Reflections on the ‘Building Advocacy for Middle Neighborhoods’ meeting in Cleveland

March 25, 2019

By Paul Brophy, Brophy & Reilly LLC

Approximately 200 people concerned about America’s middle neighborhoods met at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland on November 13-14, 2018 to advance practice, research and policy priorities regarding middle neighborhoods—those neighborhoods in America’s cities, suburbs and towns that are neither strong and vibrant nor deeply distressed.

The meeting, “Building Advocacy for Middle Neighborhoods,” occurred after a similar meeting in Baltimore in 2017, the first gathering of advocates and practitioners interested in investigating this overlooked category of neighborhoods. The spirit of the Baltimore working group meeting was carried forth in Cleveland, empowering those concerned about middle neighborhoods to organize approaches to improving their neighborhood’s health, drawing from their personal experience and findings of “On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods,” published by The American Assembly and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 2016.

The following summary provides a high-level snapshot of the discussion and outcomes from the Cleveland events for those who could not attend.

Following a tour of some of Cleveland’s middle neighborhoods, the two-day gathering opened on Wednesday, November 13 with a welcome from Joel Ratner, CEO of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Mayor Frank Jackson.  Mayor Jackson refers to his city’s middle neighborhoods as “stable neighborhoods” but this phrase may belie the threat to some of his city’s middle neighborhoods.

Joe Froelich, from IdeaStream, hosted a lively panel discussion on the state of middle neighborhoods in Cleveland and elsewhere with Emily Garr Pacetti, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland; Tania Menesse, City of Cleveland; Jeffrey T. Verespej, Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation; and Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, City of Philadelphia.  The panelists expressed a mix of optimism and pessimism about middle neighborhoods. The optimism stems from the growing interest in keeping these kinds of neighborhoods from falling into decline and the pessimism from the limited resources and expertise to keep these neighborhoods stable.

The meeting began in earnest on Thursday, November 14 with remarks from Paul C. Brophy and encouraging reports on progress from practitioners: Johnette Richardson then head of the Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. in Baltimore; Stephanie Mercado, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center in Milwaukee; and Amber Lynch, from the City of Des Moines, Iowa.  These “lightning round” presentations provided an overview of three approaches to middle neighborhood stabilization, two from the neighborhood vantage point and one from city government.  Des Moines has recently passed legislation to bring additional resources aimed at stabilizing that city’s middle neighborhoods, the relevant officials realizing that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The three presentations made it clear that in these settings (as was evident from the Cleveland tour), decline is the more prevalent – and actionable – threat to middle neighborhoods than gentrification.

Marcia Nedland, Fall Creek Consultants, and Treye Johnson, Federal Reserve bank of Cleveland, facilitated a plenary discussion fielding questions and comments following these lighting talks.

This plenary session was followed by breakout sessions on the following topics:

  • Developing key elements of a racial equity framework for middle neighborhood stabilization. Kendra Freeman of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council highlighted results of the Cost of Segregation report which documents how much income and wealth are lost through segregation, a some middle neighborhoods.
  • Advocating for a national policy to address the appraisal gap, in which Carey Shea from the National Homes Investment Coalition described a major legislative initiative in progress that would benefit middle neighborhoods.
  • Mark Sissman described lessons from Baltimore’s Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. Program. Now in its 18th year, Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. (HNI) has made upwards of $70 million available for community reinvestment, primarily through a bank-funded loan pool.

These breakout sessions were followed by an overview of recent middle neighborhoods research by Alan Mallach from the Center for Community Progress.  Alan outlined conditions and trajectories of neighborhoods in St. Louis, where middle neighborhoods most threated with decline are those primarily of African-American residency.  This is because the interest in buying homes in these neighborhoods is largely from African-American prospective buyers, who are but a small part of the overall housing market in St. Louis and other cities.

A robust discussion followed led by Jeffrey T. Verespej, Old Brooklyn CDC; Johnette Richardson, Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc.; and Paul Singh, NeighborWorks America.  Attendees promoted the idea of a stronger community of practitioners among middle neighborhood advocates and community-based organizations.

Two additional rounds of breakout sessions followed:

  • A session on advancing citywide strategies using data, policy, and partnerships focused on how Memphis, Baltimore Cleveland Heights and Des Moines are using housing data to sharpen strategies. Presenters included Austin Harrison, Neighborhood Preservation Memphis; Amber Lynch, City of Des Moines; Tannish Briley, City of Cleveland Heights; and Charlie Duff, Jubilee Housing, Baltimore.
  • Strategies for repositioning housing stock and attracting homebuyers. Middle neighborhoods are working to find effective ways to retain and recruit homeowners to their neighborhoods. Marcia Nedland and Paul Singh shared best practices for a comprehensive homebuyer recruitment strategy, including neighborhood image-building, branding, marketing to realtors, incentive lending, and targeted improvements to housing stock.
  • Tools for improving the landlord landscape for middle neighborhoods. Homeownership is typically seen as crucial for middle neighborhood success, and Kamla Lewis, City of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Nedra Sims Fears, Greater Chatham Initiative, Chicago, shared strategies and approaches for building the homeowner and rental base of their neighborhoods. For example, Shaker Heights residents meet with landlords and new tenants regularly to orient tenants to community norms and to encourage landlords to keep their properties in top-notch condition.
  • Charles Buki, and Eric Ameigh, from CZB LLC reported on how to develop neighborhood revitalization strategies using market data and intervention costs. Drawing from their work in Buffalo and Rochester, NY, as well as Erie, PA and elsewhere, they shared tools and techniques to evaluate middle neighborhood interventions, market conditions, and opportunity costs.
  • Another group, facilitated by Paul Brophy, met to discuss possibilities for a middle neighborhood demonstration project for Northeast Ohio. The group consisted of representatives from the City of Cleveland, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, City of Akron, Cleveland State University, and others. While the discussion began to outline what such an initiative could achieve, the group committed to continue discussions surrounding a regional middle neighborhoods strategy.

In the final plenary session, participants agreed on robust follow up activities:

  1. Many attendees agreed to find a way to spend an hour a week to advance the middle neighborhoods movement.
  2. The American Assembly agreed to strengthen and expand a community of middle neighborhood practitioners who will “give and get” through a well-facilitated set of meetings, briefings, webinars, visits, and a revamped website.
  3. Attendees recommended that a communications plan be developed to attract more national attention on the importance of middle neighborhoods.
  4. The American Assembly committed to establishing a Steering Committee to guide the future of the middle neighborhoods movement.
  5. Some attendees suggested that the middle neighborhoods movement must also:
    • Connect with those working on school improvement at the local level.
    • Be clearer about the definition of middle neighborhoods.
    • Develop better financing tools for home purchase and improvement.
    • Improve training programs for middle neighborhood practitioners.

Similar to the call to action at the conclusion of the Baltimore meeting the year before, “Building Advocacy for Middle Neighborhoods” wrapped up with enthusiastic energy to continue the nascent coalition building taking place across the country.  It is with that spirit that the third working group meeting aimed at advancing middle neighborhoods is being planned for November 14-15, 2019 in Chicago.

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