Community First: Key lessons for housing development and revitalization

From focus groups to surveys, to internet analytics and trend research, companies worldwide spend billions on engaging with customers to understand exactly what they want. They don’t want to design a product that their target market wouldn’t – or couldn’t – buy. Neither should designers of homebuyer and homeowner programs.  

Too often, though, programs zero in on housing development goals without explicitly integrating the needs of the community. Failing to connect with the community these programs seek to serve – the customers – can result in completed projects sitting empty for longer than anticipated or a failure to use resources impactfully. 

Community First, a HUD-sponsored guidebook created by Minnesota Housing Partnership with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps you avoid those pitfalls by outlining key considerations in homebuyer / homeowner program design including: 

  • understanding your homebuyer market (your customers); 
  • identifying and addressing existing barriers to homeownership within your target market; and 
  • establishing appropriate programmatic approaches to attract and support buyers to invest in properties in targeted neighborhoods. 

To create this resource, Minnesota Housing Partnership and Econometrica reviewed more than 300 homebuyer / homeowner programs across the United States. In addition to outlining general principles and best practices, the guidebook includes standout program examples that showcase innovative ideas organizations can apply as they look for creative approaches to put community first. 

The key takeaway: Successful programs center community needs from the start.

Access the Community First guidebook and download the one-pager.

Here are the top four lessons from Community First: 

1) Understand your target market. 

Getting a handle on the housing market in a community or target area is central to creating a successful program and creating effective marketing strategies to get the word out about your work. Gather broad demographic data, information on existing programs, and homeownership gaps and barriers through a housing study, and determine whether you’re working in a low-cost or high-cost market. 

Once you have a broad picture of your target market, consider targeting specific audiences. First, engage with existing residents to craft solutions that serve both present and potential residents. Existing residents should play a central role in creating new programs, and they should be the first to learn of new opportunities and resources. Other potential target audiences include cultural communities, seniors and those with disabilities, and the local workforce.

2) Gather community input. 

Community input is more than a task on a checklist; it’s the cornerstone of successful community development. Without meaningful insight from current and potential residents, it is impossible to supply the type of projects and programs the community demands. Too often, program designers seek community input with a program already in mind. Successful organizations begin with the insights of the community, establishing an understanding of community history, resources, and building trust and accountability. 

Generate community input by partnering with trusted community groups; going to the places where the community lives, works, or worships; hiring a community organizer to maintain relationships with community members; providing translations and understanding that some communities are better engaged face-to-face rather than through written notices; convening focus groups; sending email blasts; and utilizing social media. 

You’ll need to genuinely engage with perceptions that housing systems aren’t inclusive or responsive; and that residents have historically been excluded from decision making and program design. Ensure that you understand the community’s long- and short-term goals, lessons learned from past programs, and potential resources and partners.  Gathering community input is essential not only for creating successful programs – it’s key to ensuring healthy long-term relationships in the neighborhoods in which you work.

3) Leverage resources to amplify program impact.  

Whenever possible, use the dollars you’ve got to attract additional resources. In addition, ask yourself the following questions to make sure your program has the greatest impact: 

— Which program types are most cost-effective given the housing market conditions? Prioritize these based on community needs and the resources available to address them. 

— Which neighborhoods are the best fit for the available resources among identified target areas? Consider neighborhoods that could best benefit from a focused approach, and neighborhoods where the scale of housing needs can be addressed with CPD funds plus other available resources. 

— Which demographic group will be served by the project – and what outreach is necessary to engage that group? 

Community partners – not just funding partners – are resources, too. Forge program and project level partnerships to share knowledge and resources and spark innovation. 

4) Design your program, tailored to your target audience. 

Community First spotlights trailblazing programs nationwide, responsive and effective in meeting the needs of their target audiences. From preventing displacement, attracting employees, and providing specialized services for seniors and disabled populations, to building wealth among low-income households and conducting cultural outreach, these standout examples provide replicable models from which you can begin to innovate. 

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