Twin Pursuits

We know by now that effective community development requires more than just improving housing or neighborhood conditions. It involves community building: strengthening voluntary institutions and making democracy work through direct citizen participation, both goals that depend on effective leadership.

But physical development work tends to crowd out these other community building initiatives. In fact, some experts in the field believe that housing development organizations are particularly ill-suited to effective community organizing and that housing development and community organizing may be incompatible. [See Shelterforce #87.]

Based on my experience as Director of HANDS, Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation serving the two small cities of Orange and East Orange, NJ, I can see the merits to this point of view. From very early on, it was our intention to do both, but as HANDS pursued housing development, our community building mission got sidetracked.

Choosing Priorities

The tension between community building and home building was evident from HANDS’ beginning. In 1986 when HANDS was founded, a series of monthly community meetings identified housing rehabilitation and neighborhood improvement as priorities, but there was also a vaguely articulated concern that community, optimism and hope were quickly diminishing – and that we all collectively should try to replenish them. The passage of time has not improved the community psyche, and today we hear an even greater sense of resignation, of “things won’t change and little can be done to reform City Hall.”

The first initiative to grow out of those early planning meetings was a month-long series of community events that we called OrangeFest ’86. Volunteer committees worked for weeks planning the various events.

The high point of OrangeFest was an international street festival preceded by a parade that drew the public to the festival site. The festival was a huge success, drawing 5,000 people. Excitement and optimism abounded. The press hailed our achievements and the mayor presented the 16 OrangeFest committee members with Certificates of Appreciation in front of the City Council. In a short period of time, HANDS had established itself as a positive force in the community.

Next, we focused on housing development. Getting the first project off the ground proved to be far more difficult than organizing the OrangeFest. A failed attempt to take over a nearly abandoned apartment building left the Board of Directors dispirited. Even the rehabilitation of a dilapidated two-family house was difficult, due in part to our inability to borrow money, having no track record.

Slowly, by devoting all of our resources and attention to the task, HANDS was able to start up its housing development business, and for a period of time to tie in a very successful construction job training component.

We sought not only to establish ourselves as reliable housing developers but we tried to link housing development to job creation by hiring local labor and at one point by setting up a small factory to prefabricate the walls of some of our new homes. Not satisfied to simply build good quality affordable homes, we took pride in choosing projects that would result in dramatic neighborhood impact. These were often difficult, costly projects that for-profit developers had passed up.

By 1994, we were hard at work trying to keep up with these multiple goals. The OrangeFest was a distant memory. There was no time left over to devote to building upon that success, which brought so many people together.

Activism was still part of the HANDS’ credo. Working through the statewide Citizen Action organization, a few Board members and I played an active role on a vital statewide urban issue – negotiating community reinvestment agreements with banks that were merging. The campaigns involved face to face negotiations, press conferences, the filing of documents and occasionally picket lines. But without staff resources it was difficult to involve the community.

Meanwhile HANDS’ reputation in the community had grown. The high quality of our work was being recognized, as was our contribution to the community. But one fact continued to nag me and the HANDS Board: In spite of the fact that we were taking on such challenging projects and developing housing in the toughest locations, getting City Hall cooperation was an uphill struggle. Each new project was like pulling teeth, slowly putting together the necessary municipal cooperation for site control, zoning approvals, building permits, etc. Why, if we were providing such valuable service to the community, were we having so much trouble getting City Hall cooperation?

The answer now seems clear – “the community” didn’t then, and still doesn’t, feel a stake in the outcome of our projects. Even though the community is upset over conditions, residents are not actively engaged in bringing about change. Complaints to City Hall result in unreturned phone calls and no action while city officials pay lip service to community concerns. Elected officials don’t feel that the electorate will hold them accountable for their inaction. And while we saw HANDS as the link between the community and City Hall, no one else did. HANDS, for all its good work, had become disconnected from the community.

Identifying and Nurturing Leaders

Today we are a NeighborWorks® affiliate of the nationwide Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation. We are working on our 55th house. And after 14 years of concentrating mostly on housing development, we have begun to change direction.

The premise underpinning this change is that capable leadership is the essential precondition to making democracy work, especially in poor communities. So over a year ago we established a Leadership Institute. Today, the 17 Institute alumni include PTA officers, Crimewatch and block association leaders, two founders of a volunteer youth program and HANDS Board members. Rose King, a tenant association president and Crimewatch founder who completed the 12 week course last year, is applying what she learned to attacking the problem of abandoned properties in her neighborhood.

Last fall, eight outstanding groups and individuals were honored at the HANDS First Annual Community Leadership Awards Banquet. The honorees included a church-based mentoring program, a student community service group, a neighborhood leader, an outstanding teacher, a volunteer program for teens and a community-minded business owner. We reasoned that giving formal recognition to individuals and groups who toiled anonymously would encourage more community service and leadership. It has connected us to new people and to their networks of highly committed people.

But HANDS is still faced with the question of where to find resources. Funding sources generally favor housing production over community organizing, so HANDS was not the only New Jersey group facing this dilemma. Fortunately, the NJ Affordable Housing Network recognized this need and established a Community Building Support Initiative. HANDS was one of eight groups to receive funding from this initiative at the end of 1999 to hire its first Community Organizer.

Uniting Housing Production and Leadership Development

The leadership development work has been productive but it’s done little to give the community an increased stake in our work. Our newest initiative is designed to address that shortcoming and to tie together our housing development capability with our commitment to community participation and empowerment. Responding to widespread complaints about the destabilizing impact of vacant deteriorated properties, we have set out to assist the community to develop a solution. It will require a partnership of City Hall, community leaders, citizen organizations, and the private sector. A full time community organizer is carrying out a Board-developed plan to identify interested community leaders and assist them to develop and take charge of a campaign to make City Hall more accountable on this issue.

Building from the ground up, we are seeking to make sure that the solution to vacant problem properties is community-led. Board members are actively developing the strategy and meeting with City officials to assert our interest in the issue. I am meeting one on one with clergy to discuss their concerns, build relationships and see if this issue resonates with their congregation. The community organizer is doing the same with block association and Crimewatch leaders. We are not simply trying to solve a problem but intentionally working to build community capacity to later tackle a broad range of concerns.

The seeds of the “Problem Property Initiative” have fallen on fertile ground. The organizer has met with leaders who, frustrated in their own attempts to get something done about vacant dilapidated housing, have responded enthusiastically. The HANDS Board of Directors is more energized than ever. Funders like the First Union Regional Foundation are enthused about the possibility of developing a solution that can be replicated in other cities.

Our problem property initiative is designed, in the short run, to accomplish both development and community building goals. If we are successful, three years from now we will not only have reformed the abandoned property system and rehabilitated 150 properties but will have set in motion an effective citizen-led crusade, one that can use this success to take on other community concerns.

Balancing Act Continues

In spite of this recent progress toward community building, HANDS’ dilemma remains – housing development is an all-consuming business and continues to crowd out community building. HANDS can attract enough financing and subsidies to rehabilitate 20-30 houses each year, but this development work could continue to consume all of the organization’s energy and we wonder whether we can keep up with our community building and citizen participation agenda.

To address this we are experimenting with ways to produce more housing while lightening the overall burden on our organization. For example, we are looking at contracting with for-profit firms to build/rehabilitate and sell our homes. Such an arrangement may require some trade-offs. It may compromise our local hiring goals or prospective buyers may not get all the assistance that we now provide them. But it may be worth it.

Or perhaps this citizen crusade will need its own organization and HANDS can be the development vehicle for projects that this energized community deems essential.

Community building is a slow and methodical process, subject to obstacles in place today and those we can only imagine. At HANDS, we wonder what our community will look like in ten years. Will it have the capacity to solve its most pressing problems? Will community leaders truly be able to bring government and private sector players to the table to solve these problems? Will elected officials feel that the public is holding them accountable? These are some of the goals of successful community building to which  HANDS and scores of CDCs nationwide are working.

Patrick Morrissy
Patrick Morrissy is the founder of HANDS Inc., a “neighborhood change CDC” based in Orange, New Jersey. He is a founder of Shelterforce, New Jersey Citizen Action, and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey; and a board member of New Jersey Community Capital and the National Housing Institute.

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