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Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven: Holistic Stabilization Through Revitalization Demonstration Projects

In the City of New Haven, CT, the neighborhoods most likely to be affected by the current foreclosure crisis are those that were already struggling with disinvestment. Jim Paley, executive director of NHS of New Haven, thinks that is because they lack a healthy community organization. “When there is a downturn owners are quick to sell because they see no real strength, and then the real estate market just crashes.” Property owners in these neighborhoods may have little equity to begin with, he says, and their homes are also much more likely to need repairs, so they can get to the point quickly where they owe far more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. In a healthy neighborhood, Paley notes, “we can tell homeowners to wait out a downturn, to take the long view, because their houses are in good shape and we know values will rebound within a few years.” But on distressed blocks that process can take much longer, and owners are more likely to walk away, further contributing to the cycle of decline.

Because of this NHS of New Haven, a NeighborWorks® organization chartered in 1979, emphasizes community organizing in good times as well as bad. The City of New Haven is characterized by distinct “microneighborhoods” which can vary dramatically from one another, even though they are separated by only one or two blocks. Next to a block of very affluent, well-kept homes can be a few blocks where front porches sag, paint peels and yards fill with weeds. This reality drives NHS of New Haven’s approach of targeting very distressed blocks with what it calls Revitalization Demonstration Projects (RDPs). An RDP is a holistic approach to revitalization that considers the effects on a neighborhood of public image, market forces, neighborhood management and physical conditions. It includes community building, marketing, publicity and the use of strategic partnerships to stabilize and improve the neighborhood. Most RDPs target six to eight block areas that contain 150–200 housing units, but NHS of New Haven will sometimes take on “mini-RDPs” which may be as small as one block of 20–25 houses in a strategic location. RDPs are generally near other blocks NHS of New Haven has previously targeted, so their revitalization helps protect prior investments.

One of NHS of New Haven’s current RDPs is in the Newhallville neighborhood on Winchester Avenue, an area that suffered from deterioration and neglect prior to the housing bust in 2007–2008. About 30 percent of the 130 houses in the neighborhood are blighted, and many are abandoned. Drug activity and other crime are constant problems. It is a pocket of poverty just a half-mile from the world-famous Yale University.

In 2009, at 8:45 on a hot mid-August morning, 42 high school football players armed with sledgehammers entered two vacant and abandoned properties at 664 and 678 Winchester Avenue. NHS of New Haven had purchased these houses from the city, and the Hillhouse High School football team was handling the bulk of the interior demolition needed to gut the houses and prepare them for renovation. They swung their sledgehammers with gusto, removing old plaster and lathe, and by 10:30 am had filled two 30-yard dumpsters. Before the end of the day they had almost completely filled two more dumpsters and much of the demolition was complete.

This example illustrates perfectly several aspects of NHS of New Haven’s RDP approach. First, it secured three vacant, dilapidated houses on one block and set about restoring them. Since it typically does so to almost historic standards, these former eyesores will soon become shining examples of what the whole neighborhood could be. To keep expenses down and help build community, they brought in a whole football team to supply the labor. This created a partnership with a local institution (Hillhouse High School) and provided an opportunity for young men, many of whom live in the neighborhood, to do visible, meaningful community service. As their head coach Tom Dyer told a New Haven Independent reporter, “We have students that live up and down this very street. I want them to walk by here in 30 years and see what they were a part of.” The connection to the football team was made through the local United Way’s Volunteer Coordinator, Cecily Jones. The one-day event generated much positive media coverage for NHS of New Haven, the Winchester Avenue neighborhood, United Way and the young men on the football team.

Occasional, splashy events such as this one are important, but NHS of New Haven knows that smaller, daily or weekly events are also critical to strengthening neighbors’ connections with one another and restoring their confidence in the community. Some examples of these activities include the following:

• Finding the natural leaders who have already shown their willingness to take the lead on effecting neighborhood change, from getting the city to fix sidewalks to converting an unsightly vacant lot to a beautiful bird sanctuary.
• Forming these local leaders into community management teams and training them to set up block watches, neighborhood associations and other structures to improve the community’s capacity for solving problems or making positive things happen.
• Inviting neighbors onto someone’s front porch every week for iced tea and cookies to get to know each other and plan upcoming projects.
• Having an artist offer tips to residents in how to sketch the neighborhood, which helps people see things in different, often more positive ways.

A new organizing project just getting started is combining storytelling with social networking sites to shape the way the neighborhood is viewed. Stephen Cremin-Endes, NHS of New Haven’s community building specialist, will have residents use Flip cameras to record brief 3- to 5-minute video stories of their neighbors that highlight who they are and why they choose to live in the community. He believes these video vignettes will tell the story of the positive things that happen every day in the neighborhood, helping to change its image among residents and nonresidents alike. Links on the NHS OF New Haven Web site to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo or other social media platforms will make them accessible to a wider audience. Students and professors from nearby Yale University will help NHS of New Haven staff and volunteers decide how to capture and present the stories in a way that is authentic and true to the neighborhood. Cremin-Endes plans to end up with at least a dozen quality interviews and then organize an evening event where they are shown to the public.

Paley’s 30 years with NHS of New Haven have convinced him that community organizing is a critical component of successful revitalization, but measuring results is never easy. NHS of New Haven is tackling this issue head on through participation in NeighborWorks® America’s Success Measures for Community Stabilization pilot, through which they received a small grant to help cover costs and coaching on how to conduct the surveys. The indicators are grouped in four categories:
• Community Characteristics
• Community Physical Conditions
• Market Health
• Community Image, Confidence and Management

The Community Image, Confidence and Management category includes surveys of residents and key informants designed to capture internal and external perceptions of the community. For residents, the indicators include such things as their level of satisfaction with the neighborhood, perception of property values, perception of safety and security, confidence in the future and how long they expect to live there. Key informants can be people such as merchants, school principals, pastors, or others who work (but do not live) in the community. For this group, examples of indicators include their perception of how the neighborhood is changing, how it compares to other communities, or its attractiveness to people who could choose to live elsewhere. Realtor and investor behavior can also be tracked.

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and neighborhood residents will be trained to conduct the survey in NHS of New Haven’s target neighborhoods.1 Initial results will serve as a baseline, with plans to repeat the survey in a couple of years. Using the same instrument over time will shed light on how effective NHS of New Haven’s efforts have been in changing perceptions of the neighborhood, as well as how those altered perceptions influence both residents’ and key informants’ behavior. “You can’t do housing rehab in a vacuum,” says Paley. Ultimately, neighborhood revitalization requires restoring confidence as well as houses.

Responsible Redevelopment Lessons Learned

1. NHS of New Haven’s approach to community building offers residents a number of ways to get engaged, from planting trees on a block, to sketching neighborhood features in an art project, to telling their story in a video. These strategies allow residents to share their hopes and dreams about the neighborhood and to strengthen their relationships with each other instead of just focusing on what needs to be changed. Building and banking this social capital offers some insurance against erosion of community confidence during bad times and adds strength when the residents need to advocate for new resources or assistance.
2. NHS of New Haven is particularly adept at engaging anchor institutions to add depth and resources to its work in target neighborhoods. Engaging the Hillhouse High School football team in demolition is a very creative example of this; the connection to the team was made through the local United Way’s volunteer coordinator. Yale University is another anchor institution that can bring considerable resources and expertise to bear on community projects through its students and faculty. NHS of New Haven benefits from receiving a Yale President’s Fellow each summer, which awards a stipend to a student to intern at NHS of New Haven. Students from the Yale School of Forestry work with residents on tree planting and tree care initiatives. Yale faculty are supporting the effort to record residents’ stories using Flip cameras and will help post these on NHS of New Haven’s Web site and social networking sites.
3. While it is easy to document how many neighborhood cleanups are held, or the number of volunteers who turn out to plant trees on a block, it is harder to measure and track over time how these efforts shape perceptions of the neighborhood by residents and external stakeholders. Through participation in Success Measures for Community Stabilization, NHS of New Haven will help demonstrate the effectiveness of its community-building strategies in improving a neighborhood’s image and contribute to the industry’s understanding of how to measure this change.

Footnotes
1. AmeriCorps VISTA is the national service program designed by the U.S. Government specifically to fight poverty.