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‘It takes a village’ to serve low-income renters

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks blogger | 6/24/2016 12:02:35 PM

Two CHP staffers lead local school children in a book discussion

Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Hopewell, Virginia, faced a significant challenge in 2013: preventing the decline of affordable rental housing, while at the same time better meeting the other needs of residents, engaging them in community life and broadening the organization’s footprint in the city overall.

At the time, the city’s 54-year-old public housing complex, called the Langston Park Apartments, had fallen into such disrepair that the city was in danger of losing 30 of its scarce affordable rentals.  Compared to the rest of Virginia, Hopewell is struggling with per-capita income, unemployment and poverty rates all significantly lower than the state overall. Those 30 units (and more) were desperately needed, but as Steven Benham, executive director of the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said, they had “fallen into such disrepair, that we considered the property functionally obsolete.  The project units were simply not livable.”

That’s a situation facing public housing developments across the country. However, funding for upgrading or rebuilding them is scarce.

That’s where CHP came in. The NeighborWorks member has deep experience in development of multi-family housing, and leverage of low-income-housing tax credits (LIHTCs) is an integral part of its strategy. HUD’s Rental Assistance Development (RAD) program allowed the housing authority to transfer ownership of Langston Park to CHP, which demolished the rundown units; built 56 energy-efficient rental homes in their place (now called The Summit); and serves as manager of both the LIHTC units and the overall property. The housing authority continues to administer the 30 Housing Choice apartments.
The next goal of CHP was to offer comprehensive resident services at the property, while using the opportunity to forge new partnerships that could make a larger impact on the city of Hopewell.  Making that larger reach possible was a Catalytic Grant from NeighborWorks America. The grant program is designed to “strengthen local capacity to plan and implement comprehensive approaches to community stabilization that produce measurable gains.”

Think impact

“The Catalytic Grant allowed us to think and act big,” says Stacie Desper, grant manager and resident service coordinator for The Summit. “We could have just focused on our own residents. But to really effect change, we needed to think ‘city,’ to be part of the conversation with the key players at that level.”

Step one was to create Desper’s position before construction of The Summit was complete so that she could begin forming relationships with tenants as well as city stakeholders from the get-go. Historically, CHP had waited to hire a resident services coordinator for one of its properties until after construction; this was a departure designed to signal the organization’s commitment to resident and partner buy-in and involvement. Desper led the implementation of a three-month resident-needs assessment survey through face-to-face interviews and roundtable discussions. The resident survey complemented city research conducted among middle- and high school students and older adults by the John Randolph Foundation. The findings were synthesized into a community action plan.

“We have taken the ‘planning-as-leadership-development’ approach to building community and engaging residents,” says Desper. “At CHP, we have four focus areas: health and wellness, education, financial literacy and environmental stewardship. But outreach to both The Summit and city residents set our top two priorities: health and education.”

Taking aim at improving education

To bring about the kind of comprehensive, lasting change CHP desired, partnerships were essential. Both Desper and Tiffany Little, resident service manager for CHP, single out the partnership with the city’s public school system as one of the best examples of a ‘win-win’ initiative. Literacy rates are low, school dropout rates are high and none of the schools in Hopewell are accredited due to the students’ low reading and math scores. To build on improvement efforts already underway, CHP tied into the National Education Association’s Read Across America campaign--a program designed to motivate every child in every community to celebrate reading, with a special focus on March 2, the birthday of children's author Dr. Seuss.

A central belief of the program is that having books of their own instills pride and excitement in children. Thus, with the help of the Catalytic Grant, CHP staff personally delivered 3,200 new books to every child in kindergarten through second grade in the city’s three elementary schools. Meanwhile, workshops to engage parents with reading specialists were held on site at The Summit.

“The schools had not been that successful involving the parents,” says Little, “so we brought the specialists to them.” She adds that since many parents in the community do not have strong reading skills themselves, CHP provided the schools with Leapfrog reading-assistance sets. These materials, which include a special “pen” that pronounces unfamiliar words for children as they read, can be taken home for young students to use as they practice with their parents.  A Leapfrog set is available for use on site at The Summit.

Measuring impact

This CHP initiative just started in February, so it’s too soon to measure longer-term impact in the schools, but Desper says the organization has another measure for interim progress across all of its resident services: partner perceptions of CHP. To assess that, it has partnered with Success Measures at NeighborWorks America. CHP’s many and varied partner organizations and institutions have been surveyed and a report is expected soon.

Desper and Little offer two primary lessons learned and tips for others when it comes to building successful partnerships:
  • Go out and meet with others, listening for shared goals. Then align your efforts around them.
  • Nevertheless, realize that your partners’ agendas and constraints will never align totally with yours; be patient and flexible.

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