Children swinging.

Ten communities work with Habitat to lift up their neighborhoods

The goal seems simple enough: improve the quality of life of people and the neighborhoods they call home.

The “how” is more complicated and something that Habitat for Humanity and local communities are working on. Together, we have developed a new tool, called the Quality of Life Framework, that aims to lift up and bring lasting change to neighborhoods across the United States.

“It starts by understanding everyone’s gifts, dreams and concerns about their neighborhood,” says Rebecca Hix, Habitat’s director of neighborhood revitalization. From there, the tool calls for building a strong sense of community and acting on shared objectives that could include improved housing, safety and economic opportunity, among others.

Over five years, Habitat and 10 local communities will test the framework. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — along with Lowe’s, Wells Fargo Foundation and General Motors — are financial supporters of the initiative.

“These 10 neighborhoods are carving a path for future neighborhoods through their validation of the framework,” Hix says. “This is truly exciting work.”

Here are snapshots of the 10 communities, their challenges and aspirations.

Berkeley County, South Carolina

Habitat Berkeley County has worked closely with the Wall Street neighborhood of historic Moncks Corner since 2010. A bedroom community of the increasingly popular city of Charleston, Wall Street’s property values have tripled over the past several years, leaving the 20 percent of households living below the poverty line struggling to keep up with growing repair lists and soaring property taxes. With residents working with local government agencies, schools, churches and nonprofits, the collective neighborhood revitalization effort focuses on increasing resident engagement, building their leadership capacity, capping property taxes for residents 65 years and older, encouraging investment in the local economy and helping families make necessary upgrades to ensure they remain safe and stable in their homes for years to come.

Charlottesville, Virginia

Of the approximately 20 million Americans who live in mobile homes, most own the structures but not the land beneath them. Habitat Greater Charlottesville has the goal of shifting Southwood Mobile Home Park from an exclusively low-income community of aging mobile homes and failing infrastructure into a sustainable mixed-income and mixed-use village with amenities such as a neighborhood employment center and improved access to city services. Habitat Charlottesville and local partners hope to achieve this by working side by side with residents to shape a stronger and more stable community from the ground up.

Lafayette, Louisiana

In 2008, city employees, area churches, business owners and residents came together to plan the future of McComb-Veazey, a historic neighborhood with a vibrant musical heritage adjacent to downtown Lafayette. A decade later, the neighborhood coalition that formed, known as the Coterie, has gained in strength and momentum. Residents and local partners from government, the university system and nonprofit sector, including Lafayette Habitat, are invested in the health and prosperity of the community. The coalition has spearheaded several initiatives to improve resident life, including monthly family-friendly events and regular safety meetings with the Lafayette Police Department. The work ahead includes a gathering place where entrepreneurs can brainstorm, a park paying homage to the neighborhood’s rich history and increased access to healthy food for families of all income levels. “Our people are our strength,” says Tina Shelvin Bingham, chair of the McComb-Veazey Coterie and community development director for Lafayette Habitat. “And if we all work from our different perspectives, we can all continue to move the community forward.”

Long Beach, California

With active and engaged faculty and an immersive curriculum, Washington Middle School serves as the center of its community and now the springboard for Habitat Greater Los Angeles’ neighborhood revitalization program. “The principal, teachers and administrators there have done great job at energizing the community,” says Dinesa Thomas-Whitman, director of outreach, advocacy and policy at Habitat Los Angeles. It’s clear, she says, that “the residents want a great place for their kids to grow up.” Members of the neighborhood association are focusing on the school’s continued success, further development of parks, reduced crime and community events to instill greater social cohesion. One initiative, Safe Passages, enlists community volunteers to walk children to and from school. Residents have noticed fewer loiterers near the school and a decline in risky behavior by students. Housing also is an area of focus for the neighborhood. Only 7.2 percent of the homes in the Washington neighborhood are owner-occupied. That means a continuation of Habitat’s role in constructing new, affordable homes and helping families complete repairs that will help them build pride, grow roots and feel ownership in their community.

“Our people are our strength, and if we all work from our different perspectives, we can all continue to move the community forward.”
— Tina Shelvin Bingham, chair of the McComb-Veazey Coterie and community development director for Lafayette Habitat

Muncie, Indiana

In the 8twelve neighborhood, one-third of the homes are owned, one-third are rented and one-third sit vacant. The neighborhood has experienced the plight of many post-industrial Rust Belt communities, with the loss of factory jobs, population decline, school consolidation and a diminishing economy. “The dreams of the residents revolve around wanting things to work,” says Jena Ashby, director of impact and programs for Greater Muncie Habitat. “They want their furnace to work, the water to work, the sidewalks to be clear — the sidewalks to exist. They just want systems that function so they don’t impede daily life.” A collaborative effort across sectors and industries, the 8twelve coalition focuses on four areas: beautification, housing, business development and employment and education and family support. The coalition has undertaken a wide array of projects, including increasing homeownership opportunities, developing public parks, making over vacant properties and creating a community garden.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In 1966, the Philadelphia Housing Authority began construction on the massive Norman Blumberg Apartments to house the most people for the least amount of money. The apartments were placed in the center of a thriving, mixed-income neighborhood, Sharswood. Over time, the complex gained a reputation as among the most dilapidated and dangerous public housing in the country. The elementary school closed, businesses moved out, and six decades after the apartments unveiling, they were demolished. Today, with support of the housing authority, Habitat Philadelphia and other partners, residents are committed to restoring Sharswood to the hub it once was. Already, upgraded mixed-income housing is in different stages of completion on the land where Blumberg Apartments once stood. A closed high school has been rehabbed and reopened. New streets and infrastructure have been built. A recreation center has been renovated and an educational community garden relocated after planned development threatened its future. Still, there’s the equivalent of 24 football fields of vacant land, leaving the Neighborhood Advisory Committee a huge canvas to shape the community.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood has witnessed the shuttering of factories and mills, the loss of blue-collar jobs and the exodus of white families to the suburbs. With its rich history, strong governmental relationships and the passion of the residents who remain, the historic neighborhood — once known as the city’s Little Italy — is an ideal incubator for revitalization. A coalition of residents and community partners already are making things happen, including after-school programming, community events, community gardening and free community-wide WiFi. Future plans include the development of green space and continued housing stabilization efforts to help residents stay in their homes. “The story of Larimer is the story of residents standing up and saying, ‘We’re here and we matter, and we get to decide what happens in our community,’” says Derek Kendall-Morris, Habitat Pittsburgh’s senior community engagement director.

Pittsfield, Massachusetts

When Carolyn Valli began working at Central Berkshire Habitat 11 years ago, she was stumped. Habitat was breaking ground on new homes in Pittsfield’s Westside neighborhood where land was affordable, but interest among families was a huge challenge. “I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have hundreds of people on a wait list,” says Valli, Central Berkshire Habitat’s executive director. She talked to residents and found they had concerns about Westside’s lack of amenities and safety. Habitat Central Berkshire and partners, including the Berkshire United Way, Goodwill, Berkshire Community College and City of Pittsfield, decided to work to make the community one anyone would want to live in. The neighborhood revitalization initiative here centers on empowering residents to be vocal leaders in shaping their community. One of the first priorities involves building up the amenities as well as residents’ skills to attract new businesses that can help diversify and bolster the local economy.

St. Vrain, Colorado

St. Vrain Habitat first became involved in The Glens in the city of Dacono in 2009 when it broke ground on the neighborhood’s premier Habitat home. Realizing the challenges — and the opportunities — of the community, Habitat helped form The Pride of The Glens, a coalition of neighborhood homeowners, renters, landlords and business owners. One of the coalition’s first tasks was to complete a neighborhood-wide survey to understand resident issues. Among the results, they found 45 percent of homes in The Glens need minor repairs and 15 percent require major ones. These findings have helped focus the coalition’s work. Home repairs, new construction, the creation of safe walking routes and landscaping are all on the group’s growing to-do list. “In my experience of becoming a Habitat homeowner, I saw how people came together to help each other,” says Doris, a coalition member. “I want my kids to see that we made a difference, that we helped develop this place and made it better — and that we are setting this example for them to continue it.”

Tucson, Arizona

Amphi, an urban neighborhood on the northern edge of Tucson, once was known for good schools and wealthy households. However, as people began abandoning the city for a life in the suburbs, Amphi and the residents who remained experienced plummeting homeownership rates and rising crime rates. That makes the shared long-term goal between residents and Habitat Tucson nothing short of “transformation,” says Ann Vargas, director of community development at Habitat Tucson. Change already is becoming apparent following several neighborhood clean-ups in Amphi with residents and local police working side by side. These cleanups — along with repaired sidewalks, new Habitat houses and a new community garden — are adding up to big change in the everyday lives of Amphi residents.