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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Through Sustainability, Equity and Resilient Design

Here, Purpose Built Communities president Carol Naughton discusses how sustainability and designing for resiliency can help to end intergenerational poverty, strengthen economically diverse communities and aid in neighborhood revitalization.

The nonprofit Purpose Built Communities is working to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in the United States, by helping local leaders across the country transform struggling neighborhoods by bringing together the vital components for holistic community revitalization. Those critical elements include: high quality mixed-income housing, a neighborhood serving a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and comprehensive community wellness resources. This cross-sectoral work is led and coordinated by a single-purpose nonprofit or “community quarterback” organization. Since its founding in 2009, Purpose Built Communities has expanded to include more than 25 neighborhoods across the US.

We spoke with Carol Naughton, president and interim CEO of Purpose Built Communities, to learn more about how sustainability and designing for resiliency can help create pathways out of poverty, strengthen economically diverse communities and aid in neighborhood revitalization.

Purpose Built Communities is focused on neighborhoods. What kinds of sustainability measures do you see gaining traction at the neighborhood level?

CN: Purpose Built Communities takes a place-based approach in neighborhoods. This allows for the advantage of addressing issues where people actually live their lives. The urban attributes that we all aspire to create and nurture in our cities — walkability, access to green space, cultural vitality — are all experienced by people largely through the neighborhoods they inhabit. The quality of people’s lives is directly a consequence of the quality of the neighborhood environment within which they live. While this may seem obvious, it is surprising how many public policies are adopted at the local, state and federal levels that do not consider neighborhood impacts at all.

Many of the neighborhoods we support, our Network Members, integrate sustainability into their redevelopment efforts. For example, working with developers to pursue LEED® Neighborhood Development certification and seeking Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grants through the US Green Building Council. Residential units are built to Energy Star standards and seek Enterprise Green Communities certification. These efforts offer long-term benefit to residents in the form of lower utility bills and less costly maintenance. Residents who have grown up in unhealthy homes suffer from asthma and other health conditions at higher rates, so attention to indoor air quality in schools and homes is essential to leveling the playing field. And prioritizing sustainability also has an intangible benefit of giving neighborhoods points of distinction that help change perceptions and support the growth of neighborhood pride.

What role does resilience play in how Purpose Built Communities incorporates sustainability measures into its neighborhoods?

CN: When you think sustainability, you also think resilience. People who live in the neighborhoods in which we work are very resilient. The neighborhoods implementing the Purpose Built model are combatting deeply rooted prejudices and a history of policies that segregated these communities. Take housing, for example. Homeownership still proves to be a major factor in wealth building for average Americans.

Even though housing discrimination has been outlawed for 50 years, studies show that the US Black homeownership rate is not really any higher than when the Fair Housing Act initially passed in 1968. In fact, the racial gap between white and Black homeowners today is significant. According to the US Census Bureau, the current homeownership rate among white Americans is 75 percent, while the Black homeownership rate stands at 45 percent. In comparison, 42 percent of Black households owned their homes back in 1970 — two years after housing discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin was outlawed.

We believe that everybody deserves affordable, high-quality housing; which is why each of these neighborhoods is working with community partners to rehabilitate existing homes and construct new mixed-income housing options.

Many of the places where we work are plagued with neglected infrastructure, insufficient community resources — from a lack of community centers to limited internet access — and the results of generations of uncoordinated planning. Communities that are designed with resilience at their core — be it in the form of parks and green spaces that address more severe and more frequent flooding as our climate changes, or with flexible community spaces that can serve a variety of purposes for gathering — are essential.

Given the many other pressing challenges inherent in breaking the cycle of poverty, how important is sustainability in the Purpose Built Communities model?

CN: We’ve known for some time that neighborhood is the most reliable predictor of a child’s academic and economic future; but it’s also a stunningly accurate predictor of health outcomes — an issue that is tied to our economic security as a nation and overall quality of life.

A model that looks at the neighborhood as a whole — its housing, education and community wellness; and a community quarterback to help align the many partners involved in these efforts — can shift the tide. The interconnectedness of all these things working together to support the entire neighborhood is critically important.

This interview is being conducted in a time when the world is confronting the challenges presented by a global Coronavirus pandemic. How is the situation impacting Purpose Built Communities’ neighborhoods?

CN: The pandemic is shining a light on the importance of place-based leadership. The organizations that are part of the Purpose Built Communities network have developed deep and authentic relationships with neighbors and other community stakeholders. Many have taken on efforts to provide and coordinate essential relief services such as food distribution and income support. They are able to do this work because of the long-term commitment they have made to their communities.

Our Network Members are well-positioned to lead through this crisis because of an ongoing focus on building trust and elevating community leaders. Together, they know the strengths and vulnerabilities of their neighbors and communities. Strong relationships and mutual respect are allowing place-based leadership to respond nimbly to the specific and dynamic needs of their community.

A few of the many strong examples of how Network Members are continuing their work to end generational poverty within the context of this public health crisis, include:

Grove Park Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia

The virus and resulting shutdown created immediate, severe and often complete loss of income for 75 percent of the employed residents of Grove Park, who work in the service industry. Many residents were at imminent risk of being displaced from their homes in 30-60 days. Network Member Grove Park Foundation worked with partners to quickly seed and fund a COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which has raised $145,000 and counting to provide emergency rent and utility assistance for residents who have experienced loss of income or employment due to COVID-19.

Grove Park Foundation also saw many members of their community taking to social media with questions about the CARES Act stimulus check: Where did the money come from? Will I have to pay it back next year? I haven’t received my stimulus check, what steps do I need to take to get it? The Foundation created a new social media series led by their senior director of economic development (#TalkWithTarnace) to answer questions and alleviate the stress of confusion.

Connect Community in the Gulfton/Sharpstown Neighborhoods of Houston, Texas

When COVID-19 hit, Connect Community knew they could mobilize talented neighborhood sewists to generate income for residents while helping protect public health. Connect Community launched the Sewn Goods Collaborative with partners Houston Community College, Houston Furniture Bank and several small-batch manufacturers, nonprofits and local sewists to offer high-quality, reusable cloth masks to public health workers, employees at essential businesses and residents. This coordinated response lifted the capacity of the local sewists and improved their incomes, created thousands of cloth masks needed by health workers and neighbors, and created new social capital in the neighborhood — the kind that builds community resiliency.


This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition programTo read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw for their efforts, visit the landing page for this blog series.

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