Friday, September 27, 2013

Idaho group demonstrates ability to change blight to bright

When you need political support and funding to continue your mission to revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods, but the people you need to influence don’t tend to visit “that side of the tracks,” how do you motivate them to care? By taking them on a “Blight to Bright Tour”!

20th anniversary "medal"
That’s the innovative tactic employed by Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services (PNHS).

The founding mission of the nonprofit, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of both its creation and its membership in NeighborWorks America, is to revitalize six neighborhoods of Pocatello, located in southeastern Idaho. The homes were built primarily before 1978; not only are they simply “wearing out” with age, but they also were constructed before lead standards were set, making many unsafe both environmentally and health-wise.

Although PNHS offers rehab loans, homebuyer education and financial fitness coaching throughout the city and surrounding areas, it focuses its new construction on “infill housing” for these core neighborhoods, helping them revive and thrive. PNHS works with the city government, banks and other partners to acquire vacant lots or dilapidated houses -- often after they have been foreclosed or burnt down, and usually from absentee owners. The organization then replaces them with affordable housing that is designed to add to the community’s overall marketability, through special touches such as front porches that invite interaction with neighbors.(Read this MSN article for a discussion on when to rehab vs. demolish, in which Dahlquist is quoted.)

A vacant lot acquired by PNHS in
one of its target neighborhoods.
With the addition of a new home, the vacant
lot is transformed from blight to bright.

“The before-and-after pictures, and the stories, are dramatic,” says Mark Dahlquist, executive director. “We’ve featured them in a brochure, but there’s no better way to convert people into ‘believers’ than by bringing them there. We call it our ‘Blight to Bright’ tour.”

Dahlquist and his team have conducted two such tours so far and are planning a third, although he often gives VIPs such as legislative staff a one-on-one version. On each tour, about 35 participants, including the mayor, city councilmen and local bankers, hop in a bus and take a tour of the neighborhoods. They’re given the “before” photos, and stop to see the “afters” in person, while chatting with the families.

“The universal reaction is surprise at the vibrancy they see now,” says Dahlquist. “We don’t have to tell them we make a positive impact; they can see for themselves what their continuing funding and other support allow us to do.”

Volunteers clean up Harrison Street using tools from the mobile lending "library."
Two mobile tool libraries help
volunteers brighten up Harrison Street
To date, PNHS has constructed and sold 140 affordable homes. Their success has meant that the degree of “blight” that needs brightening is so reduced that Dahlquist sees a shift to a greater focus on rehabs. His organization already has distributed 350 rehab loans across the city and surrounding areas, which has nurtured the growing popularity of another program of which Dahlquist is particularly proud: a tool library.  The original idea for the library, he says, was born when a team from PNHS attended a NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute. However, it wasn’t until about five years ago that it really took off.

Today, about 200 community residents a year check out the library’s lawn mowers, weed whackers and other tools for a minimal $1 or $2 a day. Then there’s the library’s two mobile units, which allow the full collection to travel to the site of major community-improvement projects. For example, in an event called Re-Ignite the Pride, several service groups accessed the mobile units to spruce up eight blocks along Harrison Street, a major community artery that had fallen into poor condition along the railroad tracks.

“Neighborhood revitalization is our core mission,” says Dahlquist, “and we’ll change with the community’s needs to keep it vibrant.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rochester, NY, group works to keep city from going the way of Detroit

When the news first broke that the city of Detroit had filed for bankruptcy, Kim Brumber, CEO of NeighborWorks Rochester, shuddered. Rochester, NY, may not be Detroit, but there are some parallels that hit very close to home.

NeighborWorks Rochester is celebrating it's 20th anniversary“Like Detroit, a core of industrial giants fueled Rochester’s early growth,” recalls Brumber, a longtime resident of the area. “For Detroit, it was the Big Three automakers. For Rochester, it was Xerox, Kodak and (just in August) Bausch & Lomb.  And just as the declining competitiveness of the auto industry was a trigger of Detroit’s economic downfall, Rochester experienced its own spiral when one by one, our big employers downsized or left the scene.”

Brumber believes the days of “mega-employers” are over, and that smaller-scale entrepreneurship is what will eventually revitalize Rochester as well as other cities like Detroit. That takes, time, however, and NeighborWorks Rochester is focused on doing its part to prevent the population flight witnessed by its larger counterpart. A key element in that struggle is making sure that residents are able to stay in or access safe, quality, affordable housing.

The family who lives in this house was unable
to pay to keep their home in good repair.
With the help of NeighborWorks
Rochester, the home is now transformed.

“People just don’t have the equity in their homes anymore to spend what it takes to keep them in good condition,” explains Brumber. “Our approach is to make it financially feasible for residents to maintain their houses, and recently, we began offering help with energy-efficiency improvements that reduce their energy costs as well. Much of the housing stock here is very old, so the energy costs are high. We can often save them $100 a month – that’s $1,200 a year, which is significant for the people who live here.”

Over the years, NeighborWorks Rochester has adjusted its philosophy and services to match the changing nature of the city’s needs. The nonprofit was one of the original NeighborWorks organizations, focusing on rehab loans at a time when redlining in the largely African-American communities resulted in disinvestment. Gradually, the organization expanded its scope and services -- including a new focus on neighborhood stabilization and marketing.

“The traditional model for neighborhood re-investment is to demolish drug houses, etc. in the most blighted neighborhoods, thinking that change would follow. But this strategy doesn't work in cities that have a soft real estate market," says Brumber. "We've learned that turning neighborhoods around requires a market-based approach that draws in private investment of time and resources -- ideally before they start to rapidly decline, the typical time to intervene.” 

Through its Healthy Blocks initiative, NeighborWorks Rochester
The new "branding" logo for the Patch neighborhood.
targets neighborhoods that are showing signs of social and economic disinvestment, but where residents are still trying to tread water. Through a combination of neighborhood “branding,” social gatherings and community-wide improvement activities, residents are encouraged and supported in their efforts to maintain the value of their property and nurture a sense of “belonging” that attracts and retains homeowners. For example, NeighborWorks Rochester partnered with the Realtors Charitable Foundation (an arm of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors), the city’s police department, local businesses and others to energize the neighborhood called The Pocket. Monthly resident meetings are held in an area recreation center, and spring/fall clean-ups, ice cream socials and leadership workshops are among the results. An overgrown, vacant lot was transformed into the Emmighausen Garden, which produces an array of flowers and vegetables. Since 2008, sales prices in the neighborhood have increased 20 percent per square foot. What’s up next? A new logo soon will appear on street banners and crosswalks will feature “BoulevArt.”

In 2012, NeighborWorks Rochester reported re-investing $4 million into the city’s neighborhoods. The organization trained 365 individuals in how to be smart homeowners, helped 64 families become new homebuyers,  conducted 97 tests for lead in older homes and distributed 82 home-improvement loans and grants, totaling $1.2 million.

In a recent article in the Rochester City newspaper, a member of the editorial team wrote, “What the Greater Rochester community does will determine whether we’ll survive the impact of the changes in our own major industries, our suburban sprawl, our racial isolation. Rochester hasn’t reached Detroit’s depths yet. Maybe we never will. But the warning signs are there.”

NeighborWorks Rochester is among the mainstay organizations working to make sure the city never will.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Early funding is worth its weight in gold

Eileen Fitzgerald,
NeighborWorks America
(By Eileen Fitzgerald, CEO, NeighborWorks America) Developing affordable rental housing these days is a lot like putting together a puzzle – when the financing pieces are all in place, a thing of beauty results, but when there’s a piece missing for the puzzle (or in this case, a piece missing from the finance package for rental housing) the project just doesn't work. The result is fewer new affordable rental homes developed and more existing rental homes transitioning into market rate housing or being demolished. The bottom line: Families who need affordable rental housing may have a lot harder time securing the homes that they need.

Getting all of the financing pieces for affordable housing is difficult because nonprofit developers usually have to tap multiple sources of capital, either from one or more private sector banks, or from local or federal government sources such as community development block grants or state housing finance agency money. Essentially, nonprofits have to find all of the pieces to make an affordable rental housing project work.

However, often the private and public sources of financing needed to piece together an affordable rental deal want to see the developer have equity or “skin in the game” before they make the loan or approve the government financing.

That’s tough to do because even large nonprofit owners and developers of rental housing operate at very thin margins on existing projects that leave little room for the accumulation of excess capital to deploy to new projects.

This is why NeighborWorks America has been a long-time proponent of grant makers finding ways to make operating level or flexible funding available. After working with nonprofit rental housing developers for many years, NeighborWorks America knows that a nonprofit developer that has obtained general operating support and flexible money for qualified project on the books or in the planning stages has a leg up on securing other money to get the project done.

Rick Goodemann, chief executive officer of Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership based in Slayton, Minn, and the owner and developer of nearly 900 affordable rental homes explained the value of early capital this way: “Patient, flexible capital, though limited, is available through such sources as foundations, financial institutions and housing finance agencies. Capital of that nature is extremely valuable and absolutely essential in supporting early feasibility analysis, due diligence activities, and securing real property. But it's most valuable when used to leverage debt, attract investors and provide a level of development and operational risk mitigation.”

Providing nonprofit developers with early funding that they could show other financial supporters is a core community development strategy at NeighborWorks America.  Nonprofits that could tap flexible capital from other sources such as national or community foundations, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) or state housing finance agencies enhances the ability of the organization to move quickly and build new or sustain existing affordable rental housing.

For example, in July of this year, the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency provided just this kind of capital. Mark Dinaburg, the director of real estate development for nonprofit owner Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. said to a local newspaper, “With their help, we have finally been able to refinance and rehabilitate this 80-unit BHP-1 property. Previous to this, we had made multiple efforts to bring together an adequate financing package, while the properties slowly decayed, physically, socially, and financially. Indeed, the entire portfolio was threatened with foreclosure in the dark days of 2009. MassHousing’s willingness to step up with bridge financing, and to participate in a permanent financing package, was key to turning this around.”

Codman Square received more than $200,000 from NeighborWorks America to use as early, flexible capital for its rehab project that helped it secure state HFA funding.

Whether flexible funding helps to hire a development manager, an architect or exists as an early investment that attracts larger supporters, organizations that are able to secure this kind of financing have the best chance of getting a new affordable rental project done or to sustain an existing one.

NeighborWorks America encourages all of the potential sources of early, flexible and first-loss capital to be earlier participants in affordable housing deals. These sources of capital have to be the ones to take the first steps and jump-start affordable rental housing. Without their increased participation, too many deals that could be put together, won’t be completed, leaving some families by themselves to piece together their own affordable housing solutions.

Reposted from Rooflines, the Shelterforce blog.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NY organization helps families ‘fill the gaps’ when other assistance stops

When a tornado, hurricane or other disaster strikes, there is typically a rush of media attention and emergency assistance. But then, the spotlight shifts and families are left to struggle to fill the “gaps” that remain, on their own.

Tenth anniversary seal
That’s what happened when Tropical Storm Irene hit the Eastern Coast on Aug. 29, 2011, and flood waters poured out of the Adirondack Mountains through the tiny town of Keene, in northern New York. The area was declared a disaster zone, and even after federal funds and private donations poured in, many families and businesses were still fighting to “stay afloat” months later. Fortunately, Housing Assistance Program of Essex County (HAPEC), which is celebrating its 10th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, considers filling gaps to be its core mission.

Consider the story of Russ and Angie. The flood waters seriously damaged the stone foundation and first floor of the front section of their modest home, and the back addition with the bedrooms for their two preschool-aged children was destroyed.

The family of four moved temporarily onto the grounds of a local summer camp, while they began repairs using funds from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), community donations and their own retirement savings. However, although they were able to move back into their home in March of 2012, they didn’t have enough money to rebuild their children’s bedrooms, forcing the family to “double-up” in cramped quarters. Government assistance had dried up, and “donor fatigue” had set in, even among their friends. “Our family is at the end of our rope emotionally,” Russ wrote in one email to HAPEC, describing their plight.

Habitat for Humanity team joins with NeighborWorks group to rebuild the Cooks' home
A team from Habitat for Humanity joined HAPEC to help
re-build the family home of Russ and Angie.
That’s when HAPEC stepped in. With the help of a NeighborWorks America emergency-assistance grant, the organization helped the family pay off its outstanding loans, prepped the site for the re-build and recruited a Habitat for Humanity team to construct the new shell. Russ and Angie finished the walls and flooring. The finishing touch, again provided by HAPEC, was a wood-pellet stove for heating.

“Given what they had been through, and the exhaustion of their personal savings, Russ and Angie would not have been able to complete this work on their own for quite some time,” says Bruce Misarski, community development director for HAPEC. “Now, their house is ‘whole’ again, and they have bedrooms for their kids.”

HAPEC was founded in 1976 as the first local organization qualified to receive and administer HUD Section 8 rental assistance, which had just been authorized by Congress two years before. Today, HAPEC defines its focus much more broadly: to “alleviate economic distress, enhance personal dignity and cultivate self-reliance” in a rural county where employment mostly depends on low-wage, seasonal tourism and the household median income is 18 percent below the national average.

HAPEC services range from assistance with homebuyer education, to home repairs, to partnerships for the development of affordable multi-family housing. An impact assessment conducted for HAPEC and published in 2011 found that in one year, the organization:

Created nearly 92 jobs – one of every 200 jobs in Essex County alone.
Assisted 35 families in purchasing their first home.
Helped 57 homeowners rehab their existing houses.
Issued 650 rental-assistance vouchers.
Managed 25 apartments for senior citizens.
Provided foreclosure counseling for 44 families.

Alan Hipps, executive director, points to two keys that are instrumental to his organization’s success: effective fundraising – more than $2.5 million a year – and creative partnerships with other institutions, such as Habitat for Humanity and NeighborWorks America. “Our mission is simple, but ambitious: We strive to recognize community development and housing needs, advocate change and respond to opportunities.”