NeighborWorks America's real estate convening marked the first chance that more than 160 staff from across the NeighborWorks network have had to be together in four years. In the days since, conversations started during the convening have continued and will continue throughout the year.
Lisa Getter, NeighborWorks' vice president of Real Estate Programs, says San Francisco, a city of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty, was the right place to hold the event. "Safe, affordable housing is so hard," she says. "Creating places that can be an oasis for residents is huge. It matters."
Over the course of two days, the convening included tours of neighborhoods — and progress — in one of the most challenging markets in the country.
"As we tour these communities, the challenges are right in front of us," says Clare Rosenberger, director of Real Estate Programs. "There's no better place to have these conversations and to highlight what people are doing during this very hard time. There's urgency in our work. We're here to respond to that urgency and to respond with solutions."
While many of the organizations acknowledged the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sentiment was not one of pining for the past but looking to the future. And as the crowd considered the right partners who could help them strategize for that future, Rosenberger made sure to point out: "Some of the best partners you can have are the folks in this room."
And this was demonstrated in the highlights that attendees took back home with them:
Resident services. Resident services are "our secret weapon," said Harold Nassau, senior director of Asset Management at NeighborWorks. "This is what we can deliver. But we can't deliver without building trust." A focus point during discussions about centering and engaging residents, the danger of isolation, and how the wellness checks that began during the pandemic were something organizations planned to continue in healthier, safer times.
"Property management is a stabilizer for our communities," added Tejal Shah, vice president of community development at Mutual Housing California. "We can't serve our residents in the way we need to without strong property management staff."
Partnerships. Partnerships were a focus throughout the NeighborWorks Training Institute, and the convening continued to build on this by addressing the importance of fostering beneficial partnerships, whether it's responding to a disaster or building for the future.
"Anyone who has been at this work for some time knows it's impossible to do without partnerships," said Greta Harris, president and CEO at Better Housing Coalition. But "make sure whoever you partner with is aligned with your values."
Filling gaps. As home prices and interest rates continue to increase, the down payment needed to get individuals and families into a home has increased, too. And for nonprofits who provide subsidies, there's a gap.
"It used to be $20,000 or $30,000 was enough," said Ashleigh Winans, CEO at NeighborWorks Southern Colorado. In Colorado, she said, potential homebuyers now need closer to $75,000 to $100,000. "How do we fill the gap and make homeownership attainable?" Her organization focused on shared equity housing models as one solution. Winans also sees the importance of mixed income and mixed-use homes.
For Steven Kirk, president at Rural Neighborhoods, Inc. in Florida, his organization's strategy is preservation, which includes taking over properties that other landlords aren't as equipped to manage — or maintain.
Sean Spear, president and CEO at Community HousingWorks, looks at partnerships with faith-based organizations to fill the gaps, while Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) is recreating and modernizing buildings to improve things like air-flow. Supporting small businesses that become a part of affordable housing is important, too, added Thomas Yu, executive director at AAFE.
Black wealth and asset building. Leon Gray, senior relationship manager in NeighborWorks' Midwest Region, introduced the Black Wealth and Asset Group and its focus on inspiring the growth of generational wealth in Black households and communities. The group is working on strategies in five areas: financial empowerment, housing empowerment, real estate empowerment, economic empowerment and community empowerment.
"There's a lot of work that's already being done," Gray said. "What we really want to do is tap into that."
Building trust. As organizations across the NeighborWorks network focus on a comprehensive approach to community development, they have to center resident voices and build trust with residents and within the community. As an example, Sunshine Mathon, CEO at Piedmont Housing Alliance, spoke of the resident advisory committee that his organization formed when it was rebuilding Friendship Court. "This work, there's been a lot of trust built," he said. "But we have had to rebuild it and rebuild it and rebuild it. We have to come back every time and recommit."
Julianna Stuart, vice president of community impact at POAH agreed. "You can tell me you're building something good for my neighborhood, but if I perceive it as a threat, that's my reality." The need for trust is paramount, especially when working with residents or a community that has been traumatized. "Mission can't be baked before we talk to the community. We need to validate that throughout."
Takao Suzuki, director of community development at Little Tokyo Service Center, said building trust amid displacement and gentrification can be especially hard. "Our major long-term vision is not just to serve communities but to preserve the historical aspect and cultural legacy," he said. Affordable housing is a permanent resource, he added, "and a community asset."
Neighborhood tours. The convening also offered a chance to see communities close up, with a focus on the buildings that served as both homes and safety nets for residents. Community centers, grocery stores, parks, artwork, on-staff social workers — all put a spotlight on the elements that bring support to challenged neighborhoods.
These conversations, insights and solutions will continue at the next NeighborWorks Training Institute and symposium, "Climate Resilience: Fostering Wealth, Health and Sustainability in Communities of Color." Registration is open through July 18.