In the 1960s, Dorothy Mae Richardson fought disinvestment and biased lending policies that were undermining the neighborhood she lived in, the Central North Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Like many of her neighbors, she wanted to improve her home. But banks wouldn’t loan money to her or other African American neighbors. So, Dorothy started a resident-led block club to rebuild houses and, through their advocacy efforts, convinced 16 financial institutions to loan money to their community. They increased homeownership and preserved their neighborhood. From her kitchen table, Dorothy founded Neighborhood Housing Services of Pittsburgh.
NeighborWorks America was founded to scale up this new model of community development.
Today, NeighborWorks is a congressionally chartered, nonpartisan nonprofit that creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives, and strengthen their communities through a network of nearly 250 community-based nonprofit organizations. For more than 40 years, they’ve built the skills, supplemented the funding, and amplified the reach of grassroots community development organizations to improve access to homeownership and safe, affordable rental housing.
I recently spoke with Sarah Norman, NeighborWorks’ director of healthy homes and communities, to find out more about the organization’s work and how it is addressing health equity today.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for talking with me.
It’s my pleasure. I love talking about the important role that homes and neighborhoods play in determining health!
NeighborWorks collaborates with nearly 250 organizations in all fifty states, DC, and Puerto Rico—you have many stories to share. What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Good question. I think what I’m most proud of is that we can say today that NeighborWorks invests intentionally in community health and wellbeing. A health focus is embedded across NeighborWorks’ work—in our peer-to-peer learning, our courses, investments, and in new health evaluation tools. We’ve built new national partnerships to support local partnerships. We’ve developed new tools and resources, and our network can demonstrate the value of that work.
For example, we’re wrapping up a key findings report, which includes a focus on 15 community development organizations with evaluation results. One hundred percent of these organizations demonstrated improvements in health measures and the social determinants of health. So, we’re building the evidence base.
What does this look like on the ground?
That’s the most exciting part. There are so many examples. I’ll give you two.
In Florida, our partner Rural Neighborhoods applied healthy homes principals to its efforts to rehab affordable rental properties. This means using safer, healthier materials—including low- and no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints—to improve respiratory health. And they’ve partnered on new community gardens and recreational spaces designed to promote social connectedness and active living in affordable rental communities.
And in New Hampshire, Lakes Region Community Developers launched a multilayered strategy to prevent childhood obesity, working in partnership with the residents who live in their rental communities. To support greater access to healthy food in their rental communities, for example, the group created pop-up farmers’ markets and delivered fresh produce to people who couldn’t make it to the markets.
You have a unique lens on this work. Previously, you served as chief of the Lead, Asthma, and Healthy Housing Bureau for the Baltimore City Health Department. You also worked in Zambia and Egypt and at the federal level. I’m curious what you think is missing from the national conversation around housing stability and equity?
I think we need to be thinking more intentionally about the suburbanization of poverty. How do we support suburban communities and the people who live there? Suburbs, for the first time, have more low-income residents than either cities or rural areas. There isn’t an infrastructure in many suburbs to tackle housing challenges—whether homelessness or people who are simply struggling to pay their rent. We need to create strategies that work in diverse communities—and each community requires different approaches—while bringing residents into the decision-making processes.
I agree. Our team also believes in the power of people to reshape their communities into healthier places to live. Which reminds me of Dorothy Richardson. What a great founding story! How is NeighborWorks helping communities to address the impacts of racism on housing stability today?
Here at NeighborWorks, our Race, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Initiative is helping us bring an equity lens to both our internal and external operations.
I’d like to share just one more example of how this work touches the communities we serve. In Benton County, Oregon, Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services (Willamette NHS) is working hard to promote health, equity, and opportunity. They were part of the Healthy Communities Demonstration Project, a collaboration between NeighborWorks, County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And the involvement of Willamette NHS, an affordable housing developer, in health strategies stemmed in part from its participation in Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, which I believe your organization supported.
We did! We still reference Benton County’s many accomplishments to this day.
And from that collective effort, more great work evolved. Willamette NHS’s focus on healthy homes and community became a unifying theme that informs housing and community development efforts. Willamette NHS has partnered with the NAACP and other social justice organizations to develop educational programming that addresses implicit bias, for example. Willamette NHS is the backbone organization for a health equity alliance, which includes 39 organizations from diverse sectors. The alliance has improved the quality of rental housing by updating rental quality codes. And through a community health worker program, health and housing stability have both improved.
Overall, Willamette NHS has shifted from building houses to using housing as a platform for policy change and programming that creates opportunities for residents to lead healthier lives.
That’s impressive! Thanks for sharing that story. One last question: What tools or resources can you share for people who are interested in further exploring these topics?
We’ll be having a national symposium on health, equity, and opportunity in New Orleans on August 21 at our NeighborWorks Training Institute, which will explore this topic in much greater depth. Registration will open in early April, and we’d love you and your readers to join this conversation!
We’re also supporting several learning communities, including one on a trauma-informed approach to community building. As part of this learning community, we’re developing a guide for community development practitioners on how to consider trauma and promote healing in their organizations and communities. As soon as that’s final, we’ll share that broadly through webinars and toolkits.
Also, we recently partnered with the National League of Cities on a Mayor's Institute on Affordable Housing and Health. As a prelude to the Institute, we jointly released a publication, "Affordable Housing & Health: City Roles and Strategies for Progress," which offers insights into how cities can consider holistic approaches to addressing housing-related challenges.
Thank you for your time today, Sarah. How can people reach you if they’re interested in learning more?