Friday, December 20, 2013

Connecticut group trains renters and landlords to ‘bridge the divide’

Helping residents of its diverse community achieve homeownership is a core mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain (CT). In fact, the organization – which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year – was chosen to participate in NeighborWorks America’s pilot program when it first started training housing counselors in 1982.

But homeownership isn’t feasible or the desired option for some people, and as Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported this month, there is a growing shortage of affordable rental units. According to the report, the share of renters paying more than a third of their incomes for housing, traditionally considered the minimum threshold of affordability, rose to 50 percent in 2010. Much of the increase was among renters facing severe burdens (paying more than half of their incomes for housing) – a group now representing nearly 27 percent of tenants. 

That reality can be seen in central Connecticut as well. The area, which has a large population of Hispanic and Polish immigrants (giving the neighborhood around the organization’s office the nickname, “Little Poland”), has lost a lot of manufacturing operations over the years and now relies on service businesses for its livelihood. Unemployment is nearly 12 percent.  

The mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain is to help fill the gap in the supply of affordable housing – in part, through developing rental units, of which it now manages 25. The goal, says Executive Director Maureen Voghel, is to add 10 plus units annually for the next three years, along with two to four single-family homes. 

However, renting poses unique challenges – for both tenants and landlords. And while counseling is offered by many organizations for new homeowners, such training rarely is provided to people on both sides of the renting “equation.” NHS of New Britain is taking the lead by offering preparation classes for both existing and prospective renters and landlords.

“Sometimes, renters become landlords themselves,” observes Evelyn Branch, supervisor of Homeownership and Foreclosure programs for NHS. “It can make sense, once they are ready to purchase, to buy a multi-family unit – like a duplex – and rent out the extra space for some income. But becoming a landlord isn’t easy.”

Participants in the NHS-NB training class for landlords
hear from a police officer.
In the last year, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority began requiring landlords to receive education on their responsibilities, and with the closest alternative site a less-frequent program in Hartford, the NHS class attracts a regular attendance of about a dozen for each monthly, three-hour session.

The “Landlord 101” workshop, says Branch, covers everything from making the decision to purchase a rental unit and become a landlord, to how to screen tenants, maintain the property, manage their finances and – if necessary – evict residents in accordance with the appropriate protocols. Recently, the curriculum was supplemented to include the importance of green maintenance practices to keep costs low for everyone.

In October, NHS began offering a similar class, but for tenants. In the tenant class, participants discuss how to effectively communicate concerns to their landlords, ways they can bring down energy costs and their rights during eviction. In the future, NHS hopes to forge a partnership with other community-based organizations to provide legal services through pro bono attorneys to both tenants and landlords.

“It’s a two-way street,” explains Branch. “Both have rights, and both have responsibilities. But no one prepares them for that. Our goal is to help them build a good, professional relationship, based on open communication. ”

‘Aging in place’ transformed from dream to reality in Ohio

As with other communities across the country, the Rust Belt town of Springfield, OH, is aging. With high unemployment and the resulting exodus of young people, the population of the small town in southwestern Ohio is increasingly in need of affordable housing tailored to the needs of older individuals who want to stay in their communities, but need a little help to do so.

“Springfield is very segregated in terms of income,” explains Tina Koumoutsos, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Partnership (NHP) of Greater Springfield, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. “Most of the new development is on the north side, where the more affluent residents live. People in the southern neighborhoods don’t have as many options.”

NHP-GS is doing its part to change that, however. In 2011, it partnered with the City of Springfield to leverage funds from the second round of HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created to assist communities whose viability is at risk in the wake of the wave of foreclosures. This funding, says Koumoutsos, was a “blessing. We had no debt to service, and could use the project instead to generate a revenue stream to invest back in our work.”

One year later, NHP offered 12 two-bedroom duplexes for rent, specifically for individuals age 55 or older who are making 50 percent of the area median income or less. In addition to reasonable rents, affordability is assured through green building practices that keep energy costs low.

“We designed these units with ‘smart growth’ in mind,” says Koumoutsos, who was the city’s housing coordinator before she became the founding director of NHP. “That means people and their special needs were our focus, not cars.”

For example, the new development was positioned to be “walkable,” with a YMCA, government offices and a performing arts center within easy reach. The property manager of the complex owns another, larger senior-service project and provides case-manager services to both developments, including recreational activities and transportation when needed.

Front porches (without steps, so people with disabilities
can easily access them) are main features of the new
walkable community for seniors.
In the units themselves, garages are positioned to the back of the homes, shifting the focus to front-yard porches where residents are encouraged to socialize with each other. The University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, which is following more than 7,000 individuals, concluded that living in a neighborhood where you have strong social ties has as much physical benefit as not smoking.

In addition, the development was built with a goal of “zero steps.” Koumoutsos explains that NHP wanted the residents to be able to safely age in place, as well as to welcome disabled friends and relatives. That means no stairs that could become wheelchair obstacles, as well as special touches such as walk-in showers in the bathrooms and accessible kitchen cabinets. At the same time, however, the NHP team worked hard to make the look inviting, rather than institutional, and the second bedroom in each unit offers plenty of space for visiting children and grandchildren.

“All of the units filled almost immediately, and we have a waiting list of about 100,” says Koumoutsos. “We are in discussions now with the city about building more, since we own the adjacent land.”

“Impact” is what Koumoutsos and her team strive for. A recent study documented that in the last five years, NHP of Greater Springfield has contributed $43 million to the local economy, supported 74 jobs and generated $51 million in first mortgages.

“We used to have to struggle to make the case that providing affordable housing has an overall impact on the community at large,” she says. “Now no one questions it.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

West Virginia group demonstrates big impact despite small staff, few resources

Imagine you lead a four-person organization that serves a city with a population of just more 7,000 people, 20 percent of whom are below the poverty line, and a lack of traditional funders like big banks. That’s the challenge John Elza, executive director of the HomeOwnership Center (HOC) of Elkins, WV, faces daily.

And then there is the additional dearth of communications channels. “Reaching customers is challenging. There’s not a lot of media and only one daily newspaper. Getting information out is hard,” Elza says. “A lot of folks don’t have a computer.”

However, the smallness in size and resources haven’t stopped HOC from working to achieve a big impact in the 15 years since its founding, despite the lingering impact of the Great Recession.

“Getting to 15 years after the recession was challenging,” Elza admits. “Production numbers were down, but are starting to come back.  We just ended Fiscal Year ‘13 with a 26 percent increase in production over the prior year.”

HOC grew out of the Randolph County Housing Authority, which Elza describes as the incubation unit for the group. “It decided to spin off a private nonprofit that could do different things.”

The organization became a licensed state mortgage broker and then a NeighborWorks charter organization in 2001. This transition was important for HOC.

“The Housing Authority couldn't go after private funding or foundations because it wasn't a 501c3,” Elza explains. “We wanted to become a licensed broker to be more effective. Initially, the focus was on pre-purchase counseling, since there were certain types of mortgages that didn't require a broker's license. When we received our broker's license, it opened the doors to assisting others.”

HOC assists a mostly rural population, providing education and counseling, financing and development primarily to low- and moderate-income households. “We serve an eight-county service area of 130,000 people,” Elza elaborates. “Randolph County is 146 square miles. We’re up in the mountains. Tourism is a big economic factor here. There’s not a lot of actual industry, and only one regional lender in the area. From a fundraising standpoint, that’s a challenge. We don’t have a big banking presence.”

HOC’s mission is to provide safe, affordable housing, focusing on sustainable homeownership, self-sufficiency, sound environments, healthy quality of life and communities that can sustain these values. To fulfill these goals, HOC provides homeownership education and counseling to more than 200 families each year, with more than 50 becoming home buyers. The organization has been so successful in stretching its resources to achieve its mission that its staff often works with individuals elsewhere in the state who want to offer similar services.

Elza recalls one particular family’s story that illustrates the impact that can be achieved, even on a small scale.

Heather Sackett-Scott, William Scott and their two
children in front of their new home.
Heather Sackett-Scott and William Scott have four children, including one with disabilities. They needed to find a home that was both affordable and accessible to a disabled child. HOC provided counseling and education for the family, helping them to become mortgage-ready. The organization then engaged several partners to provide affordable financing. Highland Community Builders provided a lot, CommunityWorks provided the first mortgage at a below-market rate and Woodlands Development Group constructed the accessible home and also provided partial subsidized financing. HOC processed the blended mortgage loan.

Sackett-Scott said afterward, "I’m just grateful that there are programs like this. And I’m pleased to know that there are people doing these things for other people. If it weren't for this program, my family wouldn't be able to get a house like this, a nice home. It just wouldn't happen."

Written by Lindsay Moore, senior media relations specialist for NeighborWorks America.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Salt Lake City group fights crime by putting youth to work

Safety is one of the most basic requirements of desirable communities. If residents are afraid to walk down their streets, or even to socialize in their own front yards, they will flee the first chance they get – and certainly won’t engage with their community, much less their neighbors.

“We learned early on that we couldn’t just focus on housing,” says Maria Garciaz, executive director of NeighborWorks Salt Lake. “What’s the point of developing more housing if the crime rate is going up and people are afraid to live there?”

That’s what her organization discovered when it first began serving the west side of Salt Lake City (the quintessential “other side of the tracks”). It was 1982, and as members of the organization talked to stakeholders in the community, one problem kept surfacing: the neighborhood was increasingly ruled by gangs. Thus, the West Side Youth Project was born.  It gave youth hanging out on the street corners productive work, along with the skills and motivation to forge a new direction for their lives. Garciaz was probation officer for the local juvenile court at the time, and many of the youth were her charges. It was a natural fit for her to come on board, first as a volunteer, then as director of what came to be known as the YouthWorks program. Garciaz was named executive director in 1989, just a few years before the organization joined the NeighborWorks network – a milestone for which it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Other services offered by NeighborWorks Salt Lake are commercial-development projects to reverse blight in retail districts, development of affordable housing and resident leadership training.

In the early years, YouthWorks targeted hard-core gang members, with youth enrolled for a year at a time. “We saw some amazing changes in their lives,” Garciaz recalls. “Last Monday, a young man who graduated from the program in 1989 walked through the door. I said, ‘I’m so glad to see you’re alive!’ He was so much more than alive…He now has a successful job as a machinist. Another graduate is now on our board of directors!”

A YouthWorks team frames a new, affordable home.
Today, YouthWorks focuses on prevention -- helping larger numbers of young people before they become “hard core.” About 14 youth are enrolled in each three-month “crew” – mostly 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year, and as young as 14 in the summers. Three days a week, they work from 1-6 p.m. building one of the organization’s affordable homes – from framing the building to pouring concrete and painting walls (with expert contractors providing on-site training). “Being able to build a home, to see their work come to such concrete, successful fruition, teaches so many important lessons,” explains Garciaz. “For instance, if the framing doesn’t turn out right, they can take it apart and re-build it. What better analogy for life?”

On the afternoons when they aren’t working on a home or community project, the youth learn the financial-management skills they need to wisely spend the weekly stipend they earn while employed with YouthWorks. Sometimes, they do painting jobs for other nonprofits such as museums, in return for free tickets or a pizza party. “It’s a subtle way to engage them with the community,” she says.

Teamwork is a strong emphasis of the youth program.
Twice a year, female crews are recruited to assure that hormones don’t get in the way of the learning experience. The organization also actively recruits “new Americans” for all of its sessions. Since Utah is a federally designated resettlement state, many youth now come from families who emigrated from countries as far-flung as Afghanistan and Somalia. To date, more than 1,800 youth have graduated from the program.

“We define success as completing high school, staying out of the court system and – once they graduate – either enrolling in college or getting a job,” says Garciaz. Program participants are surveyed a year after they graduate from YouthWorks, but she knows that the impact has longevity. One group of about 100 graduates was contacted 10 years later, and 80 percent owned their own homes, with many starting their own businesses.

“This isn’t the kind of program that produces immediate results, and it will never be economically self-sufficient,” says Garciaz. “But think about it. Seventy-five percent of our kids are poor, often from families of color, who aren’t reached by any other program. They’d be lost to the streets without YouthWorks. What better investment is that?”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.