Nearly a decade ago, NeighborWorks America created the Healthy Homes & Communities Initiative to support its network of nearly 250 affordable housing and community development organizations across the country (in every state, Puerto Rico, and DC) and every geography (rural, urban, and suburban) advance work at the intersection of health, housing, and community development. Since the start of this initiative to today, nearly 70% of the NeighborWorks network is implementing work at this intersection (NeighborWorks America, Annual FY ’21 Survey ). And this work extends well beyond COVID-19 pandemic response. NeighborWorks network organizations are taking a holistic approach to also integrating health programming into housing, partnering with healthcare to invest in affordable housing, serving as backbone conveners to cross-sector health collaboratives, like Invest Health, and administering regional funds to address lead and other housing hazards. While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has increased the number of network organizations advancing work at this intersection, we are learning that one of the main reasons why organizations have reached this juncture is because they are responding to the voice of their community and residents.
NeighborWorks and our network’s commitment to residents is rooted in our origins as a resident-led effort organized by community development pioneer Dorothy Mae Richardson . Our history has taught us that residents are the best authorities on what makes their community thrive. This matters because resident engagement leads to more effective and lasting solutions, and ongoing community investments, which are foundational conditions to creating and maintaining healthier, safer, and more vibrant communities.
As organizations listen to their communities and residents, they often hear how housing, education, good jobs, healthcare, arts, culture, recreation, healthy food, and other amenities are what’s needed for their communities to be healthier. And with the pandemic, supports such as rental assistance and food security are needed to meet basic needs for many. Through our network’s commitment to residents and places, many network organizations have been able to listen to their communities needs at the intersection of health, housing, and community development, and then anchor their housing and community development work as a platform to create healthier, more vibrant communities.
Many of our network organizations are able to do this by implementing Comprehensive Community Development (CCD) strategies. CCD is an approach that combines a focus on people, place and systems to create a thriving, inclusive environment that supports the core needs of individuals and families. Core to this approach is partnering with residents to identify the solutions needed to address both immediate and systemic issues that are barriers to creating healthy communities. Two case study examples of NeighborWorks network organizations advancing health through CCD and resident engagement include:
East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) in Oakland, California – Through their Healthy Neighborhoods Approach, EBALDC along with community resident and other community partners such as county public health department, hospital systems, federally qualified health centers, social service agencies, and community-based organizations, co-develop and implement neighborhood action plans to improve the health and well-being of neighborhoods. Through on-going engagement with residents, EBALDC and their partners work together to establish new programs, services, small businesses, and housing developments to revitalize communities. Some of their successes achieved by listening and partnering with residents to co-design solutions has led to the creation of thriving business hubs including an emerging Black business zone securing neighborhood prioritization in the city’s housing element plan for affordable housing development, , and created an early childhood hub to coordinate community based partners to support school readiness.
Beyond Housing in St. Louis, Missouri – Through its approach of “Ask, Align, Act”, Beyond Housing advances the 24:1 initiative that works with residents and leaders in the 24 municipalities surrounded by one school district to create strong communities, engaged families, and successful children. In its nearly decade long work, Beyond Housing has partnered with residents and complimentary community-based organizations to create new home ownership opportunities, incubate a small business hub, create healthier walking passages, and establish a pipeline of child and youth development programs to ensure children’s college and career readiness. Collectively, Beyond Housing’s commitment to advance the voice of residents has facilitated over $100 million in new community investment.
In both of these examples, these organizations were able to leverage their role in affordable housing and community development as a conduit to advancing multiple comprehensive solutions that were identified by residents and their communities. The anchor of these two organizations in their communities are often similar to other affordable housing and community development organizations in small-to-mid-sized cities across the United States. If we are to improve the social determinants of health of vulnerable populations, it takes many hands. Partnering with affordable housing and community developers in your community can support the needed facilitation of investment capital, but more importantly, can steer investment in way that amplifies community voice and leverages the various partnerships needed to improve community health and advance health equity.
Through supporting our network to implement work at the intersection of health, housing, and community development with a focus on resident engagement and CCD, NeighborWorks has learned:
- Affordable housing and community development organizations can recognize and articulate their role in advancing the social determinants of health. When these organizations recognize their role in health, they often pivot to advancing CCD. This pivot is important, because organizations begin to see how their work can move not just one housing project at time, but can solve larger community issues around health. They can anchor their housing work and facilitate access to needed programs, services, amenities, and developments that are critical to creating better health outcomes.
- Affordable housing and community development organizations are keenly connected to their communities and the people who live in them. They often hold deep relationships with residents and engage with communities on a day-to-day basis. The relationships these organizations hold with community are important, as they are seen as trusted and committed partners by residents.
- Affordable housing and community development organizations often have strong relationships not just with their residents, but also with the many partners and players that have a hand in creating better health. Leveraging affordable housing and community development organizations as partners can help create, anchor, and sustain the table needed to advance health.
- When affordable housing and community development organizations work to improve the social determinants of health they can help attract and accelerate the needed investments to create better health opportunities. Affordable housing and community development organizations work with complex funding streams, tight budgets, and different capital sources to develop housing and other projects. They are also relentless in moving their affordable housing and community development projects to reality, making sure they are meeting their community needed. Partnership with these types of organizations can help identify new ways to bring in needed capital, and also bring the tenacity to start and finish projects despite challenges.
Now more than ever, comprehensive approaches are needed to address the complex, multifaceted issues facing communities and to improve every community’s social determinants of health. Ensuring these comprehensive approaches are identified, shaped by, and implemented in collaboration with residents advances health equity and creates wider opportunity. Affordable housing and community development organizations can be key partners to shaping bright, healthy futures, and ensuring this future is led with the voice and actions of residents.
About the Author
Romi Hall comes to NeighborWorks with more than 10 years of experience working at the intersection of health, housing and community development. She’s spent much of her career with two NeighborWorks organizations: Beyond Housing and the East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. (EBALDC). Most recently, Hall was director of neighborhood collaborations at EBALDC, where she led partnerships to generate a pipeline of nearly 400 units, attracted a full-service grocery store, secured more than $5 million from arts and culture and health /hospital funders, supported resident-led placemaking projects, and launched two new collaboratives. During her time at Beyond Housing, she helped plan and launch the 24:1 initiative. She also has prior experience in early childhood development and faith-based organizing. In 2019, she was named a Fulcrum Fellow with the Center for Community Investment, where she honed skills in capital absorption and community investment. She received her master’s in public health from Drexel University and her undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada, Reno.