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Redefining “place” – connecting residents to local businesses strengthens neighborhoods

December 17, 2019

As newcomers to Cincinnati last year, POAH Communities faced a unique challenge when planning to introduce a community impact program whose goal is to connect residents to services so they can be successful in all aspects of their lives. Because our newly-acquired 1,000+ rental apartments are spread across 140 buildings in 6 neighborhoods, we had few central gathering spaces for resident meetings and workshops. And because the portfolio is scattered throughout neighborhoods, it also meant there was little cohesion among residents who rarely have the opportunity to come together to socialize or participate in social services in a way that builds community.

But our asset-based, community-building strategy built on the 4 Ps - People, Places, Process and Partnership- led us to look around at what was already in the neighborhood that could serve as a resource. 

This was especially important in a neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine that has experienced tremendous change over the past decade. Past experience in neighborhood transformation efforts has taught us the importance of community identity, resident ownership and stakeholder engagement across all aspects of our work. In Over-the-Rhine, POAH Communities is committed to ensuring that residents feel that they have ownership of where they live not only by residing in one of our affordable apartments, but also through connections to the institutions and establishments on the block in which they live.

People:This “asset-based” strategy is based on the wisdom that residents are experts in their own lives and in the experience and story of the neighborhood in which they reside. Through an intentional community engagement effort, led by a partnership with Design Impact, we put listening to residents at the center of what we do. We started by recruiting “Community Mavens” who are resident leaders and bridge builders, building stronger connections between POAH Communities and residents and connecting residents to one another.

Process: With the Community Mavens, we set out to learn how we can better support the stability and economic mobility of residents in POAH properties. Through “empathetic interviewing,” Community Mavens initiated neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and helped us interpret resident feedback to inform the next level of outreach efforts and actions.

Through this process we heard three important themes:

  • Be present.  We learned that residents wanted POAH Communities to be more visible as a property management company, particularly in the midst of organizational and neighborhood change. We learned that we needed to find more ways to engage informally and show residents that we are visible, reliable and consistent.
  • Be aware of the unexpected. We learned that residents are frequently overwhelmed by the unexpected – a sudden illness, pay loss or family emergency – which can disrupt their sense of balance and make it hard to remain stable in their housing. We asked ourselves, how can POAH create opportunities to help buffer the shock of the unexpected?
  • See my skills and gifts. We learned about the many roles that residents play in their communities, particularly as caregivers. We recognize that residents want to be seen beyond their value to pay rent, but by the contributions that they are already making in their community. We asked ourselves, how can we widen the lens through which we see residents’ gifts and talents?

Place: And so, our talented team hit the streets. They walked through parks, talked with neighbors and visited local businesses. They quickly found that local business owners wanted to be stakeholders and community partners, not just vendors. They also learned that, when given the invitation, residents are eager to build relationships with their neighbors and engage in the assets that already exist in the neighborhood. So we developed community building activities within the community – like Family Game Night at The Play Library or storytelling for families at the Smith & Hannon Book Store. And participants and shop owners alike see the value in these neighborhood-based gatherings – families feel connected to local businesses, strengthening the bonds between sectors that make for a healthy, thriving community.

Working with POAH Communities for the Storytelling events is a great opportunity to network and get to know the people in your community. It’s a success because the children enjoy it. I would love for more people to come. POAH Communities is the only organization that has reached out to me to do something like this. 

Joyce C. Smith, Owner, Smith & Hannon Book Store

 

Partnership: As we continue to listen and learn, we continue to develop partnerships with like-minded organizations with local expertise, deep relationships and valuable resources that can help meet the needs and interests defined by residents through the Design Impact process. For example, we are partnering with Cincinnati Works to develop a Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program, which will enable POAH Communities residents to build income and savings through individualized financial coaching and career supports. Evidence shows that just a small amount of savings is critical in helping families with low and moderate income buffer a financial shock, such as a loss in income, sudden illness or other emergency. We may not be able to eliminate the unexpected, but through the FSS program, we plan to help more residents develop a financial cushion to help reduce the impact. 

While we’re excited to be experiencing positive momentum, we’re also learning some important lessons along the way. Asset-based community building requires patience and perseverance. We have had plenty of well-designed events with little to no turnout. But we can’t give up. Community building requires consistency, so we plan to stay consistent in the months and years ahead. We’re also learning about the importance of dynamic leadership – of making room for new Community Mavens, creating space for residents to step up, or step back, when needed. We’re looking forward to continuing to learn in the months ahead.