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Community Revitalization: Prepare

Before beginning a comprehensive revitalization effort, it’s important to do the preliminary work necessary for success. This includes choosing and understanding your target area , engaging residents and other stakeholders, and devising a plan.
 
A group of children stand in front of a colorful playground holding a ribbon

Define your community

First, you must select where to concentrate your efforts and define what you mean when you talk about your community or neighborhood. In urban areas, neighborhoods often have well-understood historical or political boundaries. But a neighborhood also can be a rural area, small town or even a single multifamily building.

Here are some rules of thumb for defining your focus:
 
  • Areas in urban and suburban neighborhoods are less strictly defined than small, rural towns or individual buildings, but there are usually commonly understood boundaries (arterial streets, bodies of water, parks, etc.). Decide where your targeted area begins and ends.

  • Does the area you select make sense as a community? Is the geography contiguous and are the boundaries generally agreed upon by residents? It helps if the residents of that area recognize it as a “place.” It should have a coherent, unique identity that is distinct.

  • Ensure that your defined community is feasible in size and scope. It should be broad enough to include assets and opportunities needed to make your effort successful, but not so large that it exceeds your capacity to make an impact.

Understand your market

Comprehensive revitalization is not one-size-fits-all. Differing market realities call for distinct strategies. It is important to understand the conditions in your market so you can design the strategies best suited to the results your community needs.

Struggling housing markets may require stabilization strategies to mitigate the impact of high numbers of foreclosures, prevent additional foreclosures and restore healthy levels of occupancy and investment. In contrast, strong housing markets may require strategies to preserve opportunities for lower-income residents to stay in gentrifying areas.

You should consider dynamics such as:
 
  • The housing market
  • Economic and population trends
  • Other conditions

The housing market

  • What are current average rents and sale prices and, more important, how are they trending?
  • Have prices become generally cheaper or more expensive over the past several years?
  • Is there enough housing stock to meet demand, or is there an over-supply and high levels of vacancy?
  • Are there high numbers of foreclosures?
  • Are properties aging out of affordability restrictions?
  • Is the housing predominately owner-occupied or rental?
  • What are the typical housing types, and do they match the needs of current residents?
Housing Market Types
Type Residential Home Prices Market Demand Community Conditions
Very strong Prices are high by regional standards Demand exceeds supply

Homebuyers substantially exceed absentee buyers

Homebuyers are largely upper-income
Houses well- maintained

Very low vacancy rate

High level of replacement or reinvestment or replacement in existing housing stock

Infill lots quickly reused by private builders
Strong Prices high by city standards Demand moderately exceeds supply

Homebuyers substantially exceed absentee buyers

Homebuyers are a mix of middle- and upper-income
Houses well maintained Low vacancy rate

High level of maintenance, but only moderate replacement or reinvestment in existing housing stock

Infill lots sometimes reused by private builders
Stable Prices average or slightly above by city standards Demand and supply in balance

Homebuyers moderately exceed absentee buyers

Homebuyers largely middle-income
Most houses well maintained, but exceptions are visible

Moderate vacancy rate, scattered abandoned properties

Moderate level of maintenance and reinvestment

Infill lots rarely reused by private builders
Weak Prices average or slightly below by city standards Supply beginning to exceed demand

Mix of homebuyers and absentee buyers

Homebuyers largely moderate-income
Most houses well maintained, but increasing numbers are not

Moderate vacancy rate, scattered abandoned properties

Moderate level of maintenance, with increasing evidence of disinvestment

Infill lots not reused except for scattered subsidized housing
Distressed Prices below average by city standards Supply exceeds demand

Absentee buyers exceed homebuyers

Homebuyers low- and moderate-income
Some houses well maintained, but many show evidence of disinvestment

High vacancy rate and scattered abandoned properties on most blocks, with abandoned property clusters emerging

Low level of maintenance, with increasing evidence of disinvestment

Infill lots not reused except for scattered subsidized housing
Very distressed Prices substantially below average by city standards Supply substantially exceeds demand

Buyers predominantly absentee

Few homebuyers at any income level
Most houses show evidence of disinvestment

Very high vacancy rate with widespread abandonment

High level of disinvestment

Infill lots not reused except for scattered subsidized housing
*Source: Alan Mallach
 

Economic and population trends

  • Who lives in this community?
  • What are the average employment, education and income levels?
  • Does the population skew older or younger?
  • Are most families large or small?
  • Are there employment opportunities within or easily accessible to your community?
  • Are properties generally in good condition or are many in need of repair?
  • Is the commercial district tidy and well-maintained?
  • Do the streets “feel” safe?
  • Are there concentrations of vacant or nuisance properties?
Here are some resources to check out:
 
  • The Census Bureau prepares a wide range of reports on demographics, housing and economic trends. The American Community Survey is updated annually.
     
  • HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research offers data on rents and income limits.
     
  • PolicyMap is an online mapping system that includes significant data relevant to foreclosures and related market dynamics. A basic version is free.
     
  • Hot Reports from the federal Sustainable Communities Initiative provide county-level information on a variety of sustainability indicators, including transportation, housing, economic development, income and equity.

Other conditions

  • Is there high crime in your community or in specific parts?
  • Are the schools good quality?
  • Are there amenities such as parks and community-serving institutions?  
A man and a woman examine their conference materialsSuccess Measures offers a way to establish baseline data on indicators like these and track progress over time. Primavera Foundation in Arizona has used Success Measures data to evaluate its progress in stabilizing the South Tucson community and improving residents’ confidence, market conditions and external perceptions of the neighborhood.

Another useful analysis is asset mapping, which looks at existing advantages and opportunities. The Asset-Based Community Development Institute offers a toolkit for community asset mapping.

In addition, governments and other bodies in many metro areas have created data analysis and mapping projects to better understand the market dynamics in their communities. For example, New Jersey Community Capital created a Newark Market Condition Assessment that examined how the housing market is functioning and what factors influence it. And Youngstown Neighborhood Development used data to develop action plans that address property issues, infrastructure challenges and safety concerns.

More market analysis ideas and resources:
  Finally, we offer many related courses at our NeighborWorks Training Institutes: Understanding Your Community, Analyzing Your Market.

Engage your community

Successful community stabilization and revitalization initiatives depend on engagement and leadership from community residents. Residents can help you go beyond the data to understand unseen dynamics in the local market. They can provide a grassroots perspective on the neighborhood’s priorities, assets, opportunities and challenges. Engagement should be an ongoing process before, during and after your community initiative. Once a plan is finalized, residents should play a key role in implementation.

Some key principles of community engagement:
 
  • Learn what issues most concern and motivate residents and consider how your programs and activities can speak to them.

  • Make the effort to engage a wide spectrum of people, so it is not just the loudest few voices that are heard. Get the “unusual suspects” around the table too.

  • Build relationships. You may have to start small or in situations where you encounter resistance; work your way from the outside in. Begin by identifying the leaders in your community. The true leaders may not have formally recognized roles, but they are the people to whom others listen. Consider the leaders of resident associations, schools, social and cultural associations, and religious institutions.

  • Listen more than you speak and create a respectful environment where residents can trust you and one another. The goal is to engage residents in a collective effort.

  • Provide a meal and child care to maximize participation at meetings. Organize meetings at various times and locations to ensure that most people have a chance to be included. Conduct meetings in laypersons’ terms, not in “insider” jargon.

  • Bridge cultural barriers by engaging translators when there are language differences, and by gaining introductions to cultural leaders and elders in your community—then following their lead.

  • Delegate to residents and other stakeholders, giving them meaningful roles in the revitalization effort. Some will want to be involved over the longer term and others might want to help with a specific, limited activity. Consider defining some large and small roles to appeal to different levels of interest and ability.
In addition to making residents aware of and involved in your efforts, engagement is useful for cultivating community leaders who will sustain your efforts into the future.

A man wearing a plaid shirt and white hat stands outside

Here are a few examples of successful community-engagement tactics:
  More engagement resources:
 

Create a plan

With your analysis of market data and the knowledge of what residents consider top priority, you are ready to formulate a community plan. Many neighborhoods engage professional facilitators and hold charrettes to develop a formal plan.

The core challenge is to create strategies that are realistic and responsive to the needs and opportunities in the community and identify the specific activities, responsible parties, supporting resources and timeframes needed to implement them. Without these specifics, especially the assignment of responsibility, a plan is just a plan.

An effective plan should include the following items:
 
  • A target area with clearly defined geographic boundaries.
  • A defined role for the lead and/or convening organization that will coordinate all other partners’ efforts and monitor plan progress.
  • A steering committee or coalition that is representative of the community and is charged with guiding the process.
  • A survey of current conditions, a needs assessment and/or an asset map that defines community assets upfront and clearly identifies challenges to be addressed.
  • Defined outcomes and objectives based both on data and community outreach. Outcomes should be realistic and responsive to the interests of the community.
  • A set of strategies to achieve the outcomes. They must be multifaceted—involving people, place and systems—and ideally both short- and long-term.
  • Roles, resources and timelines. Your plan should clearly spell out who is doing what, when and how it will be financed. Assigning accountability for the work is critical.
  • A blueprint for evaluation, allowing periodic assessment of what is working, what is not and where adjustments are needed.
  • An outreach and communication strategy to assist in recruiting participants and funders, generating community support and celebrating successes.
Planning should not get in the way of implementation. Even as the planning process is ongoing, look for “low-hanging fruit”—activities through which you can achieve early wins and show progress. Popular early action projects include block and park clean-ups, creation of merchant associations, street light and signage renovation, flower planting and small home repairs.

A good example of a community plan is The Neighborhood Developers’ Shirley Avenue Community Action Plan for Revere, Massachusetts, which has a clearly defined collective vision, strategies, action steps and assignment of responsible parties.

Likewise, NCALL’s Restoring Central Dover initiative produced a 10-year plan that includes not only recommended strategies, but a consideration of implementation challenges and how to approach them.

More planning ideas and resources:
 

Engage Partners

No organization can be all things to all people. A multi-layered revitalization plan that is truly comprehensive will require partners to accomplish its goals. There may be organizations already working in your neighborhood on strategies that complement—or  compete with—your own efforts. Bringing them to the table is a good way to ensure you are helping each other’s efforts rather than clashing or duplicating work. It’s also a way to leverage their knowledge, resources or momentum for your own efforts.

Partnerships offer a way to achieve greater impact together than you could accomplish on your own. In addition, funders are attracted to partnerships and coordinated investment opportunities. Collective impact is an approach in which groups of partners work together to tackle large and complex social issues in a coordinated fashion. The approach requires close collaboration and agreement on a common agenda and success metrics. Despite the group approach, however, collective impact initiatives rely on a single "backbone" organization to guide the strategic vision, engage partners and manage day-to-day operations. Even outside the formal collective impact structure, it is helpful for collaborative revitalization efforts to select one agency to take the lead role. This organization is known by several names, such as lead agency, convening agency or "quarterback" organization.  

Potential partners to consider for a comprehensive revitalization initiative include:
 
  • Local government
  • Block groups/citizen groups
  • Nonprofits and social service providers working in the same targeted community
  • Schools
  • Religious institutions
  • Funders with the same geographic or programmatic focus
  • Universities or hospitals that are large employers in the community
  • Business or merchant associations
  • Funding intermediaries
Some examples:
 
  • Beyond Housing created the 24:1 Initiative, which is improving outcomes for children in North Saint Louis County, Missouri, through the coordinated work of dozens of partners from the nonprofit, business, religious and public sectors.

  • Avenue CDC convened more than 200 stakeholders to create a comprehensive quality-of-life plan for Houston’s Near Northside neighborhood. The action plan outlines which of 25 partner organizations will lead each of the 40 strategies, and lists other potential partners.
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More partnership ideas and resources: