The worst repercussions of the housing crisis are apparently behind us, at least in some communities. Fewer homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Many are still underwater but have a sense, at least, that they're catching up. Home sales in some neighborhoods have been remarkably brisk.
But some of the Chicago area's most struggling neighborhoods were devastated by the collapse in home prices, and they're a long, long way from recovering. Blocks of empty lots and unkempt, abandoned buildings pose a huge obstacle to recovery. They're a threat to public safety. They erode the value of other properties. They put financial pressure on cities to keep up with maintenance and services. They prompt an exodus of people and an exodus of investors.
One promising answer to this: The Cook County Land Bank Authority is preparing to open for business this fall. It's modeled after land banks in communities such as Flint, Mich., that have acquired and returned to the tax rolls thousands of unwanted properties.
Land banks operate as an independent authority to identify and acquire residential or commercial real estate eyesores. The land banks buy properties, sometimes through tax foreclosures, sometimes through lenders or private purchases. Properties that have value are fixed up; others are bulldozed. The properties can be sold or repurposed for a public use such as green space.
Bureaucratic roadblocks to private development get cleared away. The land bank resolves the headaches that would discourage investors from bothering with a marginal real estate project - from title problems and tax liens to unpaid water bills.
That takes money, of course. The Cook County Land Bank has no taxing power or county budget appropriation. It and another land bank set up solely for Cook County's south suburbs will share $6 million of $70 million the state allocated for housing revitalization from the settlement of a national lawsuit over mortgage and foreclosure fraud at big banks.
The seed money won't buy much, even in depressed areas. The county has tens of thousands of properties that would qualify as distressed. The new agency will need to make smart investments and carefully weigh offers of property donations. The idea is that as it returns properties to the tax rolls, it can capture a portion of the property tax receipts to fund its operations and become at least close to self-sustaining. More broadly, the hope is that as properties are repaired or cleared by the land bank, private developers will see more reason to take a risk on investments in a neighborhood.
County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, chairwoman of the land bank's board, sees pent-up demand from investors who would be interested in projects if they could avoid the red tape - including a foreclosure process that ties up Illinois properties in court for upward of two years.
Yes, there's risk involved. Some land banks have succeeded; others have had problems. In Indianapolis, two city officials and three other men connected with a land bank have pleaded not guilty to federal fraud charges that allege that properties were steered to favored buyers at discounted prices.
Transparency will be key. Gainer said the Cook County land bank will be subject to the open-meetings and ethics requirements that govern county government. All its business will be conducted in public and audited, she said.
This project is no sure thing, but it is one of the better ideas in some time to take on the massive obstacles to private investment in the Chicago area's most economically depressed neighborhoods. Done right, the land bank can make a difference.
Copyright 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC
DETROIT -- There are 78,000 abandoned buildings in this city standing in various levels of decay. Services have fallen into dysfunction, and debts are piling ever higher. Yet for all the misery, Detroit's bankruptcy gives an American city a rare chance to reshape itself from top to bottom.
But reinventing a city so devastated is hardly a sure thing, and the questions about how to proceed loom as large as the answers:
Should its areas of nearly vacant blocks be transformed into urban farms, parks and even ponds made from storm water?
Could its old automobile manufacturing economy be shifted into one centering on technology, bioscience and international trade?
Should Detroit, which lost a million residents over the last 60 years, pin its sharpest hopes on luring more young people here, playing on an influx of artists and entrepreneurs?
Should the city take down its enormous ruins, like Michigan Central Station, that have devolved into bleak tourist attractions or restore some of these buildings and market them, perhaps as museums or tributes to a proud industrial past?
"Every once in a while you encounter a situation that gets so bad everybody has to put their weapons aside and say: 'You know what? It doesn't get any worse than this,' " said Henry Cisneros, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary who recently worked on a housing project here that never came to fruition. "It lets people start talking about things that we couldn't talk about before because we can't lose a great city."
The chances of a true makeover have grown significantly since July, when an emergency manager assigned by the state to oversee the city's finances sought bankruptcy protection. The city is expected to emerge from the courts a year from now no longer juggling the $18 billion in debt that had sidetracked it and, according to the emergency manager, more capably providing essential services that make a city livable, like stopping crime and putting out fires. All of that, planners said, should make a larger transformation, outside the court system, conceivable.
Some have long been searching for solutions to the hollowing out of Detroit, a city that measures six times the land mass of Manhattan but is now home to only 700,000 people, down from 1.8 million at its peak. Individuals have often pressed forward with their own answers: The city should be perceived as a hub for fish farms or techno music or public art displays or film (an announcement last month that a Superman-Batman movie starring Ben Affleck would film around Detroit drew headlines here).
As recently as January, Detroit leaders rolled out an elaborate plan known as "Detroit Future City" that ran 347 pages and called, in part, for building up thriving neighborhoods and turning other land into parks, landscapes, storm-water runoff areas or even commercial sections in the neighborhoods that have all but emptied. Authors said the plan -- written over the past three years even as the city's financial crisis loomed -- included guidance from thousands of residents, and a wide range of leaders here say they have begun to view it as a guide. And the Kresge Foundation, which was founded in Detroit in 1924, has pledged $150 million to support the goals laid out in the plan.
Urban planners and political leaders liken the scope of changes being pondered for Detroit to some European cities after World War II. Rip Rapson, president and chief executive of the Kresge Foundation, called it a "rebirthing" of Detroit, and Toni L. Griffin, an urban planner based in New York who has been a leading consultant on Detroit's long-range plan, portrayed it as a "super-restructuring" to improve the quality of life.
"After a tragedy is one of the few times you can be trying to reimagine a city rather than just trying to go back to what you were before," said Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University, who is writing a book examining the remaking of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "What you really need is transformational change, not just incremental change to get back to where you were," he said in an interview. "That's been very important to resurgence of this city, and Detroit has to do the same thing."
Some Detroiters see urban farming as an elegant solution to several of the city's woes -- an abundance of land but not of people; a shortage of jobs; and, according to some, a dearth of fresh food. Plenty of farms, some tiny and others not, already are thriving, though critics question how sizable a dent such notions can ever make to solve the city's larger economic challenges.
"The promise that Detroit, one way or another, is going to restart so it's actually functional is a really big step in this," said Mike Score, president of a company that wants within two years to plant at least 15,000 trees as part of a farm in a section of the city's East Side that is troubled by vacant buildings and empty lots.
No single economic answer will be enough for Detroit, say experts like Donald K. Carter, of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. "Another silver bullet will just be a silver bullet that runs out in 20 years," Mr. Carter said.
Instead, leaders have their hopes set on a range of fields, many of which have already found some success here. They have pushed for new medical and science-related businesses near the city's universities and new technology companies and start-ups in the city's downtown. And some are pondering prospects for expanding international trade, given plans for a new bridge to Canada.
The question of who will live in the new Detroit looms as well. Regional planners say the city's population, which is about 82 percent black and 36 percent below the poverty level, is expected to continue shrinking in the coming years before leveling off. Some here believe the city must actively recruit new, young residents, playing off a natural wave of arrivals it has already seen among the young in recent years -- of 20-something entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and those in search of cheap homes.
But finding lasting consensus on what a new Detroit should be -- economically, geographically, demographically and culturally -- is complicated. And solving one of the city's biggest quandaries -- how to reshape a city that was built for nearly two million people so that it suits fewer than half of that -- remains highly controversial, particularly for families still living in the homes left on otherwise empty blocks.
"We're going to have to re-engineer this city to disinvest in certain areas where we currently have one house per block or so on where there's no ability to really efficiently deploy city services and resources to those areas and instead move those people into the most dense areas in the downtown core and the neighborhoods and revitalize those areas," said Matt Cullen, a former General Motors executive who is president of Rock Ventures, an umbrella company representing the investments of the prominent local businessman Dan Gilbert, which now include at least 35 properties in downtown Detroit.
Not everyone even agrees that demolishing all the empty buildings, a process that Detroit is already racing to carry out, or clearing out neighborhoods that have lost population, is the right approach. "Tearing down the city's a stupid idea," said John O. Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "If you take all the teeth out of your mouth, your smile isn't very nice after. And we're talking about a city that's been on a demolition kick for 30 years."
Adding to the tensions now is a growing, palpable divide. Even as the city slumped further into financial trouble in recent years, a small group of business people, including Mr. Gilbert, have been carrying out their own plans at a rapid pace for a reimagined downtown Detroit, and a few other neighborhoods have seen notable improvement.
The reawakening along Woodward Avenue downtown, near Mr. Gilbert's real estate and loan companies, already is undeniable. Thousands of workers, some of them young and white, have moved into these buildings in the last three years. They drink coffee from a new gourmet shop, the Roasting Plant, where freshly roasted beans are zipped around the shop in pneumatic tubes. Bushes outside are sculptured into the shapes of dogs. Music plays along the street, which is watched by private security guards. And a faux beach was erected this summer, complete with sand and a bar, no water, in the park outside.
It feels like another universe from the hollowed-out neighborhoods only a few miles away. "That's all great," said John J. George, whose Motor City Blight Busters community organization has been around for a quarter-century working to clean up neighborhoods and who said he had gotten support from Mr. Gilbert. "But what about the neighborhoods? When is it coming to the neighborhoods?"
"We're just looking for a way to bridge the difference between complete madness and some normalcy," Mr. George said of his group's efforts to clear several blocks in one Northwest Detroit neighborhood. They have planted tomatoes, cucumbers and corn here, but a new beginning, citywide, still feels far off.
Copyright 2013 New York Times Company
August 4, 2013
By: Kate Taylor
Cities and towns across the country are pushing municipal unions to accept cheaper health benefits in anticipation of a component of the Affordable Care Act that will tax expensive plans starting in 2018.
The so-called Cadillac tax was inserted into the Affordable Care Act at the advice of economists who argued that expensive health insurance with the employee bearing little cost made people insensitive to the cost of care. In public employment, though, where benefits are arrived at through bargaining with powerful unions, switching to cheaper plans will not be easy.
Cities including New York and Boston, and school districts from Westchester County, N.Y., to Orange County, Calif., are warning unions that if they cannot figure out how to rein in health care costs now, the price when the tax goes into effect will be steep, threatening raises and even jobs.
"Every municipality with a generous health care plan is doing the math on this," said J. D. Piro, a health care lawyer at a human resources consultancy, Aon Hewitt.
But some prominent liberals express frustration at seeing the tax used against unions in negotiations.
"I think it was misguided all along," Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary, said in an e-mail. When the law was being written, he said, he worried that the tax was "a blunt instrument that could too easily become a bargaining chit for cutting back benefits of workers."
"Apparently, that's what it's become," Mr. Reich, who is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said.
Under the tax, plans that cost above a certain threshold in 2018 -- $10,200 annually for individual plans and $27,500 for family plans, with slightly higher cutoffs for retirees and those in high-risk professions like law enforcement -- will be taxed at 40 percent of their costs in excess of the limit. (The thresholds will rise with inflation after 2018.)
State and local governments across the country tend to offer more expensive health plans than private businesses do, and workers often accept smaller wage increases to retain their benefits. Because of this, state and local government employees are expected to be disproportionately represented among those whose plans will be subject to the tax.
New York City expects its two most popular employee health plans to reach taxable Cadillac levels by 2018 or shortly after. This year, the city projects that it will pay a total of $7,128 for individuals and $18,249 for families in its most popular plan, including the costs the city pays into union welfare funds to cover prescription drug benefits. That is above the national average for employer-sponsored health care coverage, which last year was $5,615 for single coverage and $15,745 for family coverage, according to a 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
The total health care cost for the city's nearly 300,000 municipal employees, pre-Medicare-age retirees and their dependents is expected to approach $8 billion by 2018.
In a letter in April to the head of a labor coalition, Caswell F. Holloway IV, deputy mayor for operations, said the Cadillac tax would cost New York City $22 million in 2018, increasing to $549 million in 2022. (This year, the total city budget, excluding federal and state aid, is just over $50 billion.)
"We know that, on the current trajectory, we're going to be hit with that tax and it would increase very steeply," Mr. Holloway said.
So the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in its final months in office, is asking municipal unions to agree to seek new bids for the city's health insurance business, hoping to lower premiums. It has already achieved one small victory, getting the city's current primary insurer to freeze premiums for one year if it keeps the city's business, the mayor said on Friday.
But lower-cost plans are likely to involve greater out-of-pocket costs and more limited networks of doctors, and so far, the response from labor has been cool.
Ninety-five percent of city employees and 93 percent of retirees are in the two largest plans, which require employees to pay nothing toward their premiums. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the average contribution by public employees throughout the country is 12 percent for individual plans and 23 percent for family plans.
Harry Nespoli, the chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, the labor coalition that negotiates with the city on health care, said that he was concerned about the tax, but also that the burden of any cuts would fall largely on workers at the bottom of the pay scale.
Mr. Nespoli said his staff was looking over the request for proposals that the city had written, but he said he was skeptical that the process of seeking new health insurance could be completed before the next administration.
"We're not going to turn around and do a $7 billion contract that affects our members for the next 10 years out without looking at it very carefully," he said.
Most of Boston's 20,000 employees are currently in plans that by 2018 would exceed the tax threshold. The city and its unions are preparing a request for proposals for new insurance coverage.
"The tax is going to be a hit, and, if you're not expecting it, it's going to be very shocking," said Meredith Weenick, the chief financial officer for Boston.
Jim Finley, the executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said he thought it would be hard for Connecticut towns and cities to get their unions to agree to cheaper health care benefits to avoid the tax.
"In the end, it's the taxpayer that's going to bear that burden," Mr. Finley said.
In Orange County, Calif., the Newport Mesa Unified School District warned employees during contract negotiations that if the district's health care costs continued rising at the current rate, the district could face a $2.3 million burden from the tax in 2018.
The teachers' union ultimately agreed to accept greater out-of-pocket costs to reduce the increase in its premium this year to 3 percent from 6 percent, but union leaders said they resented the district's using the threat of the tax as a negotiating tactic.
Municipal unions opposed the inclusion of the tax in the health care law, and it was partly their efforts that succeeded in delaying its effective date until 2018.
Steven Kreisberg, the director of collective bargaining and health care policy at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said the term Cadillac tax was misleading, because it "connotes a certain aspect of luxury in these health plans that is just factually incorrect."
The announcement last month that the Obama administration would delay by a year the mandate that larger employers offer coverage to their workers does not affect the timing of the excise tax, although it may provide encouragement to those who hope that the assessment will be delayed or scrapped altogether.
"Some skeptics, and I'm not one of them, say that that's why the tax was put into effect in 2018 -- that it's far enough away that people can consider whether or not they really want it to go into effect," Mr. Piro, the health care lawyer, said.
Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was a paid consultant to the Obama administration on health care policy, said forcing state and local governments to rein in health care costs was exactly what the tax was intended to do.
"This is intended to shift compensation away from excessively generous health insurance toward wages," he said.
In New York, if the Bloomberg administration does not succeed in getting new health insurance before the end of the year, the problem will fall in the lap of the next mayor.
Mr. Holloway said the Bloomberg administration, like many city governments, had long been concerned about the rising cost of health care and its impact on the budget.
But the 2018 tax "adds a sense of real urgency to getting a handle on this," he said.
"We've got to start thinking about this now," he continued. "Why is it that my plan is so expensive per person? What are the ways that we could get that under control?"
Copyright 2013 The New York Company
August 3, 2013
By: William Harless
RICHMOND, California - City officials in this San Francisco suburb passed an ordinance this past week prohibiting city contractors from ever inquiring about many job applicants' criminal histories.
The move in this city of 100,000 people, which is troubled by crime and high unemployment, is part of a growing national trend that supporters say is designed to improve the community's employment prospects amid wider incarceration.
Under the ordinance, approved by the City Council in a 6-1 vote and set to take effect in September, private companies that have city contracts and that employ more than nine people won't be able to ask anything about an applicant's criminal record; otherwise they would lose their city contracts. The ordinance is one of the nation's strictest "ban-the-box" laws, which are so called because many job applications contain a box to check if one has a criminal record.
"Once we pay our debt, I think the playing field should be fair," said Andres Abarra of Richmond, who was released from San Quentin State Prison in 2006 after serving 16 months for selling heroin. Mr. Abarra, 60 years old, said he lost his first job out of prison, at a warehouse, about a month after a temporary agency hired him. The agency ran a background check and "let me go on the spot," he said. He now works for an advocacy group called Safe Return that campaigned for the ordinance.
Others say the laws potentially endanger both employers and the public. "We have a responsibility to protect our customers, protect other employees and then the company itself" from potential crime, said Kelly Knott, senior director for government relations of the National Retail Federation, an industry group in Washington, D.C., which hasn't taken a position on ban-the-box laws but has cautioned against federal guidance that could limit how employers use background checks.
Richmond, with a population of about 100,000, joins 51 other municipalities that have passed similar ordinances, many in the past five years. Last year, Newark, N.J., barred private employers and the city government from inquiring into a job applicant's criminal history until they have made a conditional offer of employment, and employers can only take into consideration certain offenses committed within the past five to eight years. Murder, voluntary manslaughter and sex offenses requiring registry can be inquired about no matter how much time has passed.
Ten states also have enacted ban-the-box legislation, according to the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for the laws. Many of those laws don't apply to job applications for "sensitive" positions, such as those involving work with children.
Michelle Rodriguez, a NELP staff attorney, said tougher sentencing laws in recent decades, particularly for drug crimes, have sent more people to prison, making post-incarceration unemployment a broader problem. "It really could be anybody who has a criminal record now--your co-worker, your neighbor," Ms. Rodriguez said. "And it doesn't mean they're a criminal. It means they had a run-in with the law."
According to a report by the Sentencing Project, a group that promotes changes in prison and sentencing policy, the U.S. prison population rose nearly fivefold between 1980 and 2011.
Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance that doesn't bar the use of criminal checks but that urges employers to consider the crime, its relation to an applicant's potential job, and how much time has passed since the conviction. In June, the EEOC sued two large employers, alleging they used criminal background checks in ways that could disproportionately affect African-Americans.
In 2010, one in every 12 black men aged 18-64 in the U.S. was incarcerated, versus one in every 87 white men, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a public-policy nonprofit. Nearly 27% of the population in Richmond is black, according to a 2012 U.S. Census estimate.
In Michigan, where a ban-the-box law has been proposed, the state's Chamber of Commerce is concerned businesses could face liability lawsuits after hiring ex-convicts if they end up hurting someone, said Wendy Block, a spokeswoman. "We feel the [existing federal] provisions are sufficient in terms of trying to prohibit job discrimination against former felons," Ms. Block said.
In Richmond, which had an unemployment rate of 11.9% in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city's Chamber of Commerce didn't take a position on the measure. But Chamber President and CEO Judith Morgan said the city's businesses "understand the need here to put people back to work and give people second chances." Ms. Morgan cautioned, however, that it is "nebulous" how the city will enforce the measure.
The Richmond ordinance also makes exceptions for jobs the city deems "sensitive," and it allows criminal background checks for positions, like police-department and schoolteacher jobs, for which federal or state law requires them.
Tamisha Walker, a 32-year-old college student who spent six months in prison for arson in 2009, campaigned for the new ordinance and said she hopes it can help Richmond be a place where people believe they can live successfully. She said a lot of people in Richmond want to "get out of Richmond and never come back. And it's sad, because we lose a lot of talent that way."
Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
The Chatham Square area of New Haven reminds me of the first neighborhood that I grew up in (minus the hills we had in Asheville): wood-frame, working-class houses, with some duplexes, on tree-lined streets. Modest, yet architecturally sturdy and proud. My old neighborhood has seen its ups and downs since back in the day, and so has Chatham Square.
The Square sits in New Haven's Fair Haven district, east of downtown and just west of the Quinnipiac River. Fair Haven's population peaked at near 24,000 in the 1930s but, like so many inner-city neighborhoods, had declined 40 percent to under 14,000 by 2000. More specifically in Chatham Square, today there are around 3,500 residents comprising 1,100 households. Forty-two percent of the population is Hispanic and the median household income is low, at around $33,000 annually. The housing stock around Chatham Square, mostly two- and three-family structures, is a mixture of well-tended and significantly declined or abandoned. Some infrastructure needs repair.
According to Walk Score, "Fair Haven is the 5th most walkable neighborhood in New Haven with a neighborhood Walk Score of 77." (The Walk Score taken from Chatham Square proper is 69.) There are bus routes all over and a commercial street, Grand Avenue (recently traffic-calmed, according to a report), on the southern edge of the district. The river is only a couple of blocks from the neighborhood's center. If you believe in urban sustainability, this is the kind of neighborhood you want to suceed.
Chatham Square itself, for which the neighborhood is named, is a bucolic city park, if perhaps also a bit worn. Looking at photos from Google Earth of nearby streets, some shown with this article, one senses that this is a neighborhood that could go either way, into further decline or, like some reviving districts in other cities with good leadership, into a new age of rebirth.
But take a look at the composite photo at the top of this article. Fortunately, the outcome is no longer in doubt. With a fantastic home-grown spirit, this neighborhood is doing everything right. Once-sketchy Chatham Square Park is now safe, and home to several annual neighborhood festivals that draw visitors from around the city and beyond; home values have stopped declining; and there is an almost tangible sense of pride in the community's diversity.
An announcement of a "Rediscovering Chatham Square" walking tour held earlier this summer and co-sponsored by the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas and the New Haven Preservation Trust summarized how the neighborhood is becoming a showcase:
"This tour focuses on the history and stories of transformation of northeastern Fair Haven. See and hear how residents and local business owners, working with the City of New Haven and community agencies, changed the neighborhood's image, physical condition, and market. Also learn how problems are managed in this beautiful and historic waterfront neighborhood."
Much of the credit belongs to the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, which has become a catalyst for community engagement, and to the behind-the-scenes support of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Indeed, Chatham Square leaders are now working with other neighborhoods to help spread their success.
The situation a decade ago
This is a remarkable turnaround. A decade ago, things were shaky in the neighborhood. The real estate boom of the early 2000's that was lifting property values and stimulating the economy across the country was bypassing Chatham Square. Mired in a decades-long decline, the area suffered from low rates of home ownership and a general sense that the area was unsafe. As houses became available, they were being scooped up by less-than-reputable absentee landlords rather than resident homeowners. And the park at the neighborhood's heart, which should have been a natural place for neighbors to gather, went unused, with drug dealers and prostitutes more likely to be its inhabitants than families and children.
Despite these issues, a handful of dedicated residents believed in their neighborhood and saw its potential. Architecturally distinctive houses lined shady streets. There was a marina at the edge of the neighborhood and park along the Quinnipiac River, where Native Americans once harvested oysters and the first European settlers built and docked ships. And they had the "City Beautiful"-era Chatham Square Park, which they were trying to keep clean and safe through organized cleanups and gardening days. But the same people were doing all the work, and they were struggling to make a big enough difference.
Stepping into this environment under the umbrella of its urban neighborhood strategies initiative, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven began to engage neighborhood residents. The Foundation already had a long history of community involvement, providing leadership training and funding to groups in the city and Greater Naugatuck Valley for such local projects as beautification, community gardens, youth and elder enrichment, summer schools and afterschool programs.
In Chatham Square, the Foundation began to ask residents for their visions and needs, identifying and cultivating leaders who could make lasting change possible. "They were fighting an uphill battle," says Lee Cruz, the community outreach director for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. "Individuals were working hard but they were uneven efforts because they were disconnected."
Several leaders were already known to the Foundation through their participation in the Community Gardens and Community Greenspaces program - a nearly two-decades-long collaboration of the Foundation with the New Haven Land Trust, the New Haven Urban Resources Initiative, and the city's Livable Cities Initiative. A door-knocking campaign brought in other residents who wanted to see change and were willing to work for it.
With this core group, the Foundation convened a series of conversations about the neighborhood to better understand their most pressing concerns and how the Foundation could best work with them. Behind this approach was the principle of building a relational culture, recognizing that the power of a community comes from people coming together to listen to each other without judgment, and to work collectively toward identifying problems and addressing issues of collective concern. By contrast, a top-down approach could risk creating well-intention programs that nevertheless fail to address the priorities of the people who are most affected.
The Foundation helped guide this conversation using the Healthy Neighborhood framework, developed by Fall Creek Consultants. According to staff for the Foundation, the HNF is a strategy that empowers residents to be a positive influence on the market for their neighborhood: the framework posits that, just as a person's healthy life depends on the four elements of nutritious food, sleep, a stable home and nurturing relationships, a neighborhood's health also depends on four critical factors: image; the real estate market; physical condition; and management of quality-of-life issues. Go to the linked website for a full and very rich description of the framework and its application in Chatham Square.
Putting magic marker to sheets of butcher-block paper, neighbors brainstormed their top issues in each category. Over several months, ideas coalesced into plans. The Foundation committed to an $80,000 grant to seed activities that would support the neighbors' ideas.
Some of the money was used to hire a community organizer to help bring more neighbors into the process, and some was used to fund more specific resident-led projects and activities. Among them, residents decided to establish The Chatham Square Neighborhood Association in order to provide a stable organizational base for various neighborhood work groups and initiatives. Over the next several years the neighborhood was able to implement a series of actions touching on all four areas identified in the Healthy Neighborhood Framework.
Celebrating a positive image of Chatham Square
"People saw that we had historic homes, a beautiful waterfront, and diversity," says Cruz. "What they didn't see was any celebration or acknowledgement of this." The neighborhood decided to change this with an annual fall festival at Chatham Square Park. The first year about 60 people came for what essentially was a block party, with music, cotton candy, and a popcorn machine. The planning committee worked to bring in more events and vendors and expand its promotion, and every year since the festival has grown.
Kids enjoy the Chatham Square Fall Festival. Photo by Jeffrey Kerekes/I Love New Haven
Now officially recognized by the city, the Chatham Square Fall Festival draws hundreds of people from around the region and state, features a full stage, and a signature activity - horse-drawn carriage rides. The carriage rides, according to Cruz, are not only fun but also strategic: they purposefully bring visitors around the streets to show off the beauty of the neighborhood outside the park.
Funded in part by The Foundation in its first two years, the Fall Festival is now self-supporting with sponsorships from local businesses.
Building on this success, the neighborhood has created two more annual events at Chatham Square Park: an Easter egg hunt and a Halloween party. And they helped establish two spring festivals along the waterfront - one that supports and celebrates early childhood non-profit organizations and another organized by the waterfront marina. Each event has its own organizing committee and point person. "We went from having no festivals to having five," says Cruz. "Now, other people have stepped forward from nearby neighborhoods asking us how they can do what we do."
Improving the neighborhood's physical condition and market viability
One of the top priorities of residents was to keep Chatham Square Park clean with regular beautification days. Through the engagement process, the initial group was able to add to its volunteer network, and other leaders stepped forward to establish groups that would take care of the neighborhood's other parks.
In addition, the neighborhood established a façade and front yard beautification program to address needed improvements in the area's private homes. It also hosted neighborhood tours for realtors to help them understand what was happening and help support an up-tick in resident homeownership.
Still, there remained houses for which the private market was not working. For these, the neighborhood took advantage of Community Foundation support to enable a local non-profit called Neighborhood Housing Services to purchase, rehab and sell selected houses to first-time homebuyers who had participated in a home buyer education program. In this way, the neighborhood was able to improve conditions by both supporting the private market when possible and a using a subsidy when necessary, with the goal of creating a true, mixed-income neighborhood. Of 16 recent sales where the neighborhood association can document that the purchase was influenced by the work of its neighbors, two were subsidized and 14 were not. Of the 14 homes purchased without subsidies, three have subsequently been resold to resident homeowners.
A refurbished home in Chatham Square. Photo via Google Earth
The Mary Wade Home, a senior assisted living facility near the park (and another grant recipient of the Community Foundation) also became involved in this process and started buying dilapidated homes and rehabbing them; one of the houses was purchased by an employee. Mary Wade also offered its community room for neighborhood meetings. Once on the verge of moving out of the neighborhood, the senior home is now an anchor that is thoroughly invested in the community.
"We are no longer part of a neighborhood that is spiraling downward. We are spiraling upward," says Mary Wade's Executive Director David Hunter. Indeed, Mary Wade now sponsors an annual spring parade through the neighborhood. In 2013 it attracted 32 community organizations (including, of course, the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association), students and marching bands from 16 schools, and 1000 spectators, according to an article written by Guerreo Garcia and published in the New Haven Register.
The real estate tours, in particular, showcased local landmarks, businesses and neighborhood events such as the fall festival. The challenges of the neighborhood were not avoided, but rather put into the context of what the residents were doing about them. In short, the tours gave the agents the information they needed to succeed in positioning the neighborhood for resident home buyers.
Armed with this information, Cruz says, real estate agents have experienced a quicker turnover on their listed properties. Indeed, the first agent who sold a house after participating in a walking tour is now a resident at the Mary Wade Home and a regular participant in the neighborhood meetings.
Mutual engagement, collective benefit
The neighborhood website, which posts a community calendar and contact information for neighborhood committees for people who want to get involved, is now the community's virtual hub. Because of the number of visits from residents and other visitors, the website has attracted local business sponsors and become a revenue generator, Cruz reports. Even the quickest look at the postings reveals the proud elements of true, homegrown community:
I was especially impressed by an interactive map ("SeeClickFix") on the site where neighbors can report infrastructure needs or other issues that need addressing. My own neighborhood could use one of those.
Community dining out night at Chatham Square. Photo courtesy of Lee Cruz
Today, the Chatham Square Neighborhood is not just stabilized, but also thriving. Home ownership rates are up and crime is down. The riverfront is drawing boaters and diners to the newly renovated Boat House Café and Marina. And Chatham Square Park is clean and safe, as are nearby Lewis Street Park and Dover Beach Park.
Several years after the Foundation's initial grant funding ended, neighborhood leaders are independently raising money from business owners and residents to fund local events. A major project to convert an unused school into a performing arts center has the support of many city leaders and is gathering momentum. And people from other neighborhoods are reaching out to the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association for help initiating their own community engagement efforts.
I first heard about Chatham Square when I met Lee Cruz at an event in Hartford in which we were both participating. He was filled with positive energy about the neighborhood, and it's easy to see why. Lee reports that the Community Foundation also benefited from the engagement process in the neighborhood, growing closer to a community of people who could bring their priorities to the table, and expanding its understanding of where its investments could achieve the maximum impact toward its goal of strengthening the community. I'll close with Lee's very pragmatic list of "things to keep in mind when building partnerships and collaborations":
That looks like wise counsel to me.
This article originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog, an Atlantic partner site.
Copyright 2013 The Atlantic Monthly Group