Intentional Neighboring

10 min read

Generations of Hope provides new purpose

Bright-colored images stenciled on walls await as you enter the Genesis community, a new affordable housing development in Washington, DC. These images exemplify what residents of the 27 affordable housing units define as community. Butterflies, birds, leaves, trees, stars and flowers—chosen to represent values like safety, trust, openness and togetherness— are interspersed with smiling images of the residents themselves.

Something different is going on here, and it’s called “intentional neighboring.”

“Intentional neighboring is a straightforward concept,” says, Mark Dunham, External Affairs Counsel for Generations of Hope a Champaign, Illinois and Washington, DC-based nonprofit that promotes this hybrid housing and services model. “It uses housing as a platform to bring service-minded seniors together with families in need of social support. Residents commit to being good neighbors and to providing reciprocal support that helps build relationships and a sense of community. It’s a classic ‘win-win’— a supportive housing environment for youth and families and an ideal setting for seniors to age in place. The capacity of community members of all generations to care for one another is expanded and tapped.”

Social science and public health literature increasingly document that such social connectedness is associated with improved physical and mental well-being.

Genesis was developed by Mi Casa, Inc., a DC-based affordable housing developer, partnering with DC’s Child and Family Services Agency, Office on Aging, Department of Housing and Community Development, and other agencies. Generations of Hope was engaged by the Child and Family Services Agency to lead planning for the initiative, which focuses on serving young mothers transitioning out of foster care and their children.

“We were intrigued by the intentional neighboring model after reading about Generations of Hope because we have observed over many years of experience the immense capacity for residents of buildings to come together around a common purpose and create cooperative and supportive networks,” says Elin Zurbrigg, Deputy Director of Mi Casa.

Shared Nurturing
”Intentional neighboring was pioneered in a community in Rantoul, Illinois called Hope Meadows, which was developed specifically to support the adoption of large sibling groups of youth from foster care into permanent, loving homes,” explains Dunham. “It began in 1994 with a simple idea: to enfold vulnerable children who had become trapped in the foster care system into nurturing families and neighborhoods. In Hope Meadows, older adult residents provide support to vulnerable children and their adoptive families who, in turn, promote the well-being of the elders as they age.” Generations of Hope was established in 2006 with initial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to further develop the model and expand its adaptation.

Such projects are not for everybody. Mi Casa reports, for example, that in Genesis, original design plans were revised to include meeting space for community dinners, after-school tutoring and other group activities. Seniors reside in 15 units, with eight set aside for young families leaving foster care, and four for other families. All residents commit to service to the community and each other (100 hours of service each quarter for seniors; 50 hours for non-senior adults). This time can be spent helping a neighbor with a task or errand, participating in community events, or doing other things to benefit the community.

Dunham adds: “Our premise is that everyone, no matter what their vulnerabilities or age, has the capacity to give back. Professional social services are utilized when necessary, but the focus is on leveraging community capacity and collective problem-solving. And by doing so, the need for professional services is mitigated.”

Protecting Vulnerable Communities
Inspired by Generations of Hope, roughly similar intergenerational communities exist in several other states. Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon is an affordable housing complex that includes nine four-bedroom houses for families who provide permanent homes for at least three foster children. The houses are integrated with 27 one-and two-bedroom apartment units for people age 55 or older who meet income requirements for housing financed with Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs). These seniors act as surrogate grandparents and mentors to the children and families who live there. All share a community building, library and computer room, and a large courtyard, also designed for intergenerational interaction. Bridge Meadows is now embarking on plans for their second community, also LIHTC-financed, in nearby Beaverton, Oregon.

Likewise, the 60-apartment Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow in Easthampton, Massachusetts, developed in partnership with Beacon Communities LLC, seeks to keep foster children from being bounced from home to home by offering a supportive community for senior citizens and families adopting children from the foster care system.

As interest has grown in adapting this model to support other vulnerable populations, Generations of Hope has been working with community-led initiatives that are applying it to other social purposes. For example, Bastion, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, will break ground in March 2016 for an intentional neighboring community that supports military veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and their families. “Many veterans with multiple traumatic injuries,” says Dylan Tete, a combat veteran and executive director of Bastion,“require assistance for life–whether it be total care or a supportive environment for semi-independent living. All too frequently, when a veteran with a life-altering injury, like TBI, departs post-acute care and begins transitioning into the community, it is not equipped to ensure success as a healthy, participating member. What these veterans need most are everyday, personal relationships with other engaging adults.”

According to Generations of Hope, organizations and municipalities in about a dozen other states are exploring a focus on adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, parents leaving incarceration, and other population groups who could benefit from—and contribute to—communities based on the model.

Communal Spaces
While exact numbers do not exist, such projects clearly lose rent income when space is allocated for communal purposes; Genesis, for example, had to reduce the number of bedrooms in several of its apartments to assemble the communal space necessary for the community to thrive. This reduces rental income, not by a huge amount, but by enough that can make a difference to the developers and managers of affordable housing.

Is there a countervailing advantage such as a more stable, committed tenant population? It is too soon to tell, but experience-to-date does show that additional finances and other resources—including those that subsidize rent payments—can be available. In Washington, D.C., for example, DC Housing Authority is providing federally-funded project-based vouchers to ensure long-term, affordable rent based on income for residents. DC’s Child and Family Services Agency and Office on Aging are also providing initial support for Genesis operational costs, including two on-site staff who will work with residents to facilitate community capacity and integrate professionally-provided supports and services as needed.

The Cost of Community
Intentional neighboring projects face the same basic challenge confronting the entire affordable housing sector: Increasing demand and decreasing public resources. Unclear, because the instances and the data are still too limited, is whether the financing of these projects is able to draw upon a wider variety of sources. For Bridge Meadows in Oregon, LIHTCs were used for the senior units in the community; private philanthropy covered the costs of the family units. Development costs for both the elder and the family portions, which were separately financed with both public and private funds, totaled approximately $11.4 million. The elders’ portion of the development, which cost approximately $9 million, was financed with equity from the sale of LIHTCs provided by the National Equity Fund’s Portland office, as well as funding from the federal Tax Credit Assistance Program and Oregon’s Low Income Weatherization Assistance program and Housing Development Grant Program. More than 24 foundations provided financing for the family portion of the development, which cost roughly $2.4 million. Both phases received funding from the city’s development commission and housing bureau: the elder portion received a cash-flow-dependent loan and the family portion was provided with an equity gap loan that does not need to be repaid unless the project’s mission changes. The city leased the two-acre parcel on which Bridge Meadows is located to the nonprofit for one dollar per year. The value of this land lease is estimated to be approximately $670,000. In addition, the city waived $216,000 in system development charges.

Likewise, The Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow in Massachusetts project was financed with $7.7 million in LIHTC equity, $3.3 million in state LIHTC equity, $1.7 million in MassHousing Priority Development funds, $1 million in Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust funds, $750,000 from the state Housing Innovation Fund, a $737,000 Mass Housing first mortgage, and $715,000 in state-allocated HOME funds.

And, phase one for the Bastion project in New Orleans was made possible by a 4% LIHTC award that will generate $3 million in equity through Richman Housing Capital (NYC); a $2 million loan from Capital One; $1.5 million from the State of Louisiana via HUD HOME funds; $800,000 from the City of New Orleans via HUD HOME funds; private grants and donations worth $525,000; and developer equity from the housing partner, Renaissance Property Group. Phase 2 will be financed by a 9% LIHTC award that will generate $2.6 million in equity through Richman Housing Capital (NYC); a $3.9 million loan from Capital One; and developer equity from Renaissance.

Desirable from the perspective of such projects, of course, would be for state QAPS (qualified allocation plans) to favor them in allocation of LIHTCs and other resources—a justification for such prioritization would be that intentional neighboring communities advance the common good while saving taxpayers significant amounts of money through decreased social services and similar expenditures. “That’s a conversation we look forward to having,” says Dunham. “But for the moment, what’s most important is that developers are experiencing increasing success working with state housing agencies to secure competitive support for projects based on our model.”

According to Dunham, Generations of Hope is also working to identify new strategies to capitalize communities based on the model. “We’re co-convening a working group in March in Washington, DC, that will look at what’s worked in the past and begin to explore the new financing tools and resources needed to respond to growing demand and interest in intentional neighboring,” he said.

Evaluating impact and outcomes is another priority for the organization as it works to promote this strategy. Genesis, as the newest community based on the concept, is currently developing a comprehensive evaluation strategy that will apply new thinking to the question of how to demonstrate the efficacy of this model. Its strategy will likely address concrete objectives, such as housing security and avoiding further involvement with the foster care system —a big issue for transitioning families who frequently find themselves reconnected to the very system from which they came. It will also likely look at less tangible aspects of well-being, such as sense of safety and security and ability to develop lasting, permanent relationships with other stable adults. Quantifying those less concrete elements is challenging for a program, like Genesis, which is not a typical social service delivery program per se but more of an organic way of living. And ultimately, there’s potential to see decreased public costs as a result of reduced social isolation and increased purpose, reciprocal caring, and other effects of intentional neighboring.

At Hope Meadows, the first community at which intentional neighboring was pioneered, and where the target population was adopted foster youth, the high school graduation rate of the adopted foster children is 100%,” says Dunham. “This represents a huge improvement over the average high school graduation rate for foster youth. And by facilitating adoption of these youths into permanent homes, their risk of homelessness, incarceration and a number of other serious – and very costly – societal problems has been significantly decreased. Seniors at Hope Meadows have also self-reported less social isolation and more connectedness and improvement in their general well-being.”

In the meantime, there is a far more immediate and simple way to measure success. “We are definitely interested in trying this model again,” says Elin Zurbrigg of the developer Mi Casa, “and believe it can be adapted well to provide benefit to many different kinds of buildings and communities.”