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.”