Community Impact Series - Neighborhood Housing Services

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Neighborhood Housing Services,
Sept. 28, 2010

You'd expect an organization called Neighborhood Housing Services to focus on housing, and since forming in 1976 this group has indeed prepared many New Orleanians to become homeowners through financial counseling, credit repair and other familiar services.

But in much the same way that a house represents more than simply shelter, Neighborhood Housing Services is about much more than homebuyers' assistance.

"We've always taken the approach that it's not just about the houses, it's not just about the construction, the bricks and mortar," explains NHS resource development director Erin McQuade. "It's about the people. Because you can have a really fantastic house, and everything you want, the white picket fence and all that, and if it's in the middle of a decimated neighborhood, what do you have? How much is it worth? So what we try to do is not only build the properties, not only give people the skills and tools they need in order to own and maintain those properties, but connect with their neighbors and create what they want to see in their neighborhood."

That's why Neighborhood Housing Services has adopted a far-ranging model for community revitalization, one that transforms blighted property and empowers individuals to make a difference in their neighborhoods. The group is now working with the New Orleans city government to prepare new owners for abandoned properties in targeted areas, and it has developed a plan to ensure people currently renting in these neighborhoods have the opportunity to purchase them.

Neighborhood Housing Services offers construction management to get these once-blighted homes back in shape, while to foster cohesion and encourage engagement in its target areas the group develops community centers, with four now open in the Freret neighborhood and the Seventh Ward and on the Northshore in Mandeville and Bogalusa. Neighbors determine what services each center should offer, and today these range from afterschool homework assistance and computer literacy to yoga classes, book clubs and social luncheons for seniors.

"It's a really intentional way of building community, and it all comes down to giving people really good choices and really good options that they can avail themselves of," says McQuade.

Recently, that approach has led Neighborhood Housing Services into New Orleans public schools. The group has championed an alternative form of discipline and conflict resolution called restorative justice which is now in use at Uptown's Walter L. Cohen High School and at Langston Hughes Elementary in Gentilly. Through restorative justice, when an incident occurs at school all of the people impacted by it gather and speak up about how it affected them. Then a reparations covenant is agreed upon by all involved to restore or repair the transgression. McQuade says the program draws on the power of community, and has the upshot of keeping kids who might otherwise be suspended for discipline problems in school and on track.

"Because it's a reparation that's decided upon by the people who mean a lot to that kid, including parents and teachers and friends, there's a really high rate of that covenant being honored. And we follow up and make sure it's been honored," she says. "You know it goes back to our principle of empowerment and giving people the tools to sort of solve their own problems, and it's not us saying you must,' and it's not the principal saying you must.' It's the community saying this was wrong, and here's what you're going to do to repair it."