How do you make a community development organization’s board welcoming to residents and low-income members, and ensure that once there, they are more than window dressing?
By Miriam Axel-Lute Posted on October 2, 2014
A few years ago, Robert Dowling, executive director of Community Housing Trust in North Carolina, and his board chair were meeting with the mayor of Chapel Hill, N.C. CHT includes a land trust that provides the stewardship for the inclusionary housing units developed in Chapel Hill. The town council doesn’t consult CHT before developing the units, notes Dowling, but “they expect us to take them.”
At the time, the city was developing a lot of condominiums, and Dowling gingerly noted that his organization had some opinions about whether the city really needed more condos, even affordable ones, or if they should take a payment in lieu from the condo developers and build something else. “But we’re going to do what you want us to do,” he concluded.
His board president, a CHT homeowner, demurred. “That’s not my opinion,” she told the mayor. “The board has a say in this, and we may have to say no.”
“That was great,” Dowling recalls. “She could say that to the mayor. I couldn’t have set it up better. The board can say that. Their perspective needs to be heard, especially by elected officials when they think they know all the answers.”
Resident participation on the boards of community development and housing advocacy groups is accepted by most as a good thing. For a typically structured nonprofit (see here to read about CDCs with voting members), one of the primary ways to make sure that the community has a say in the direction of the organization is to bring community representatives right into the top of the decision-making power structure—the board.
In fact, it’s required by various entities: HUD requires organizations that want to be designated Community Housing Development Organizations to have one-third of their boards composed of residents of low-income neighborhoods, low-income residents from anywhere in their service area, or elected representatives of low-income neighborhood organizations. National NeighborWorks affiliates must have one-third of their boards be either low-income residents of the neighborhood served or professionals representing those populations (like a social worker or organizer), with a preference for residents. Community land trusts (CLTs) have a tripartite board structure where one third is always residents of land trust homes.
But community development groups don’t look at the question merely as one of jumping hoops. As Meredith Levy of Somerville Community Corporation (SCC), in Somerville, Mass., says, “if our goal is that people of all incomes and backgrounds can benefit from the changes in Somerville, and to prevent displacement, we have to have the folks who are more at risk, more affected, represented.”
But even organizations committed to having diverse community leadership on their boards sometimes struggle to make it happen, or to make it happen meaningfully.
The first challenge is committing to getting a critical mass of low-income residents involved. Tokenism is “very damaging,” says Sheila Crowley, who did her dissertation on the subject before becoming the executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), because when you have only one person from the group you are trying to empower, that person is expected to represent that group and others “assume there’s a universal quality to them.”
Tokenism is also isolating. “That person is not able to be in a meeting and have other people who understand his/her perspective and back them up,” says Crowley. “You get ignored, drowned out. You begin to feel like it doesn’t matter, and you pull back. Then the group is able to say ‘We tried it! She didn’t want to, he never came,’ without owning responsibility for making them feel like an outsider.”
Crowley says the community organizing literature suggests a minimum of two people, or 25 percent of the total, represent the group for which empowerment is sought. NLIHC, a national organization, has a 24 member board, 6 of whom have to be people who make less than 50 percent of area median income and live in a low-income community.
Levy says this idea of critical mass is one SCC has been looking at as it tries to diversify its board on many fronts. “You don’t just want one person coming in representing something—whether it’s a committee, or [a demographic group like] Latinos,” she says. “It’s very alienating. People have to feel like they have mini cohort.” For example, as SCC was moving toward addressing economic development and jobs, it brought onto the board three people from their partner organization, Jobs for Somerville, at same time.
Alan Arthur, director of Aeon, an affordable housing developer in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, cautions though, that board members shouldn’t be seen as representatives of their demographic or fellow residents. “Just because you are homeless or black doesn’t mean you represent or think [the] same as every other homeless person or every other black person,” he says.
Diversity is its own reward says Arthur: “Diversity of thought, diversity of experiences makes any team of people stronger.” Aeon’s board has a minimum three members who are residents of the properties Aeon has developed and manages, with at least one formerly homeless member, plus 60 percent have to be low-income or from low-income communities.
Lower income residents can be just as capable board members, but they might be less likely to put themselves forward. Organizations spoke of constant recruitment. CLTs often raise the idea of participation in some form with every new homeowner. Other organizations often solicited board members from their task forces, committees, boards of resident-owned co-ops they’d developed, or leadership training classes.
Staci Horwitz of City of Lakes Community Land Trust in the Twin Cities, Minn., says that her organization realized “the greatest value we had as an organization was people, not a home, not a unit. It was the people coming through our doors.” They hired a part-time outreach coordinator who did a lot of post-purchase reaching out to homeowners, answering questions and making sure they were aware of the multiple ways to get involved. “This is the ‘community’ in community land trust,” says Horwitz. “We have to think beyond bringing someone to a table and getting them to close.”
Arthur says he thinks residents frequently aren’t well represented on boards because boards are used “to connect to rich people or do staff’s work” rather than as the sort of policy-setting bodies they should be used for. Changing the understanding of the board’s role can make recruitment easier.
In any case, says Levy, echoing many of her colleagues, “Don’t just pick someone who happens to meet a demographic category. You need a leader. You want them to be confident about participating and not just occupy a chair.”
Making sure a board is accessible to a diverse range of people means thinking through every aspect of what it takes to be able to participate—board meeting times and duration, child care, language, and financial expectations of board members.
Juan Gonzalez, organizing director for Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, notes that the constituency JPNDC primarily works with is 73 percent Latino; 15 percent African-American, and 10 percent white, but Latinos are underrepresented on their board. “There are several factors,” he says. “In terms of the Latino community, most who are working age are extremely busy. They are working irregular hours, or in the evenings, crazy schedules. Many times even participating in our programs is difficult.”
Some of these challenges can’t be addressed fully, but many can, and in different ways. (See sidebar.) Different boards come up with different answers to meeting timing, for example. Some have fewer, longer meetings. Angela Johnson, board president and resident of Athens CLT, in Athens, Ga., says they have their meetings start later in the evening so “people can go home, relax a little, come in with minds that are refreshed, open.” Horwitz says they don’t have a fixed board meeting time that new members have to accommodate to: with each new board they go through a process anew of finding a time that will work the best for everyone.
Assumptions about financial expectations can be an issue with low-income board members. Daisy Franklin, a board member of the National Low Income Housing Coalition from Norwalk, Conn., recounts that she has been with people who “say they advocate for housing for the poor and they are sitting at a dinner and they don’t know you don’t have money to eat though you’re doing the work.”
“That never, never happens with the coalition,” Franklin adds, noting that NLIHC covers all the costs of its low-income members to travel to D.C. for its twice annual in-person board meetings.
On the other hand, it’s crucial not to patronize low-income board members. Aeon has 100 percent board participation in financial support for the organization and always has—some of its lowest income board members may only give a dollar, but they make that call themselves.
h6. Making It Matter
Having a critical mass and making the logistics work are necessary steps, but not sufficient to getting the full benefit of strong resident board participation. You also have to craft an environment that allows them full and equal weight.
Jennifer Christian of NeighborWorks America says that in the trainings NWA does, they often hear that “resident board members feel like tokens. They are only asked about certain things that apply to where they live, which is dangerous and hurtful. We need to be careful that we don’t call some people ‘experts’ and others ‘residents’—they are not mutually exclusive.”
This is frequently not intentional. Levy observes, “if the board becomes too focused on the budget or the housing developments it doesn’t hit people in the heart, and you do have people who are professional in those conversations getting really into it and it leaves people out.”
In the face of overconfident elected officials, says Dowling, “homeowners can sometimes be intimidated. They often start off quiet.”
Addressing or preventing this sort of imbalanced atmosphere is best done with tools that don’t single out resident members specifically: pay attention to what is being discussed and how, make sure everyone is equally up to speed on terminology and necessary skills, create strong relationships among board members, and have strongly facilitated meetings.
Conversations that get too technical may not be appropriate for the whole board, which many say is supposed to be a policy-setting body (though this is a matter of some debate). “If you use your board dysfunctionally as de facto staff people,” says Arthur, then you privilege those board members with staff-like expertise. But, “if you use it properly for strategic direction, then everyone has experience to bring to those kinds of conversations.”
Training and orientations can bring everyone up to speed on important terms or skills, though there’s a huge variety among boards in terms of training. Some find that formal training through NeighborWorks, BoardSource, or others is essential. (“You’re not born understanding how to be a board member,” says Arthur.)
Other organizations do internal subject-specific training around specific topics like reading a pro forma or understanding the local housing market. Most have orientation sessions that review the organization itself in some form.
But no matter what the training level, all the organizations agreed that developing a culture where questions can be asked and jargon is avoided is crucial, if a work in progress. You need to not speak in language that is “bankeresque and not accessible,” cautions Christian. “Otherwise you have people following the lead of someone who they think has the information and they may not. You need to put everyone on a level playing field.”
Resident board members who have climbed that learning curve can be wonderful resources for new board members of all backgrounds coming on. Levy remembers an SCC board president who had no background in finance at all when she joined the board but worked with the then–board president and CEO to learn it. When she became president, says Levy, “she really related to the people who didn’t understand and could talk about it in a clear way.”
Aeon has a rule that board members are supposed to ask questions about anything in the material they don’t understand before the meeting. This not only makes the meeting go more quickly, but it allows the executive director to take his time answering questions without wasting the time of those who know the answer.
In an effort to help everyone around the board table feel informed and equipped to participate, NeighborWorks America is in the process of developing a set of accessible one-to-two-page documents on risk assessment and financial leadership topics that are designed to be brought along to meetings by board members. Each one includes numerous questions each board member should feel comfortable asking on the topic, such as “How many months’ expenses do we have in reserves?”
Strong, inclusive facilitation can go a long way to making sure everyone has their say. At Aeon they frequently remind everyone that non experts can and should weigh in. “I have a habit of pointing out people who haven’t said anything in a while,” and inviting them to comment,” says Tanisha Rush, president of the board of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland.
Being inclusive can also involve adjusting expectations about what happens in meetings, Crowley notes: “You have to be prepared for venting. If you’re not happy with the way things are, you’re supposed to vent.”
Beyond content and process, personal relationships make a lot of difference in how functional a board is and how comfortable board members feel speaking up. But those relationships need to be intentionally cultivated.
“We tend to hang out and socialize with people who look like us,” acknowledges Christian. “So when we’re in a group with a variety of people, the folks we are drawn to are likely to be like us.”
This can affect everyone’s participation. “There are professionals afraid to offend residents and residents afraid to ask a financial question because there’s a CFO of a major corporation across the table,” says Arthur.
Christian suggests thinking about the dynamics of the boardroom down to “how are you literally sitting people next to each other?” And making sure they are not always sitting. The boards that build the best relationships set aside time for socializing, says Christian, often eating together. “That can change the culture of the board.”
Relationships can’t be forced, however. Crowley remembers one time trying to mix up who was sitting with whom with name cards, and her resident board members objected. She backed down. The key, she says, is “you have to have authentic conversations about these questions. You can’t dance around it. You have to be prepared to know that you may not get it right.”
Insisting on a culture of respect at all levels also includes making sure that there isn’t an underlying assumption that it’s particularly the low-income residents who need assistance in fulfilling their role as good board members. Horwitz recounts that one of CLCLT’s homeowner board members took great offense at a national training when someone made a blanket statement that residents are intimidated at the board level. “I may be low income and need help to buy a home, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have talent,” she said.
h6. Worth It
It takes constant attention and intention, and some resources, to maintain a board that is representative and diverse. “If you want to commit to this, it takes a deliberate and continual effort to make it work,” says Paul Mazzarella, director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. “It’s not going to work on its own.”
But the effects are concrete and specific; every organization I spoke with has multiple stories of the ways in which low-income and resident board members have shaped their organization’s trajectory.
Franklin says at the NLIHC annual conference she, as a resident board member, acts as a conduit for resident concerns, because “residents will talk to another resident more quickly.” She also recalls resident board member feedback on a video promoting the coalition’s United for Homes campaign: They had to make it clear that “housing” wasn’t just “a house” in order for the lowest income constituents, who never expected to be homeowners, to not tune out.
The NLIHC board might not have understood how important commenting on HUD language around the HUD annual plan for public housing authorities was without resident board members, says
NLIHC board member Leonard Williams. “The housing authority can ignore you all year long, but at annual plan time, HUD says you have to talk to the [residents]. It’s the only time the residents have power. If you haven’t experienced that, you don’t have the visceral feeling.”
Crowley adds that the fact that people who live in poor communities are on NLIHC’s board “greatly informs our positions on issues of mobility. The middle class white liberals who grew up to believe integration was the right thing had their beliefs challenged by people who said ‘Don’t tell me what it takes to fix my community is for me to go live by a bunch of white people.’”
CLT homeowners often push their boards to look farther down the road and consider resale, not just getting people into their first homes. Dowling uses the example of local government wanting to add restrictions to who can receive federal funds to purchase CLT homes. “Every time you add a restriction, you reduce pool of buyers,” he notes. “Our homeowners are quick to say ‘When I sell my home, I don’t want just seven people in the county eligible to buy it.’”
Horwitz notes that her homeowner board members are often more conservative about lending or other standards than other board members, but also have insight into the struggles of low-income owners: In one conversation about increased delinquency on lease fees, the lenders and finance people were proposing a stern letter, and fees. “It was very in your face and draconian,” Horwitz recalls. “The homeowners [said], ‘No, you’ve got to respect the fact that we all may miss a month.’ It was a very balanced conversation. Spirited, but balanced.”
Hearing from board members who are low income about the effects of gentrification in the neighborhood clarified for the JPNDC board that “we need to totally prioritize production of housing for low-income people,” says Gonzalez.
Aeon’s Arthur says “One of the key values of a good resident board member is a gut level understanding of what’s important for people in the community. At the appropriate point in some discussion of numbers or production or finances, they’ll come with a comment that brings us back to our vision and mission, to ‘What are we here for?’ You’d think lawyers can do that, but they can’t. They are worried about definition of risk. CFOs are worried about numbers adding up.”
The Athens CLT faced a fairly ugly NIMBY response to one of its developments, such that some of the board and staff wondered if the project was worth continuing. It was the homeowner board members, recalls executive director Heather Benham, who felt strongly that the development should move forward, and the organization stuck to its plan.
In Somerville, residents pushed for SCC to expand past housing to get involved in jobs issues. Levy recalls that a few years ago there was a movement to get the city to pass a controversial local hiring ordinance. “Some of the board members would have been more comfortable not taking it on,” she says, but the diversity of the board allowed others to make the case.
“It is hard work to really pull together a very diverse group of people to lead an organization that is dealing with complicated and risky projects and development and management of properties, which most of them have never done before,” says Christian. “But when it works, it’s a pretty impressive thing to see. When you see the collaboration, communication, camaraderie … it’s something to behold.”
Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.