Connecting residents to economic opportunity

Editor’s note: Meeting of the Minds and Living Cities invited civic-minded leaders across sectors to participate in today’s group blogging event by sharing ways to answer the question, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?” Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford responds.

At Habitat for Humanity, we believe that access to adequate and affordable housing is foundational to breaking the cycle of poverty — to helping families create a better life and to helping stakeholders revitalize neglected communities. When individual families and neighborhoods realize successes, surrounding communities reap benefits as well, and the ripple effects create more opportunities than we could ever imagine.
Affordable housingOur neighborhood revitalization efforts depend upon a holistic approach to community development. Creating affordable housing solutions is Habitat’s contribution and expertise, but we are only part of the story. We partner with and rely on other organizations to help residents transform their communities and their lives. Affiliates in urban, suburban and rural areas have helped individual families with housing improvements and have engaged entire communities in more than 1,800 projects including cleanups and development of urban gardens. 
Habitat seeks to bring neighborhood residents together to identify their dreams and their goals to create a vision for a higher quality of life. It is amazing how often the voices of those who will be directly affected — particularly in low-income areas — are left out of the conversation. Doing it right can be slow and messy, but community engagement throughout the process is essential, and success is dependent upon residents taking a leading role in community revitalization efforts.
We are seeing some great successes all around the country. For example, we are working with the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth on a work/live model that breaks new ground in Habitat’s approach to homeownership by pairing this important goal with small business development. The homes in this model serve both as residences and office space and are intended to nurture entrepreneurial ideas and provide economic engines to neighborhoods with commercial corridors.
In Jacksonville, Florida, residents and three dozen public and private organizations have come together to create the New Town Success Zone, which is dedicated to improving life for children and families in an underserved area near the heart of the city. Habitat Jacksonville took on the role of housing partner for the New Town Success Zone, and the affiliate plans to serve 400 families through homeownership and repair programs over the next four years.
Through partnerships with other entities, life in New Town is improving. Standardized test scores at the elementary school have risen dramatically while absentee rates have dropped significantly. Adults now have opportunities for job training and education.
As a result of the affiliate working with local law enforcement, New Town also has become a safer place to raise a family. Between 2008 and 2011, crime statistics in the area showed a drop of 45 percent or more in violent crimes, arrests and truancy.
At one point in our history, we were most interested in how many new homes we were building. Now we are more concerned with how many people we have served — through a variety of housing solutions — and how we can partner with entire communities and contribute to their well-being. It is an exciting time for Habitat as we build homes, communities and hope.
Follow Jonathan Reckford on Twitter.