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Community Perspective
Who Helps Neighborhood Groups Succeed?
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Friday, November 24, 2017 at 8 a.m.

Earlier this summer my wife and I packed up our house in Minneapolis and moved to Charlottesville. We had been living in Minnesota for the past decade, in a wonderful neighborhood about a mile from the Mississippi River and three miles from downtown Minneapolis. We loved our neighborhood because of its proximity to many of the city’s natural and built amenities: theaters, bike lanes, parks, restaurants—all that good stuff and more. And we loved our friends and neighbors, our community.

While we’ve been Virginians for only a few months, we’re hoping to find these features in Charlottesville, too.

During the 10 years we lived in the Twin Cities, we learned a lot about what contributes to the area’s vibrancy:  businesses small and large, from a wide range of sectors, have helped create a healthy, competitive economy; arts organizations have nurtured an inclusive, thriving cultural environment, with creative and fun activities for all kinds of people; and a broad network of community organizations, including neighborhood groups, has strengthened the agency and amplified the voice of their constituencies throughout the Twin Cities, promoting a healthy level of civic engagement.

Since moving to Virginia, I’ve thrown myself into discovering what makes Charlottesville click, learning about the area’s ecosystem of community organizations and what services they provide and what needs, if any, are going unmet. In particular, I’ve been looking for one type of organization that exists in Minneapolis but I have yet to find here: an organization that helps—for free—resource-strapped community groups to answer research questions or provide them with technical assistance.

In Minneapolis the organization providing these services is called the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, or CURA. Based out of the University of Minnesota, CURA works with neighborhood organizations throughout the Twin Cities to create livable, healthy, and resilient communities. It pursues this goal by connecting the academic and practical expertise of university personnel with the insight and on-the-ground knowledge of community members to collaboratively tackle a problem facing the neighborhood.

I worked at CURA in 2011 while the country was still trying to get a handle on the housing market crash. Like a lot of cities across the country, Minneapolis endured its share of neighborhood-destabilizing foreclosures. Some neighborhoods were hit harder than others. In Minneapolis the area of the city that experienced one of the highest shares of foreclosures was North Minneapolis, in a neighborhood called Folwell.

In Folwell, people had been breaking into vacant homes and stripping them of copper pipe. They’d smash through drywall and literally rip the pipe free. In the worst cases, thieves left houses not just with ruined walls and ceilings but with active water leaks, which often created the conditions for mold to take root and spread. The damage was so great that prospective buyers would need to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to make the houses code compliant and inhabitable—a non-starter for most. Folwell’s neighborhood association feared that a preponderance of uninhabitable, abandoned homes would stymie its efforts to stabilize and rebuild the area’s reeling housing market.

To prevent further break-ins, the organization hatched a plan to identify vacant houses and make them appear as if someone lived there, primarily by maintaining the houses’ exteriors—cutting grass and raking leaves, for instance, or even installing a timed light to turn on at night. The neighborhood association requested help from CURA in identifying the vacant homes.

At the time, I worked for the organization as a research analyst. For this project, I sought to identify datasets that indicated that a house was vacant, such as houses that registered no water usage or homes that went through the foreclosure process. The more indicators that fell on a single house, the higher the likelihood of vacancy. After geocoding and mapping this data, we shared the results with the neighborhood group for them to implement their break-in prevention plan.

To everyone’s relief, copper pipe theft subsided. While we don’t know if the drop occurred because of the neighborhood group’s preventative efforts, the heightened police activity, a stabilization of the housing market, or some combination of all three, we do know that the effort as a whole was a successful collaboration of community partners. Many were involved—the neighborhood organization’s leadership and its residents, the Minneapolis police, local government personnel (from the city and the county), even the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. But the one organization making the entire effort possible—and doing most of the data sleuthing and technical work—was CURA.  

In the months since moving to Charlottesville, I have learned that there are a lot of well-intentioned community development nonprofits, including neighborhood groups, operating in the area. But do these organizations have a resource similar to CURA that will provide—for free—technical assistance or help answer a research question? Armed with accurate information about an issue, they could more effectively organize and lobby for meaningful change. Who is helping them?

I welcome your feedback in the comment section below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacob Wascalus is a recent transplant from Minneapolis, where he worked in community development for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. He focuses his professional energy on promoting effective neighborhood stabilization strategies, encouraging multi-modal transportation networks, building resilient local economies, and advocating for healthy communities. He loves reading and talking about innovative approaches to improving community vitality. If you have an idea, reach out to him at JacobWascalus @ gmail.com.

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