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Reimagining Public Housing: Transformative Ideas from the Housing Authority

Policy and Advocacy
Reimagining Public Housing: Transformative Ideas from the Housing Authority

Breaking Down Silos and Building Trust

When I first started working at the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA), I was struck by the immense challenges facing our public housing communities. Decades of neglect, disinvestment, and broken promises had eroded trust between residents and the local government. The neighborhoods were grappling with issues like high crime rates, lack of access to essential services, and crumbling infrastructure.

However, something remarkable happened when the AMHA partnered with the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. By focusing on breaking down silos and building trust within three specific neighborhoods, we were able to spark a transformative change that went far beyond just physical improvements to public spaces.

As the Akron Civic Commons team explained, their unique approach emphasizes “system-wide changes like managing public spaces as a portfolio and assessing investments for how well they achieve positive social outcomes.” This shift in mindset allowed us to see the interconnectedness of different aspects of community development and work collaboratively to address them.

Embracing a Neighborhood-Centric Approach

One of the key changes we made was to restructure the AMHA itself. In 2018, the City of Akron created the Office of Integrated Development (OID), which merged previously siloed divisions like Planning, Economic Development, and Recreation. This new agency placed equity and public life at the core of its strategic framework, committing to co-creation with residents and local businesses.

As Christina Hodgkinson, a member of the AMHA team, explained, “What Akron Civic Commons has done is allowed us and challenged us to go deeper to be more intentional in not only listening to our residents but bringing their ideas to life.”

This neighborhood-centric approach was further exemplified when the AMHA was awarded a HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning grant in 2020. Instead of focusing solely on its housing properties, the authority partnered with residents to develop a shared vision that encompassed the entire public realm of the Summit Lake community, as well as the programs and services needed to support the well-being and quality of life of its residents.

Investing in High-Quality, Equitable Public Spaces

With this newfound collaborative spirit and systems-level thinking, the AMHA and its partners were able to secure significant investments in transforming public spaces throughout Akron. For instance, the Summit Metro Parks committed to revitalizing a former pump house on the banks of Summit Lake, turning it into the Summit Lake Nature Center.

Additionally, the City of Akron allocated $10 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to the transformation of Summit Lake Park and downtown’s Lock 3 Park, more than doubling its capital budget for parks and recreation projects in 2021.

These investments are a far cry from the neglect and disinvestment that had characterized these neighborhoods for so long. By prioritizing high-quality, equitable public spaces, the AMHA and its partners are not only beautifying the physical landscape but also creating opportunities for community engagement, economic development, and civic pride.

Championing Inclusive Staffing and Programming

The AMHA’s transformative approach has also inspired changes in the neighboring city of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) department has embraced a new staffing model called “Realigning as We Rebuild,” which shifts away from assigning staff to specific recreation centers and instead assigns them to neighborhoods.

This community-service-area model allows for more diverse, inclusive, and relevant programming, addressing the needs of underserved communities that had previously been overlooked. As Kathryn Ott Lovell, the PPR commissioner, noted, “This historic shift emphasizes equity and access.”

By prioritizing data-driven decision-making and community engagement, the PPR is able to identify and address the unique needs of each neighborhood, ensuring that all residents have access to high-quality recreational and programming opportunities.

Tapping into Diverse Funding Sources

The AMHA’s transformation has also inspired the City of Akron to think more creatively about funding sources for its public space projects. In addition to the federal COVID-19 recovery funds, the city has also secured funding from the state, federal, and philanthropic sources to support initiatives like the Park at Penns Landing in Philadelphia and the Chinatown Stitch project.

This diversification of funding sources is a critical component of the AMHA’s approach, as it allows the authority to leverage multiple streams of support to achieve its goals. By tapping into a range of funding opportunities, the AMHA can ensure that its transformative ideas for public housing are not only visionary but also financially sustainable.

The Power of Collaboration and Civic Engagement

At the heart of the AMHA’s success is its commitment to collaboration and civic engagement. By breaking down silos, building trust with residents, and embracing a neighborhood-centric approach, the authority has been able to catalyze a ripple effect of positive change that extends far beyond its own boundaries.

As the team at Reimagining the Civic Commons has highlighted, the AMHA’s transformative ideas have the power to inspire and inform the work of other public housing authorities and community organizations across the country.

At HACC Housing, we are deeply inspired by the AMHA’s example and are committed to exploring similar collaborative, community-driven approaches to reimagining public housing. By embracing the lessons learned in Akron and Philadelphia, we believe we can unlock the true potential of these vital community assets and create a more equitable, resilient, and vibrant future for all.

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