Practical ways to engage with your community

in community stories, Housing

Community empowerment is about motivated people actively engaged in making a difference to the places they know best. Residents need to know how they can get involved, and councils need to know how to help them do so. These methods and tools should help make engagement easier.

from Practical ways to engage with your community via Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA). The IDeA supports improvement and innovation in local government, focusing on the issues that are important to councils and using tried and tested ways of working.


Neighborly Networking: Web Sites Foster Friendship

in community stories, Housing

[ takeways: listservs (what's that?) still work. blogs and facebook are good too. anonymity breeds contempt. community online <-> community on earth. but of course there's catch ]

When a small fire suddenly sparked in one wing of the high-rise, it set off the sprinkler system, which, in turn, caused damage in many units. Unlucky residents in that part of the building might not normally have had much interaction with their neighbors at that point, but the community’s Yahoo listserv came to the rescue. Almost instantly, messages of good tidings flooded the listserv as neighbors offered help — and their homes — to those in need. “It really helped create a sense of community, and it has sort of drawn us together,” says the listserv’s moderator Mike Dembski, 54, an information technology professional.

Dembski describes the online group as a no-frills way for neighbors to communicate — one in which the usefulness of the medium indubitably ebbs and flows over time. But if the fire incident taught the condo owners anything, it’s that when emergency strikes, having an online network in place is essential.

In some condo communities these days, neighbors are just as likely to rub shoulders virtually as in the hallway. Chalk it up to long workdays and increasingly mobile and plugged-in residents. Clarendon 1021 features a password-protected Web site for residents that showcases upcoming events and security alerts, an official listserv — and an unofficial Yahoo group discussion board — and a Facebook group for publicizing social gatherings. “Half of it is stuff they could answer with a quick question to the management office, but they’d rather ask their neighbors,” says LLosa, 35. “Instead of being this sole person who pops his head into the management office, [each resident is] building relationships.”

That critical mass can act as an enhancement or a detriment to condo life, depending on the topic and tone of the discussion. Like in any neighborhood, squabbles can — and will — happen. Matthew Humphrey, founder of the homeowner association management Web site HOAleader.com, says online chatter can make a condo association twist from civil to ugly as quickly as you can click the send button. “Conflict happens between neighbors, online or offline,” he says. “But everything happens faster and more publicly online.”

Dembski can vouch for that notion. In the first several months of the Rhapsody’s listserv, members remained anonymous. But before long, a couple cranky listserv trolls “took it upon themselves to lambaste people,” Dembski says. Eventually, he decided to hit refresh. Now the listserv allows only residents to join using an owner ID, a move that put a halt to the negative tone.

On the flip side, discussing a policy issue online can be a more thoughtful way to hash out the many sides to a debate. About a year ago, the condo board at Clarendon 1021 considered adding more speed bumps to the parking lot, a topic that led to much heated debate on the listserv. Opinionated online debaters eventually became formal members of a real, live committee to determine the building’s policy.

Just as listserv topics occasionally edge onto board meeting agendas, some condo owners take the initiative to use online tools to enhance their community. A few years ago, Lee Hernly, 45, a resident of Alexandria’s Carlyle Towers, transformed his post as a community affairs committee member — which involved writing a monthly article for the newsletter — into that of resident blogger. He launched Carlyle Community News (Carlylecommunity.org), a blog for residents of Carlyle Towers and the neighboring condo and apartment buildings. Readership has swelled to about 15,000 page views per month, with blog posts zooming in on hyper-local topics such as street closures, overnight flooding and new businesses.

Carlyle Towers also has a Facebook group where happy hours are planned, an effort spearheaded by resident Shelu Patel, 30, who works in project management. She set up the online group in hopes of meeting more of her neighbors from the sprawling complex. “I have friends who never had Facebook profiles but got on Facebook just because we had this page,” Patel says.

So, what’s the catch? Most online interaction includes just a self-selected subset of the condo community who have chosen to connect virtually.

“You think everyone is participating, and you get this wonderful warm feeling about the inclusiveness of it all — but often it’s an illusion,” Humphrey says. “Let’s face it: Most large condos and communities will have groups within them that will be underrepresented or underserved by a social network. Once you get lulled into believing the social network is a … full representation of the entire community, you’ve developed a blind spot.”

Read the full article: Express Night Out | Digs | Neighborly Networking: Web Sites Foster Friendship Among Condo Owners. By Katie Knorovsky. Photo by Kevin Dietsch

Residents take over mobile-home park

in community stories, Housing

After four months of living in campers, motels and rentals, residents of Mountain Springs Villas Mobile Home Park in Red Lodge may be days away from moving home.

But it won’t be the same old neighborhood. Gone are the dirt streets and ugly power lines. Homes no longer sit haphazardly on cluttered lots, their foundations resting on bare ground. And when residents pay their monthly $235 for a space, the money goes not to a landlord, but to the residents’ association to which they all belong.

“Oh, it’s beautiful compared to what it was,” said Tami Hoth, one of the residents who helped organize rebirth of the 30-unit mobile-home park. “It was kind of the forgotten part of town.”

During a flurry of construction this summer, streets were paved, curbs and gutters installed, concrete foundations poured and sewer, water and utility lines were buried. Eleven of the 26 resident families will be moving into new mobile homes, 10 of them thanks to the efforts of District 7 Human Resources and Development Council, Hoth said. Only four spaces in Mountain Springs are vacant.

And it didn’t cost the city of Red Lodge a dime, said Mayor Betsy Scanlin, who is almost as excited about the project as the residents. Grants and loans covered the approximately $3.4 million in costs with a little in-kind help from the city.

Getting the grants

NeighborWorks, a nonprofit housing program headquartered in Great Falls, and HRDC “really started us on the right track,” Hoth said.

NeighborWorks hired Flynn Consulting of Helena as grant writers. Three grants resulted, Hoth said. The first was $450,000 to help buy the property. A $15,000 grant paid for planning and a preliminary plat. A $500,000 grant covered infrastructure improvement including paving, water and sewer and underground electric and gas lines.

A private loan and a Montana Board of Housing loan helped pay for the rest, said project administrator Julie Jones, owner of Single Tree Consulting in Bridger. Residents were also able to find help through the Montana Homeownership Network and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s HOME Investment Partnership Program, she said.

The best part of the project is that residents will not have to worry again about a landlord selling the ground out from under them, Scanlin said. They will have ownership through the association.

“They are going to have equity in their property now,” the mayor said. “I’m just delighted.”

A Community Development Block Grant helped find families places to live and pay for their temporary housing, Jones said. The grant also paid for some of the construction work.

Read the full story: Residents take over mobile-home park with government help. By Lorna Thackeray