SAHF members strive to generate a sense of community and belonging among the residents of their affordable housing developments. Building strong relationships among neighbors has many benefits. Social engagement contributes greatly to health, research finds. When neighbors know each other well, they feel safer. And those who are civically engaged improve not only their communities but their own well-being.
SAHF members pursue a variety of strategies to foster relationships among neighbors that improve the quality of community life. These efforts include volunteer opportunities, leadership programs to encourage tenant advocacy, recreational classes, and community safety initiatives. SAHF members also understand how critical it is to build trust with their residents and how that trust forms the foundation of resident engagement in any type of service or program. While we do not yet measure trust as a collective, it may be the most critical element to providing effective resident services coordination.
To measure the success of their community engagement efforts, SAHF members collect data on how safe residents feel in their buildings and neighborhoods and how well they know their neighbors. Over the past three years, all of these measures have improved at SAHF member properties.
Residents' Feelings of Safety
Even in distressed neighborhoods, data indicate that residents of SAHF member properties generally feel safe in their buildings and neighborhoods. The chart below shows the percentage of SAHF residents who feel safe in their building and neighborhoods with different levels of economic well-being as defined by the Distressed Community Index. Feelings of safety are generally greater within buildings than outside in the neighborhood regardless of neighborhood type, suggesting that housing providers may be contributing to a sense of safety.
Voter Registration Rates by Family Income Levels
SAHF members also collect data on whether residents are registered to vote, as a measure of their civic engagement. The percent of residents at SAHF properties who are registered to vote significantly exceeds the national rate of voter registration among eligible U.S. citizens.
79% of SAHF residents are registered to vote, compared to 64% of all voting-age U.S. residents.
Residents of SAHF member properties are also more likely to be registered to vote than other Americans in the same income brackets.
A Closer Look
NHT-Enterprise Promoted Civic Engagement
Americans are not as engaged in their communities as they used to be. According to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, over the last 25 years Americans' participation in public meetings has declined by 35 percent and participation in clubs and civic organizations has been cut by more than half.
For low-income residents of affordable housing in particular, participating in a community event or registering to vote may compete with pressing issues such as child care, traveling long distances to work multiple jobs, or even paying for prescription medicine. However, civic engagement and voting can help people feel more in control of their lives. Researchers have found that people who feel they have a voice in community decisions may feel more empowered to advocate for themselves in other areas of their lives.
Affordable housing provider National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corporation (NHT-Enterprise) has invested in various programs that aim to empower residents and help them “amplify their voice,” such as helping parents advocate for their children in school and encouraging young adults to participate in community meetings about police accountability or local schools. NHT-Enterprise’s work also includes regular Get Out the Vote efforts that educate residents about upcoming elections in an effort to encourage greater voter participation.
During each presidential election cycle since 2008, and for some mid-term and gubernatorial elections, NHT-Enterprise has partnered with nonpartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, to conduct voter registration at a number of its properties. Voter registration drives might be combined with onsite meetings with local, elected officials and may include automated phone calls and mail reminding residents to register and vote in the upcoming election. NHT-Enterprise is currently examining how to leverage social media platforms such as Facebook to encourage more voter participation.
“Encouraging our residents to vote is a way of helping them raise their voices about issues that are important to them and their community,” said Devin Tucker, National Director of Community Development Programs at NHT-Enterprise. “We can’t tell our residents how to vote. But our residents should be empowered to say, ‘This is why we need affordable housing: because we work in the hospitality trades and need better insurance or we need a living wage.”
NHT-Enterprise believes that civic engagement is about building bridges. “Our resident voices become even more important, for example, at a time of heightened tension with police. How do we get everyone to the table to at least have a conversation – that may seem like a small thing but it’s fundamentally about relationships.”
Tucker says he has some data to suggest that NHT-Enterprise efforts are paying off. “For our Florida communities, there has been a decent uptick in voter participation. We’d like to find more support to fund our efforts and to help us think through this but the preliminary evidence suggests that our approach is working.”