Urban and Environmental Planning Class Works to Improve Services for Public Housing Residents in Charlottesville

December 09, 2009

December 9, 2009 — December 9, 2009 — Students in a University of Virginia class spent the fall semester exploring ways to improve the service delivery and programs available to Charlottesville's public housing communities, and their final report, "Changing the Game for Public Housing Residents," proposes the concept of a neighborhood-based resource center as an agent for change.

U.Va. School of Architecture research associate professor Suzanne Morse Moomaw began the semester by asking the students in her Neighborhood Planning Workshop, "What will it take to make public housing developments thriving neighborhoods? And beyond housing, what is going to make a difference moving families from public housing to self-efficiency?"

After preliminary research, the class of both fourth-year undergraduate and graduate students identified the need to map resources and services available to public housing residents.

As they proceeded with their research, the students found that public housing residents not only needed accessible services, but they needed a central place where services could be delivered and neighborhood bonds built. The students identified a placed-based resource center as a way to contribute to the vitality of public housing neighborhoods.

The students' proposal is a holistic model that incorporates a central location in or near public housing where community members can go for information, to gain access to a computer and fax machine to aid in job searches, and to consult with staff to help navigate the economic, educational and health service offerings available to them. The center also could provide meeting space for activities such as GED classes and possibly pre-school and day care, Moomaw said. "Residents would have the final say on whether this is a good idea for them and then what is most needed in this kind of center."

"It's a question not only of the best ways to deliver services but also how to combat the social and civic isolation of public housing residents," Moomaw said. '"The research shows clearly that these kinds of entities work and have proven results if they reflect the culture and voice of the community. Accessibility is particularly important because public housing developments are in several areas of the city. "

Graduate student Stuart Andreason said a resource center "helps empower people." It embodies ideas of economic improvement, education opportunities and access to health issue resources. "It's about family self-sufficiency. And it's an investment in providing a stepping stone for people," he said.

The bottom line for the class is that "it takes more than housing to make changes in people's lives," Moomaw said.

Student groups researched models of successful resource centers, mapped available services and pinpointed assets in relationship to public housing, identifying potential community partners and funding strategies and sources at the local, regional and national levels.

The students also worked with an urban design class at Charlottesville High School to help identify neighborhood assets as well as the programs that a community resource center might offer. "People who live in public housing have many gifts and talents to bring to bear to make such a center useful and supportive of the residents " she added. "The high school students were critical in helping us understand the strengths that exist among residents."

Next semester, Moomaw will lead a class that will build on the community resource center idea and work with public housing residents and other stakeholders to elicit their ideas about specific needs and to set priorities. The next phase in the process is "resident-driven," Moomaw said.

"This is what cities and communities do – support children and families in reaching their potential. It's an opportunity for Charlottesville to show that our many service providers can work together to build a pathway to self-sufficiency," she said.

The class provided the planning students with a capstone project that was a "real-time project that is happening in our community. It's an opportunity to work with real people on real issues," Moomaw said.

Fourth-year student Joanna Tu said, "It put into practice all the theory that we have learned. Sometimes academics can be a vacuum, but working with community partners, we are giving back."

Planning and economics major Rajika Goel appreciated learning about the impact of design and organization on people and the importance of involving the community in decision-making.

On Dec. 10, the class presented a more detailed report of its findings to the redevelopment committee. If residents feel that this is a concept that would work, the next phase with a spring class will be to engage the resident community in conversations about the programs and services that a center might offer.

Amy Kilroy, director of redevelopment for Charlottesville, said, "We are a community rich in service providers. There is a real need to improve accessibility of services." She praised the student effort for bringing new perspectives on how to revitalize public housing." We are excited to build partnerships as we embark on the early phases of this work."

Andreason said the experience has numerous benefits that go beyond community outreach. For the undergraduate students, it provides a first-hand work experience in redevelopment and civic change and an opportunity to rethink what partnership and civic engagement means to them.

The class research and community resource center proposal – as well as a digital study of urban renewal of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood and its long-term impact, created by seminar students led by history professor Scot French and visualization specialist Bill Ferster – are included in an exhibit, "Neighborhood ReGeneration," on view through Jan. 29 at the Charlottesville Community Design Center on the Downtown Mall.

The architecture students' portion of the exhibit will then be exhibited in U.Va.'s Campbell Hall through May. The Vinegar Hill study also is available online at www.vinegarhillproject.org and at www.viseyes.org.

— By Jane Ford