Monday, November 18, 2013

Missouri group revitalizes neighborhoods with mixed-income housing and urban orchards

When we hear about declining downtown districts beginning to become trendy again, it’s good news. But there’s usually a downside: As property values shoot up, affordable housing becomes scarce and low-income residents are pushed out.

That’s the challenge faced by Kansas City, MO. And the Westside Housing Organization – a NeighborWorks member celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this year – is determined to assure that affordable housing remains central to the downtown community’s identity.

Westside serves a primarily Latino population, a demographic that first began making its way to the city in the 1920s and ‘30s for jobs with the railroad, explains Executive Director Gloria Ortiz Fisher, whose own family emigrated from Mexico. The organization was founded in 1973 to lead residents’ fight against the loss of their homes to two new highways. Although they lost that struggle, Westside (named for the neighborhood on the west side of the city’s downtown district) developed into a strong local advocate for residents, and is today the only community development corporation in Kansas City for which a significant focus is Latinos.

As the railroad declined, so did the town’s economy, with the West Side’s working-class residents finding employment in restaurants, hotels and similar, small, service-based businesses. However, that all changed in 2009 when the Sprint Center – an indoor arena for concerts and other entertainment -- was built downtown, followed by a host of other attractions.

“The West Side is now a desirable place to live again,” says Fisher. “There are new businesses coming in and lots of creative artist types. Our focus is to make sure affordable, multi-family housing remains in the mix.”

Westside is headquartered
in a renovated firehouse,
rehabbed to green
Westside has long been in the business of developing affordable housing to nurture mixed-income neighborhoods. In the 1980s, Westside Housing began acquiring and rehabbing older apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and now has a portfolio of 165 rental units. The organization also facilitated the development of 120 new, affordable houses. Today, it is accelerating that work and hopes to double its rental units to 300. Meanwhile, Westside is eying an old high school, long since closed as young families left the urban core, which it would like to acquire for housing as well as community space. Energy-efficiency is emphasized during construction, both to keep residents’ utility bills low and continue its leadership role. (In December 2012, Westside was recognized as a NeighborWorks America Green Organization.)

“We operate with an average 98 percent occupancy,” says Fisher. “There is always a waiting list.”

Still, it’s a challenge, and many working-class families from the West Side neighborhood are moving to less-expensive homes to the historic northeast district. So, Westside has expanded to serve them, since an older community development corporation in that neighborhood had closed down.

Two residents of the neighborhood water
one of the orchard's trees.
“You can get a house there for $35,000, but there is a lot of crime, and 25 percent of the buildings are abandoned or vacant,” says Fisher. “It’s a good place for fearful immigrants to stay under the radar.”

To help prevent crime through greater community engagement, Westside is recruiting resident leaders to organize clean-ups, advocating for sidewalk construction, starting community gardens and partnering with the police department to implement a program called “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design,” including window repairs and the trimming of shrubs and trees that can hide illicit activity.

One of its more creative projects is an urban orchard designed to accomplish several goals – increase resident engagement (and thus discourage crime), encourage sustainable living and alleviate the “food desert” the area had become. In partnership with SkillsUSA (a nonprofit that trains students in vital job and leadership skills) and TimberlandPro (a footwear manufacturer), and with the help of neighborhood volunteers, Westside Housing planted a 2.5-acre orchard in an empty grass lot behind a community center. Nearly two years later, the orchard is home to more than 200 fruit trees and berry bushes. The trees and shrubbery help improve the poor urban air quality and mitigate storm water runoff, and Westside offers the fruit free for all residents.

“I don’t see broken windows when I walk through a community,” says Fisher. “I see opportunities.”

If you'd like to see for yourself the good work Westside Housing is doing, attend the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Kansas City, MO! At the Dec. 11 symposium, "Real-World Solutions for Community Transformation," one of the "mobile workshops" will be held at its facility.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.