Strategies for successful resident involvement in mixed-income communities - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Strategies for successful resident involvement in mixed-income communities

National and local experts share their insights on community-building and resident engagement.

On Aug. 18, 2006, over 200 people attended the “Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities” forum, co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in coordination with the Chicago Housing Authority. The forum featured national and local panelists who shared their expertise and strategies for successful community building and resident engagement in mixed-income communities. MPC also released its August 2006 Update on the CHA Plan for Transformation focused on the status of community building, resident services and engagement in the new developments.

Forum Speakers: (standing) Steve Meiss, MarySue Barrett, Paul Brophy, (seated) Sandra Young, Sandra Moore, Stanley Lowe

The forum was moderated by Paul Brophy, a national expert and consultant with more than 30 years of experience in the field of housing and community development. Steve Meiss was also introduced as the new director of the Illinois State Office of Public Housing at the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The panelists were:

  • Stanley Lowe, vice president of community revitalization for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and former executive director of the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, where he oversaw the transformation of several public housing sites into mixed-income communities.
  • Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies, who has more than 30 years of experience in comprehensive neighborhood-based planning across the country.
  • Sandra Young , member of the CHA Board of Commissioners, CHA resident, and president of the Ida B. Wells Local Advisory Council. This development is now being transformed into the Oakwood Shores mixed-income community.

In his opening remarks, Meiss described the creation of mixed-income communities in Chicago as a “noble experiment” at a time of gated communities and economically segregated neighborhoods. Meiss shared his own experience of growing up in an economically diverse community in central Illinois. According to Meiss, the community was “successful” because everyone had a decent place to live, go to school, and work - key ingredients for resident contentment and sustainable neighborhoods.

Brophy emphasized the importance of the “Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities” series to Chicago and to national housing work. The scale and level of intentionality involved in transforming Chicago’s public housing into mixed-income communities is a new phenomenon that has not been seen previously in the public housing context. Moreover, as the planning and construction phases come to an end at many developments, the more difficult challenge emerges: caring for what Brophy describes as “the souls of communities” and helping residents of different backgrounds live and work together. This task is complex, said Brophy, because it involves competing language, regulations, and ideas about a community’s need for norms and governance, conflict resolution, connections to the larger community, etc. Yet it is simple because it also involves universal beliefs about living together, growing old, and being good neighbors.

As policymakers, developers, service providers, advocates, and residents of the new mixed-income developments grapple with these challenges in Chicago, the forum’s panelists offered insight from their own experiences. Specifically, Brophy asked panelists to address the following questions:

  • What are the ingredients to constructively, meaningfully engage residents in the community life of mixed-income housing?
  • Who is responsible for pulling those ingredients together?
  • What are some of the lessons learned?

Stanley Lowe highlighted his involvement in the transformation of Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood into a vibrant, mixed-income community. Though he was part of Mayor Tom Murphy’s government team on this and other projects, Lowe insisted the perspective he knows best is that of resident and community member, and this is how he approached his presentation.

According to Lowe, the end of the Manchester story - a cohesive community - was only possible after community members understood how to include public housing residents in a process they had been excluded from for years. The community had to take responsibility for the state of its public housing and the disinvestment around it, Lowe said. An important acknowledgement was that public housing residents, as renters, had more to lose than the community’s homeowners because they had no guarantees. Once these realizations were accepted, the community was able to work together toward a plan for revitalization. Manchester residents, including those in public housing, conducted a community needs assessment or “credit report,” and developed an action plan that involved partnering with the city, financial institutions, private developers, commercial businesses, religious institutions, and historic commissions. In addition to other funding sources, the Manchester revitalization project was awarded a $7.5 million HOPE VI grant.

Throughout the process, effective, honest communication between residents was crucial. “Sensitivity” meetings and a community newsletter served as means of bringing people together and building trust, especially for public housing residents who had never before been included in the decision-making process. Lowe also stressed the importance of community planning, stating that many neighborhoods suffer because residents don’t think or ask about the consequences of “a community without a plan.” Moreover, Lowe emphasized that finding the money for revitalization should not be an obstacle when, most of the time, it’s already in the community - at neighborhood banks, housing authorities, the mayor’s office, and businesses. Along with these lessons learned, the rebuilding of Manchester was a success because residents embraced the project as “their money, their plan, their future.”

Sandra Moore’s presentation outlined observations, challenges and effective practices stemming from her work designing resident services and community activities at HOPE VI sites around the country. For Moore and Urban Strategies, the finding is that “comprehensive, sustainable community building … cannot successfully occur without ongoing resident involvement.” Residents need to be engaged in most aspects of rebuilding communities, not necessarily in the bricks and mortar plan for housing, but in everything else: schools, parks, social services, and other activities in the broader community. According to Moore, successful resident engagement begins by asking an important question, “Why do you want it?” The answer to this question - to satisfy rules and regulations, to protect an investment, to protect vulnerable residents - is what drives the strategy and process for community building and engagement. When developers and service providers decide on the rationale and reason for engagement and know what it is designed to accomplish, they can “keep their word.”

Problems arise when people underestimate or don’t respect the ability of low-income or public housing residents to understand the process and contribute to the goals of community revitalization, said Moore. Moreover, people expect low-income residents to be more involved in the process than other community residents. Yet in reality, there is no reason for residents at any income level to engage initially; everyone expects “someone else to take care of it.” Moore posed the question to the audience, “How engaged are you in your community?” After a small showing of hands, she concluded, “Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to establish a different set of rules.” On the other hand, Moore insisted there are always residents who are “naturally inclined” to engage, and this offers a starting point for involving the rest of the community. Specifically, there are typically universal community concerns about safety, schools, the arts, and beautification.

In addition to sharing these observations, Moore discussed several challenges to resident engagement, including finding out what residents care about as a group, developing processes for decision-making and dispute resolution, and sustaining the initial leadership and momentum that is essential to achieving community goals. Moore also highlighted the importance of developing a “mechanism for listening” across income levels such as Manchester’s community newsletter. She also stressed that “non-negotiables” such as standards for maintenance and beautification should be identified in the beginning so residents know up front what the expectations are. Perhaps the most crucial component, according to Moore, is the need to structure in the long-term professional staff and support that is required for ongoing resident involvement. Finally, Moore outlined key program areas that should be addressed in communities: adult activities/recreation, adult learning, early childhood education and health, work opportunities, and mental health services. Moore concluded with the reminder that responsibility and funding depend on “why resident engagement is important to you.”

Sandra Young, who began advocating for CHA residents before the Plan for Transformation existed, spoke from her experiences as a leader and a resident of the Ida B. Wells development, a CHA site located east of King Drive, between 35th and 39th streets, that is being redeveloped as the Oakwood Shores mixed-income community. According to Young, the idea of change is “scary,” especially for public housing residents, and therefore, developers and policymakers need to “meet public housing residents on their level.” Young also pointed out that, in many cases, residents who “never had to be accountable” are being asked to be responsible and participate. Thus it is important to proceed with a level of sensitivity, knowing that a major barrier for public housing residents has been that promises have often been “made but not kept.” Young emphasized that residents of public housing want “the same thing as everyone else,” a decent place to live, employment opportunities, and a safe community. Young closed by saying “It’s best to be honest with residents. If you are, you’ll be surprised at what they’ll do.”

After the panelists made their formal presentations, they responded to questions from the audience. The following is a sampling of topics that were discussed:

  • Community governance for homeowners versus renters
    • Moore stated it is important to plan the structure of community governance in the beginning. In her experience, it has proved beneficial to organize renters first, as homeowners might bring a bias. Rather than having “condo associations,” there needs to be a “super-entity” that is a common organizing platform for both renters and owners. Similarly, Young reiterated the need for a “tenant council” that includes all types of residents.
  • Indicators of successful community building and engagement
    • Lowe stressed that success can be gauged by resident participation or the number of residents who want to engage in issues. Moreover, the number of residents who stay in the community and the responses to communication vehicles (ie. newsletters, meetings) are indicators of success. Moore added engagement in broader school activities, while Young included resident employment outcomes as measures of success.
  • Engaging young adults
    • Lowe emphasized the importance of “listening to what young people have to say” and encouraged the use of radical approaches. For example, Lowe stated that more youth could have been invited to the forum. Moore reiterated Lowe’s points but added that paying youth to work is a good way to spark their interest. Young stressed the need for a “safe haven environment” and “something for them to do.”
  • Sustaining mixed-income communities with yearly federal funding decreases
    • Young and Moore agreed that federal, state and local government need to prioritize funding for “things that work” and stressed the importance of partnerships. Lowe challenged the audience to look beyond the typical revenue streams and ask how things are funded in the private sector rather than relying on the government.
  • Separate associations for public housing residents
    • Moore and Lowe agreed that mixed-income communities should not have separate associations for public housing residents. Moore stressed it is important to keep in mind that public housing residents are accustomed to different governance structures than those being created for mixed-income communities. Lowe stated that perhaps this is the single most important lesson in building communities. He also said that “the future is in bringing people together” and suggested not using the term “public housing resident.”
  • Tackling crime
    • Moore emphasized that perceptions of crime may be high when crime is actually low. Thus, it is crucial to “get the data right.” Lowe also stressed the importance of community education about how crime is reported. Young described the success of community policing strategies and suggested hosting community activities with law enforcement.

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