Seventy Five North is a community-based organization created to facilitate the revitalization of a healthy, sustainable, mixed-income community in the Highlander neighborhood of North Omaha, Nebraska. We are currently finishing up our first phase of development which includes 101 units of housing and a 65,000 square foot community enrichment hub. We’re also approaching the end of the second year of an innovative partnership with Howard Kennedy Elementary school and Omaha Public Schools to improve educational outcomes and access for children and families in Highlander.
I’ve been at this for about seven years now. I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs. Huge victories and more than my share of crushing setbacks. For those of you who work in community development, that rhythm is probably all too familiar. This work offers you the opportunity to learn and get better every day if you can endure the swings endemic to it. I’ve attempted to summarize some of my key learnings and insights below. As I wrote this article, I realized that the handful of things that I’m writing about now are probably different than they would have been three years ago. If I were to write something like this next year, they’d probably be different again. That’s the nature of most difficult or complex things. They are dynamic. Things change. Different insights are required.
As of now, three things stand out to me:
- The importance of right-sizing the challenge you are undertaking,
- Forcing yourself to break away from your day to day to reflect on the reason(s) you do what you do, and
- The importance of starting everything you do in the manner you would like it to finish.
Take a Manageable Bite
Neighborhoods are discrete. They are unique, complex and dynamic. Despite all of this, in community development we tend to overestimate our own geographic reach while underestimating the real impact that can be had with a deeper dive into a smaller target area. People in this field are ambitious and relentlessly optimistic. You can’t do this work well without those characteristics. It is often our Achilles heel (among a few). Many redevelopment or revitalization initiatives focus on unreasonably large areas often involving multiple neighborhoods. This is frequently exacerbated by the belief of many non-residents that communities of color and or communities experiencing significant poverty are monolithic with the same assets, issues, and possibilities. My experience is that these communities are as different from each other as they are a neighborhood in any other part of a particular city. In North Omaha for instance, our neighborhood, Highlander, is significantly different from Florence, another North Omaha community.
This approach is also a major part of what attracted us to the Purpose Built Communities model. Purpose Built Communities is an outgrowth of some incredibly transformational work done in the Eastlake neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. In short, the model works to create three things: a cradle to college educational pipeline; high quality mixed-income housing; and a network of community health, wellness, and economic development partnerships, within a well-defined and understood neighborhood. This model, and especially the focus on a defined neighborhood is a result of learning first-hand how difficult the work of neighborhood revitalization really is. We feel that concentrating the efforts of our organization and the strength of best in class partners in a deep and intentional way within Highlander gives us the best opportunity to be successful.
Make Time for Reflection
Distance from a thing seems to create a powerful energy in me. The act of consciously disconnecting and then purposefully reconnecting to the core elements of the work I am engaged in has been an effective tool for maintaining my energy levels and clarity of thought. Even knowing this, a couple of years ago I was finding it nearly impossible to tear myself away from our day to day work. To be fair, we were then, as we are now, engaged in a large, complicated development project entailing the construction of mixed-income housing and a large community enrichment building. I had just hired a fantastic number two, and together we had soon settled into a hectic, but somewhat comfortable routine of getting sh*t done.
What wasn’t happening on a regular basis was the opportunity to think broadly about new approaches we wanted to try out or what we were learning from all this box-checking. We didn’t have any time to vet that crazy idea that might have some legs, or to think about the larger picture. In short, we didn’t have any time to think, dream, or talk about the things that drew us to this work in the first place. I wasn’t creating a climate that encouraged creativity and risk taking.
About two years ago, we started a very intentional process of reengaging with the reasons we do what we do. Every other month we meet for breakfast at greasy spoon on the far north side of the city before heading to a retreat center in the Ponca Hills, ten minutes outside of Omaha. The center, which is really just a cool house in the woods run by the free-est of free spirits, sits inside a nature reserve. Sometimes we do strategic planning, sometimes we talk about office culture. I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the time is protected and valued by our team.
Start how You Want to Finish
Earlier in my career I learned the hard way that you can never ratchet expectations above the baseline you set in those critical early moments of a project or initiative. People and organizations very quickly settle into the level of performance that they deem acceptable to you. Often you aren’t even aware of the cues that people are taking to establish this baseline.
One of the non-negotiable elements of the model we subscribe to is the importance of mixed-income housing to the overall health of the neighborhood. True mixed-income housing, not a handful of affordable units sprinkled into a largely market-rate building, embeds not only a sense of dignity but also the feeling of connectedness by deliberately making no distinction (finishes, floorplans, amenities, etc.) between rental units based on the income of the occupant.
Our first phase of housing was roughly 60 percent affordable and 30 percent market rate. As we began to interview property management firms, it became clear that our values weren’t necessarily aligned with the industry’s perspective on customer service and community relations. In fairness to the local management industry, the truly mixed-income is relatively new nationally, and virtually non-existent in Omaha prior to our endeavor. That being said, I wasn’t prepared for what that inexperience (to be kind) meant for our relationship with our eventual management partner.
After we selected a firm, yet still early in the building process, our team sat gathered around a conference table discussing the ins and outs of each of the apartment buildings under construction. As we discussed the finishes for the units, our construction manager indicated that each apartment would be outfitted with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Without thinking (clearly), one of the property management people quickly said, “even the affordable units?” with considerable surprise. Instantly, I remembered the impossibility of raising the bar after you let it get set lower than you want from those early career foibles. The response, innocuous to some, was a clear signal to our team that the management firm was in the process of placing our property in the “affordable” category of their portfolio which we anticipated meaning a lesser level of service and customer care. They were pushing the bar down, consciously or unconsciously, right in front of us.
I stopped the meeting. We felt that it was critical to firmly establish the level of service we were expecting for our residents. It was tense for a moment but you could see the team assigned to our property shift their approach and buy into the larger mission of our organization. Over time we’ve seen them internalize our values as it relates to the experience we are trying to deliver to the people we are fortunate enough to serve. We continue to hold them to this higher standard but because we started in the right place with a common understanding of how we would treat residents and how we would interact with the community, the subsequent discussions are slight course corrections rather than major departures from what’s been established.