in the state. For all social measures, it’s in the red – poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancies and, recently, foreclosures.”

Another recurring theme in America, however, is the recovery from adversity that’s possible when residents come together in response to crisis. The disastrous year of 1986 also is when the organization was founded by a group of local citizens to help the remaining residents stay in their homes by keeping them in good repair.  By the 1990s, the area serviced by NeighborWorks of Western Vermont had expanded from four neighborhoods to the entire county and a homeownership program was added to help both first-time buyers and a trickle of newcomers – primarily artists and families looking for a semi-rural lifestyle.

This year, the organization is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a chartered member of the NeighborWorks Rural Initiative, which strengthens communities with small populations by helping them integrate into their regional economies. It now serves three counties, not only with its original rehab assistance and homeownership counseling, but also with “financial fitness” coaching and foreclosure prevention. In 2012:

Two foreclosed houses were purchased by the organization; rehab was begun on another five, with two completed and put on the market.
24 individuals graduated from the homebuyer education program and another 25 completed the organization’s financial-fitness training.
Thirty-seven families successfully negotiated foreclosure alternatives with their mortgage lenders. Another 12 received coaching as they made the decision to opt for a reverse mortgage.
Nearly $800,000 in loans was dispensed to pay for 40 home repairs.

Joan Jackson
Biddle is particularly proud of her organization's participation in the NeighborWorks Green Organization. In fact, in 2010, it was awarded a $4.5 million grant from the Department of Energy for its H.E.A.T. squad (Home Efficiency Assistance Team) – which now boasts the highest penetration rate in the country among similar programs.

Joan Jackson, a retired librarian who has lived in her Wallingford home since 1959, is just one example of the 577 households that received an “energy check-up” in 2012, thanks to the program. Her roof had been damaged by winter ice, the house was so cold she was constantly bundling up to stay warm and the increasing cost of fuel was a persistent worry due to her fixed income. But with the installation of insulation in her basement and upstairs walls, along with air sealing around her doors, ceiling and attic hatch, she is warmer and her fuel bills are 34 percent lower. (Watch a video interview with Biddle, as she explains just how the program works.)

“Twenty-five percent of the people we’ve been able to help with our H.E.A.T. squad are below 80 percent of the area’s median income – individuals who usually aren’t able to participate in programs like this, even though they need it the most,” says Biddle, adding that the organization is now looking for additional funds as the DOE grant sunsets. “The average household we serve spends 3-8 percent of their already-low income on energy. With H.E.A.T, they save an average of 386 gallons of fuel a year – about $1,500 a year. It’s central to our mission to make homeownership affordable.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rise in loan scams heighten need for outreach

Five years after the housing bubble burst, the caveat “buyer beware” unfortunately remains a fact of life for individuals hoping to re-finance their home or escape a foreclosure.

Although scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general dipped in 2012 to 8,658, 2013 is seeing a significant uptick. If the current trend continues, the number of home loan scams reported in 2013 will exceed 11,000 – and that’s likely only the tip of the iceberg, since many such frauds are never officially recorded.  Along with the increase in reports is a worrying rise in average loss. According to the Loan Scam Prevention Database maintained by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the average loss from loan scammers in 2012 was $3,604; so far this year, it’s $4,098.

Barbara Floyd-Jones
Barbara Floyd-Jones, program manager of local support for foreclosure solutions at NeighborWorks America, warned of the dangers of these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” on a recent episode of the nationally syndicated radio program, The Yolanda Adams Morning Show.

Even if the person offering you a so-called great deal is “is a lawyer or sitting with you on a pew in a church,” Floyd-Jones warned, know the signs and “stay away from those kind of people. Not everyone is out to help you. They’re trying to make money off you.” Listen to her interview here.

In fact, the involvement of lawyers is an increasing trend. In 2012, 36 percent of reported scams involved lawyers; in 2013, their share is 45 percent. These shady practitioners are often heard in radio ads, which is why interviews like the one Floyd-Jones participated in are so important.

Recognizing the growing problem with loan scams, the U.S. Congress asked NeighborWorks America three years ago to launch a national public education campaign to empower homeowners to protect themselves through education and trusted referrals. Thus, the Loan Modification Scam Alert website and campaign were created. In addition to online education, it offers a call-in hotline, in operation 24 hours a day seven days a week, in 45 languages.

“By far, the most common scam is asking homeowners to pay a fee upfront or before a loan modification has successfully occurred,” says Floyd-Jones, adding that the most vulnerable targets are senior citizens and minorities for whom English is their second language. “The Federal Trade Commission ruled this practice is illegal in 2010, but most consumers don’t know it.”

Monday, August 5, 2013

Unconventional allies: Finding common cause with workers on the ‘front lines’ of communities

Photo of Eileen Fitzgerald
By Eileen Fitzgerald
Chief Executive Officer
NeighborWorks America
A woman with diabetes, evicted from her home after failing to keep up with her mortgage, is forced to find shelter with a string of friends. Unable to keep track of her medications or maintain a stable, healthy diet, her disease spirals out of control.

A youth’s grades plummet and he drops out of high school, unable to concentrate on his homework because he shares the same cramped living quarters with five siblings, his parents and grandparents.

An employee of a small business is chronically late and misses key deadlines because she cannot afford to live close to work or secure reliable transportation.

It’s true: Home matters. The lack of safe, clean, affordable housing concerns a wide network of frontline workers in the community. Talk to health care professionals, teachers and business managers, and the critical necessity of decent, accessible housing for health and productivity immediately becomes apparent.

Forty years of research show that reducing overcrowding, for example, lessens exposure to infectious diseases and promotes better health overall. One recent study by the University of Michigan illustrates that housing instability triggers depression and anxiety.

Likewise, teachers testify that children who live in safe, healthy, permanent homes do better in school. National Housing Conference research documents that children who move frequently are absent more from school, have trouble concentrating on their studies, and have difficulty making and keeping friends. In addition, children who live in overcrowded homes have lower math and reading scores, and are less likely to graduate from high school.

In the work world, managers at enterprises both big and small have learned firsthand that employees who are not stressed every month about how they will make their rent or mortgage payments—and ideally do not have arduous or expensive commutes—are more reliable and productive.

By remembering that safe, affordable housing affects virtually every aspect of a person’s life, the number and type of potential partnerships ripe for exploration expands exponentially.

This is re-posted from the Bipartisan Beat blog on the Bipartisan Policy Commission website.