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Spotlight: A Conversation with Audra Hamernik, President and CEO of Nevada HAND

At the beginning of 2020, the leadership of Nevada HAND would have told you that the organization was thriving. As the largest affordable housing provider in Nevada, HAND had few vacancies in its nearly 5,000-unit portfolio and had several hundred more under construction. When the pandemic arrived in the state in late February, its leaders knew that staff would need to respond quickly and flexibly to keep that momentum going. However, given the unprecedented nature of the challenges the pandemic posed, it wasn’t immediately clear what the best path forward was on issues like unpaid rent or vaccine hesitancy among staff.

To quickly arrive at internal best practices on these issues, Nevada HAND did something unusual: they organized competitions between staff members to accomplish important goals, with the only rule being that winners had to share what they did to achieve them. Through these competitions, the organization was able to arrive at a playbook to respond to the pandemic far more quickly and organically than it would have otherwise been able to.

The National Housing Conference spoke with Nevada HAND President and CEO Audra Hamernik about how the organization fostered staff and resident team spirit to respond to challenges posed by the pandemic and lessons learned from their efforts.

What organizational changes did Nevada HAND make to foster friendly staff competition during the pandemic?

At the start of the pandemic, Nevada HAND was deemed an essential business by the State of Nevada. One of the first decisions Nevada HAND made was to allow employees to work from home if the function of their job allowed for it. For the site teams who were on the ground at each of our 34 properties, the theme was “shifting priorities.” Employees at the site levels are divided between resident services staff and property management staff. The pandemic provided the opportunity for us to make a change that we had long planned: to de-silo staff at each of our sites and re-organize them into site teams. This change allowed our organizational structure to reflect the fact that staff at each site worked far more with one another than they did with anyone outside the site. It also allowed us to better leverage the team spirit of staff at each site as the pandemic progressed, and we began to use competitions to respond to the challenges we encountered.

What did you focus on for the first competition between site teams Nevada HAND declared?

The first of these competitions were organized around rent collection. Before the pandemic, we never had a problem with widespread rent non-payments, and so staff was at a loss on how to respond when families in unit after unit informed us that they couldn’t pay rent during the first few months of the pandemic. We decided that the best way to find and promote internal best practices in response to this was to encourage innovation through competition, and so we incentivized site teams to get as close to full collection as possible. The only rule was that the teams that were doing the best had to share their strategies so that other teams could replicate their efforts at their sites.

Site teams were incredibly creative in response to this competition. Each team created a scoreboard to show how much rent they collected that month. These ranged from gumball machines staff would fill with candy as they collected more rent to maps of the Las Vegas Strip, with each casino representing a certain percentage of rent that had been collected. The site team at our Flamingo Pines apartment complex even created a racetrack for their scoreboard, with racecars with flamingo drivers representing the complex’s buildings and advancing along the track as more rent was collected from that building. Though the most important aspect of the competition was its effect on rent collections, this sort of creativity was crucial for team building at a time when employees were seeing very little of each other in person.

What were the results of the rent collection competition?

This competition helped us develop internal best practices for rent collection quite quickly without imposing late fees or initiating evictions against residents. Much of the work involved staff reaching out to residents to emphasize that they were willing to work with them if they were experiencing financial trouble and assisting them in applying for rental assistance if residents were interested. This sort of outreach resulted in helping residents secure over $600,000 in emergency rental assistance, which proved crucial to ensuring that residents could remain in our buildings through the pandemic. In senior buildings, resident services staff went so far as to go door-to-door to ensure residents that they were not going to be evicted and their relationship with the organization remained healthy and non-adversarial.

The strategies and tactics that we developed for our rent collection practices, included new rent repayment policies, updated communication resources such as compassionate talking points for staff when talking with residents, payment plans, promise-to-pay arrangements, and application assistance with rental assistance programs. We also waived late fees for all households from April 1 to April 30 of last year, saving our residents over $300,000 and demonstrating our solidarity with them during such a difficult period.

This competition also greatly increased our knowledge of residents’ conditions during the pandemic. We found, for example, that a major hindrance to rent collection in our senior living facilities was residents’ fear of leaving their units; many seniors were so terrified by the virus that they hadn’t gone outside of their apartments in weeks. That discovery also helped leadership realize that there were serious nutritional needs among residents and this led to the creation of a meal distribution program over the summer that delivered nearly 80 tons of food for two months to help feed more than 2,000 seniors at 18 affordable housing communities.

In addition to promoting the internal proliferation of best practices and helping increase our knowledge about residents, these competitions had the added benefit of boosting staff morale at a time when many employees were beginning to feel burnt out. Working during a pandemic is hard, not only logistically but emotionally, and it was extremely helpful for our employees to have a fun way to connect with each other while helping the organization and working with residents.

How else did Nevada HAND make use of competitions during the pandemic?

Given how effective the rent collection competition had been, we made use of the same concept when we confronted another challenge later on in the pandemic: getting staff who worked in our two senior living buildings vaccinated against COVID-19.

Though staff sometimes had to navigate a confusing web of power-of-attorney arrangements and preexisting conditions, it proved relatively easy to get upwards of 95% of senior living residents vaccinated. What we didn’t anticipate was the difficulty we would have getting staff to take on-site vaccine doses, which was a problem because our senior living facilities wouldn’t be able to fully reopen until staff vaccination coverage was at least 70%, based on guidance from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Resources. Staff hesitancy stemmed from the same concerns that many people across the country have, and it was clear that both education and encouragement would be necessary to increase staff vaccination rates.

Given this hesitancy, we decided to implement another competition to increase vaccine take-up, this one between the staff at the two senior living facilities. Management told staff that the first facility to get to over 70% staff vaccine coverage could have a celebration banquet with residents. Residents were informed of the competition, and we enlisted their help in encouraging staff to get vaccinated. In this case, the competition was intended less to arrive at internal best practices and more to harness the competitive spirit to achieve a goal.

What practices did Nevada HAND arrive at for increasing vaccine take-up?

Leadership at both senior living sites deployed a wide range of tactics to make hesitant staff more comfortable. Some staff wanted their questions answered by an unbiased person outside of the organization, and so we held conference calls in English and Spanish with medical professionals for staff to voice their concerns. Other staff sought increased support from within the organization, and residents and managers got involved in encouraging staff to get vaccinated and emphasized how reopening facilities would make life at work better. Some staff members even asked that our vice president of assisted living, who is a certified nurse, personally give them the vaccine. We also provided a monetary incentive to staff members in the form of a $100 gift card. This competition was just as successful as the first one, and though vaccine coverage among staff is not quite at levels that indicate herd immunity, it has increased dramatically since the competition’s inception.

What broader lessons from the competitions did Nevada HAND draw from to address problems posed by the pandemic?

Both competitions helped us find better strategies for disaster preparedness. Before the pandemic, we had plans in place to continue to serve residents in instances of disasters, from floods to fires and chemical spills to threats of violence. However, since we never needed to implement any of those plans, it was unclear whether they would be effective or not. The pandemic proved to be an opportunity for the organization to test many of the emergency preparedness measures it had established in the context of a competition and further incentivize staff to help develop optimal methods of response. This extra incentive helped us arrive at emergency preparedness practices that were not obvious before the pandemic, such as keeping shopping carts at each of its buildings to facilitate more efficient food and supply distribution.

The competitions had the effect of greatly increasing our estimation of its resident services staff. Since much of their work had to do with the so-called “soft” services of organizing community events and fostering relationships with residents, it was not always obvious how these team members helped fulfill the organization’s mission. However, when it became necessary to work with residents to get their rent paid or convince senior residents that they needed to get vaccinated, resident services staff members were some of the most effective team members for the simple reason that they were the ones with the deepest connections with residents. The pandemic was a good reminder that relationships are the most valuable resources for housing organizations.

Spotlight: A Conversation with Malcolm Yeung , Executive Director of Chinatown Community Development Center

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a community like no other, and when the pandemic hit, its leaders confronted a highly specific set of challenges, from overcrowded housing to escalating cost. But the community also has a unique set of advantages, including its community associations, its walkability, and the plethora of businesses that form its social and economic backbone. One of the organizations responding to these challenges and leveraging these advantages is Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a community advocacy organization centered in the neighborhood with operations across San Francisco.

At the beginning of the pandemic, CCDC created a unique program to combat food insecurity in Chinatown’s most crowded housing, a program that it recently revived to combat the effects of the pandemic’s second wave. CCDC has also spearheaded programs to decrease social isolation among its residents, ensure equitable distribution of resources across the city, and foster neighborhood pride during the pandemic.

The National Housing Conference spoke with CCDC Executive Director Malcolm Yeung on how his organization has responded to Chinatown’s needs during COVID-19 and why organizations that center community solidarity are more important than ever during a health crisis.

CCDC serves a unique neighborhood and community. Can you describe San Francisco’s Chinatown?

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a one quarter-square mile neighborhood with approximately 18,000 residents, making it the second most densely populated neighborhood in the United States, after Manhattan’s Chinatown. About a third of residents live below the poverty line, and close to 90% of adults are monolingual Chinese speakers.

People often think of Chinatown as nothing more than a tourist trap, but it serves a vital social role for its residents and the city more broadly. Both historically and presently, Chinatown is an immigrant gateway where those who have recently arrived from China can come and find affordable housing, starter jobs, cultural and faith-based associations, and begin to form their social and economic networks and achieve upward mobility. The core of CCDC’s mission is to protect Chinatown’s status as a launching pad for these immigrants, so that it continues to be a resource that future immigrants can use in the same way as their predecessors.

About half of Chinatown’s housing stock consists of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), dormitory-style buildings in which residents share a single bathroom and kitchen per floor. Originally intended as housing for seasonal railroad and agricultural workers, since 1965 SROs typically served as housing for Chinatown’s most recent arrivals while they found work and built up enough in savings to find permanent housing in and around San Francisco. SRO residents typically found work in one of Chinatown’s many restaurants, or as janitors or laborers in nearby downtown San Francisco. But declining economic mobility combined with skyrocketing housing costs in the San Francisco Bay Area meant that an increasing portion of SRO renters are families with children sharing units that are little bigger than a walk-in closet.

The other main source of housing in the neighborhood are the Pings, a four-building public housing complex that has traditionally served as the neighborhood’s family housing. However, the same forces that have changed the makeup of SROs have also impacted the Pings: residents now skew older, as those who received subsidized apartments years ago and now see few options available to people at their income in San Francisco have been reluctant to give them up as they age. Young families are thus often crowded out, another reason they have been increasingly turning to SROs for housing.

How does CCDC fit into the neighborhood?

CCDC is a 44-year-old organization whose mission is to build community to improve quality of life in and around Chinatown. The community-building we engage in takes two main forms. The first is housing. We recognize that housing is the foundation of any community, so much of our activity is focused on acquiring, building, and rehabbing housing, and making sure at every step of the process that housing meets the needs of the community rather than imposing a certain standard on it. That element of our organization’s work is citywide: we operate about 3,500 affordable units across San Francisco, only about 30% of which are in Chinatown.

The second component is building the people capacity of the community, which encompasses activities like tenant organizing and advocacy for community resources like parks, as well as programs to build leadership skills among Chinatown’s young people. Whatever our work on this front entails, the goal is to always build a sense of pride and ownership of the community in its residents, and to preserve the neighborhood ecosystem that generations of advocates have fought to protect for over a century.

How was Chinatown affected by the pandemic?

Chinatowns and other Asian American neighborhoods across the country felt the economic impacts of the pandemic before any other set of communities, due to President Trump’s racist characterization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” San Francisco’s Chinatown had the feeling of a ghost town starting in late January of last year, and attendance at the Lunar New Year’s Parade in February was 30% of what was typical. California’s shelter in place order was not imposed until mid-March.

After the order was imposed, Chinatown was not identified as a hot spot neighborhood by the city, and so the city neglected to build up much testing capacity in the neighborhood. We at CCDC found this frustrating, because authorities then used the low case counts in the neighborhood as evidence that additional testing capacity wasn’t needed, neglecting the fact that numbers might have been low precisely because of the lack of testing capacity. This lack of testing made it difficult to tell how infection rates differed in Chinatown relative to the city as a whole, even as Asian and Pacific Islander Americans made up a disproportionate share of the city’s total COVID-19 cases.

What is sure, however, is that Chinatown residents adopted widespread mask-wearing quite early, even before authorities made it mandatory, which helped significantly lower community spread. However, even though the disease itself could have been worse in Chinatown and the other neighborhoods CCDC serves, the economic effects of the disease were quite dire. Business closure and unemployment was widespread, and in addition there were the adverse social effects of isolation that every community experienced during those first few months.

What was CCDC’s main concern at the beginning of the pandemic?

Our singular concern at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential for uncontrolled COVID-19 spread in SROs. SRO residents live in very close proximity to each other and share facilities like kitchens and bathrooms, but before COVID-19, most residents spent a majority of their time in their units, at work and at school. However, after schools closed and unemployment spiked – according to CCDC data, 77% of SRO residents lost their jobs in the first few months of the pandemic and almost 100% experienced some reduction in hours – residents began spending almost all of their time in their units, so SRO population density actually increased.

On top of the simple increase in density, there was also an increase in facility use, most worryingly of kitchens. Before the pandemic, kitchen usage was actually rather limited in SROs, since many residents ate outside their units at work, school or in restaurants. But when those places shut down, kitchen use increased dramatically. Additionally, residents experiencing financial hardship began relying more heavily on food assistance programs, which are used primarily for groceries and cannot be used for hot meals, putting further pressure on kitchens as residents had no choice but to rely on unprepared food. Informal norms around kitchen use began to break down, and there were concerns about residents congregating in kitchens at mealtimes, exactly the sort of activity that would cause the virus to spread rapidly. Because of all of this, we decided that it was extremely important to find ways to get SRO residents out of kitchens, which meant that we needed to find an alternative way to get meals to them.

How did CCDC respond to that concern about SRO residents’ kitchen use?

At the same time as SRO residents were undergoing turmoil related to kitchen use, Chinatown’s businesses were being hammered by the pandemic as well. Of the more than 150 restaurants in the neighborhood, only 40 remained open a month after shutdown was declared. Restaurants are important economically, of course, but they also serve vital roles as community institutions, as places where neighbors can congregate and form bonds with each other, functions that are especially important for those whose living spaces are quite cramped.

CCDC realized that it could solve both of these problems at once. Under the Feed + Fuel program, we partnered with San Francisco New Deal and the city’s Human Services Agency to provide meal vouchers for use at neighborhood restaurants, to ensure that residents remained food secure despite not having consistent access to kitchens. San Francisco New Deal administered the program, distributing vouchers and payments to restaurants, and organizing food preparation and delivery, while CCDC spread awareness among residents and business owners of the unique opportunities provided by the program. Ultimately, the program provided 122,000 meal vouchers to around 2,000 households for use at 34 participating neighborhood restaurants. Restaurants were reimbursed for vouchers using funds we raised, and meals were packaged and delivered to SRO residents in Chinatown and nearby neighborhoods like Tenderloin and North Beach by a team of 180 volunteers.

The majority of households served lived in SRO units, but the program was also available to senior residents of the Pings public housing complex to address an increase in senior hunger during the pandemic. The program allowed us to meet both public health and food security goals, while also providing vital business to neighborhood restaurants that would have struggled to stay open if it had not been for the patronage enabled by this program.

CCDC's Feed + Fuel program

How long did the Feed + Fuel program serve residents?

After its initial rollout in the spring of last year, the program began to sunset at the beginning of the summer. There were several reasons for its winding down: COVID-19 numbers were declining steadily at that time, and so there was less concern about SRO kitchen use being a major source of community spread. Additionally, the arrival of warmer weather and relaxed public health restrictions had allowed a significant number of restaurants to reopen with outdoor dining facilities, which meant that a significant number of Chinatown residents were able to go back to work, providing them with both increased food security and taking some of the strain off SRO kitchens.

As winter set in, however, many of the same dynamics that had been worrisome in the spring began to manifest again. COVID-19 numbers citywide were on the rise, and, particularly distressingly, case counts in SROs were increasing quickly relative to the city rate. Outdoor dining was shut down, forcing many restaurants to shutter once again, and there was chatter that many of the neighborhood’s most storied establishments were thinking of closing their doors permanently. This prompted CCDC and its partners to restart the Feed + Fuel program in January. This time, the program was both narrower in scope but larger in scale: Feed + Fuel 2.0 focused solely on SRO residents, since it had been determined that food insecurity among senior public housing residents was not especially concerning; and the program aimed to serve around 3,000 households with meals from any of the more than 50 restaurants that are still open in Chinatown. Since unemployment had decreased in and around the neighborhood, Feed + Fuel 2.0 was unable to take advantage of as large a corps of volunteers as the first iteration of the program, and so it ceased to offer meal delivery to residents. This limited the program’s scope to the immediate area of Chinatown, but due to the neighborhood’s extreme level of walkability, this was hardly an inconvenience for program participants.

In addition to crafting new programs to address the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, how did CCDC adapt existing programs to fit social distance protocols?

One of our most visible efforts to build community is its Chinatown Alleyway Tours program, in which young Chinatown residents design their own neighborhood tours. Through the program, youths are able to highlight the landmarks and stories that are most meaningful to them and the community by designing their own tour routes and scripts. This exposes tourists who visit Chinatown to aspects of the neighborhood they might not have learned about on a more traditional tour, but also, and more importantly from our perspective, builds vital leadership skills and neighborhood pride among the young people who participate, ensuring that Chinatown continues to have a deep corps of advocates far into the future.

During COVID-19, however, these tours ceased to be viable as they had been given before, and so we began working with our young tour guides to find an alternative way to continue them. The alternative they came up with was to build a virtual model of Chinatown on the video game Minecraft, and use that as the platform on which tours were given, which we thought was brilliantly creative. Given that CCDC views the tour’s most important function as being the process of young residents designing the tours and building a sense of ownership of the community, the fact that youth made such an effort to recreate their community virtually when people could no longer safely visit in person still achieved the desired outcome.

What other programs has CCDC implemented to serve residents during the pandemic?

Like many other organizations, we implemented a telephonic wellness check program for the residents of our properties, through which we found that, for senior residents in particular, social isolation was a serious challenge. As a result of the information collected during those wellness checks, we initiated a program to reduce social isolation by educating seniors on the use of online video platforms like Zoom. Because of this education program, we were able to virtually relaunch a monthly town hall event for seniors, which provided another vital venue for social interaction.

We have also done work around supporting families, especially those in SROs, with children to facilitate distance learning, and have partnered with a number of other community groups to push for the opening of COVID-19 testing sites in the neighborhood. Most recently, our focus has been on getting Chinatown residents vaccinated, for which we are partnering with a local hospital to get residents in line for shots via telephone, to avoid the paperwork that can be difficult to complete for those who speak little English.

What lessons has CCDC drawn from the pandemic?

Over the course of the pandemic, we realized that the most effective tool at our disposal is community organizing.

In the Feed + Fuel program, we relied on San Francisco New Deal on the administrative side, but our deep roots in the Chinatown community is what allowed the program take up to be as high as it has been, and ultimately what allowed the program to have the public health and nutritional success it has. CCDC’s status as a pillar of the community meant that it served a vital role in familiarizing residents and businesses with the program and making them comfortable with it, despite the fact that it was being administered by another organization they weren’t familiar with.

The same has been true of CCDC’s work on other fronts during the pandemic, from the push to distribute supplies for distance learning to the effort to get Chinatown residents vaccinated.

It is vitally important for a community like Chinatown to have an organization with decades-long connections to its residents to serve as an intermediary and advocate to other institutions so that the community gets the resources it needs to succeed.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, how does CCDC envision the recovery process for Chinatown?

Going forward, we are focused on ensuring that Chinatown’s community-serving businesses recover, while also making sure that those businesses and the residents that rely on them are not displaced. During the recovery from the previous economic crisis, too little attention was paid to which residents and businesses benefited from the rebounding economy, with the effect that many residents and important, community-serving businesses were shut out. As we emerge from the pandemic, we plan to concentrate much more intently on ensuring that the businesses that have served the community for over a century remain there, and that Chinatown remains accessible for its current residents and future generations of immigrants.

Spotlight: A Conversation with Ann Houston, CEO of Opportunity Communities and Nancy Turner, Director of Resource Development at The Neighborhood Developers

When Nuestra Comunidad and The Neighborhood Developers (TND), two Boston-area community developers, came together to found Opportunity Communities (OppCo) in 2018, they never would have expected that the organization would spend its third year in existence responding to a global pandemic. But they might have predicted that OppCo’s success would be rooted in the mission they established at the nonprofit’s founding: elevating local knowledge and equipping leaders to serve the communities in which they are rooted.

OppCo was formed as a partnership between two Boston-area community developers that wanted to take advantage of the benefits of scale while keeping operational control and assets within the neighborhoods they served. Accordingly, OppCo’s efforts during the pandemic involved using its scale to empower local organizations to meet goals, from establishing hotlines to connect residents with services and performing wellness checks to using street art and music to foster community solidarity. OppCo’s efforts provide a roadmap for channeling resources to communities that need them most while empowering local voices and maintaining uplifting community institutions.

The National Housing Conference spoke with OppCo CEO Ann Houston and TND Director of Resource Development Nancy Turner about the ways that OppCo’s unique model gave its member organizations a step up in responding to the pandemic and how it has adapted existing initiatives during the current crisis.

OppCo isn’t a typical affordable housing provider. How does the OppCo model work?

The OppCo model allows local community development organizations to enjoy the benefits of scale while keeping control and assets within the communities they serve. OppCo’s members remain fully independent, with control over their own finances and programming, while taking advantage of OppCo’s administrative and affordable housing services. While member organization staff are legally employed by us at OppCo, they remain in member offices working under the direction of local leaders and under the respective member organizations’ name. This helps retain talent by providing deeper career ladders and the ability to weather periods of fluctuating funding. This model lets member organizations avoid the pitfalls that often accompany scale – decreased community accountability, increased distance between community developers and local leaders – but still benefit from the advantages offered by a larger operation like OppCo’s.

Practically speaking, the model meant that we were uniquely positioned to support our members when the pandemic hit. The unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic required the creation of totally new programs, platforms and methods of outreach. At the start of the pandemic, many nonprofits found it challenging to balance serving communities in the moment while building out the sort of capacity that would be so important over the medium-term future. Nonprofits were facing financial pressures as the economic effects of the pandemic caused them to experience a decrease in funding resources at the same time that the communities they served were experiencing an increase in need. Our model allowed members to remain focused on the needs of their communities while we dealt with quickly building program capacities and administrative matters.

How did the pandemic affect OppCo’s properties and the communities it serves?

OppCo’s partners own residential properties in communities that while predominantly low- and moderate-income, are full of community pride, grit and can-do spirit. These communities also tend to have some of the region’s most overcrowded housing, as high cost burdens force families to double- or even triple-up in one unit, or to rent unsafe spaces in unfinished basements or attics. Early on in the pandemic, it was neighborhoods like these where the virus was able to spread most easily, and which became the country’s first COVID-19 hotspots. Quite quickly, however, OppCo and its partners noticed that infection rates in our properties were significantly lower than those in surrounding communities.

In Chelsea, a small, majority Hispanic city directly north of Boston that is TND’s base of operations, 10% of residents live in units with more than one person per room, the highest share of any Massachusetts municipality. Early on in the pandemic, Chelsea also led the state in COVID-19 cases, due both to overcrowding and the high number of essential workers who were less able to work from home and to socially distance compared to members of wealthier communities. But TND properties experienced far fewer infections than one would expect by looking at the broader community. According to TND Executive Director Rafael Mares, “If our Chelsea tenants were falling ill at the same rate [as the city’s residents], we should have seen close to 100 cases within TND properties.” Six weeks into the pandemic, TND had seen only 14 cases, and infection rates in their buildings have remained three to four times lower than those of the surrounding community.

photo credit: The Neighborhood Developers

For OppCo and our partners, it is quite clear that the reason behind those numbers is the fact that safe, stable, affordable housing is one of the most important social determinants of health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those burdened by high housing costs have been far less able to practice social distancing, since that often means staying home from jobs as frontline workers in homes that are often uncomfortably crowded. But when people have access to housing that is affordable to them, they are far more able to make informed choices about when to stay home.

How did OppCo take initiative to stay connected to its communities and ensure their needs were being met after quarantine was declared?

Our mission to serve its communities does not stop at the doorstep of its residential properties. At the start of the pandemic, one of our top priorities was finding ways to help our members’ communities build resilience to the virus. Our flagship effort in this space was our work on the CONNECT Hotline, a combined traditional hotline-and-outreach tool. The hotline enabled community members to seek assistance applying for public benefits when face-to-face interaction was riskiest, while also remaining accessible to the many low-income residents who lack access to the sort of technology that would allow them to seek resources and information online.

TND decided early-on to be aggressive about establishing the hotline and worry about ironing out the kinks later. To staff the hotline, a team of more than 25 volunteers was recruited, a large number of whom were fluent in Spanish and Arabic, the two languages most commonly spoken by CONNECT callers other than English. Volunteers also worked with our data team to build out a secure online platform that enabled callers to use their phones to upload pictures of financial documents, which made it easier to assist callers in determining their eligibility for programs and apply for them.

In addition to connecting residents with federal and state resources, we made sure to stay informed of community-based resources in callers’ neighborhoods to which Hotline volunteers could refer callers when other resources proved insufficient. In Chelsea, for example, the city government and several civic organizations set up a citywide Eviction Taskforce, a roundtable of community advocates that would help prevent eviction and homelessness in real time. Volunteers regularly referred Chelsea callers to this taskforce, typically when other sources of aid would be too slow to meet the needs of the callers in question.

In one case, the hotline received a call from a Chelsea community member whose family was facing imminent eviction and whose past due rent would not be covered by state rent assistance. CONNECT referred his case to the local Eviction Taskforce, where representatives from the city government determined that his family was eligible for an available subsidized apartment unit. One nonprofit helped the family with the paperwork, and another provided emergency cash to cover relocation costs. If the family needs furniture, they can reach out to CONNECT again, which can provide financial support for this purpose.

What were the results of the CONNECT Hotline?

The results of TND’s initiative speak for themselves. As of February 2021, the hotline has leveraged over $3.4 million in public benefits for almost 2,000 households, and every dollar spent on the program leverages $10 in benefits for callers. The program has leveraged over $2.3 million in rent assistance alone, a number that represents almost 90% of the total amount of rent assistance funding distributed across Chelsea and Revere, a city adjacent to Chelsea of similar size and demographic makeup. At the end of 2020, the two cities ranked second and third among municipalities in Greater Boston in state rent assistance dollars distributed – coming in after only Boston itself, and beating out far larger cities like Cambridge and Quincy – demonstrating CONNECT’s strength in efficiently connecting residents with resources.

What logistical challenges did the CONNECT Hotline face?

One major challenge was simply the volume of calls CONNECT had to process. The need for assistance accessing services, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, was truly astronomical, and the hotline regularly approached 50 calls in a day, and sometimes had more than 100. TND and OppCo simply didn’t have the capacity in the beginning to work through them all, either with staff or with volunteers. That bottleneck, as well as the unfortunately high burden the state of Massachusetts placed on renters applying for assistance, meant that callers often had to leave messages describing their situations and wait to receive a call back. TND and OppCo were able to cut down on wait times by streamlining systems, recruiting more personnel, and by taking advantage of Massachusetts’ simplification of the application for rent assistance, which for several months was quite burdensome.

How did OppCo and TND provide for the emotional needs exposed by the hotline?

TND often found that many callers were so overwhelmed by their circumstances that it was difficult to give the practical assistance they were asking for. The pandemic had a very clear psychological impact, and it was not uncommon to find that TND’s volunteers’ work involved giving callers emotional support just as much as help finding resources.

Another challenge was the emotional toll that working the hotline took on OppCo’s volunteers. Volunteers spent their shifts hearing from many distressed people in desperate circumstances, and it was often hard for them to acknowledge that the work they were doing was challenging – all the more so because they were acutely aware that the burden they bore was nothing compared to that of the callers they were hearing from. To address this need, OppCo organized listening sessions several times for volunteers to affirm that their work was emotionally taxing.

How did OppCo support its partner organizations in their efforts to stay connected to their communities?

In addition to the CONNECT Hotline, we contributed to another phone-based project, this one to perform wellness checks on residents in OppCo-supported residential properties. We wanted to find ways to connect residents with groceries and services they were eligible for as quickly as possible. However, given that the tenant population is especially affected by the digital divide – 20% of households lack internet service – we made a similar calculation to the one that led TND to set up a phone hotline to connect community members with services, and decided that the best way to reach residents was to call them.

Our goal was to reach out to each households directly to check in and provide updates on health and safety policies and food distribution. We started out by calling each of our households on a biweekly basis, but quickly realized that we lacked the staffing capacity to maintain that level of outreach. With the help of our data team, we quickly pivoted to making automated calls to residents with health, safety and service information. We continued making in-person calls to senior residents, however, given their increased vulnerability to the health, economic and social effects of the pandemic.

How did OppCo foster community in the neighborhoods it serves during the pandemic?

During the early portions of the pandemic, we and our partners were primarily concerned with ensuring that the material needs of our residents and communities were being met. However, as we got better at meeting those most basic needs, we realized that the realities of life during a pandemic – undoubtedly one of the most collectively isolating periods in recent history – were taking a social toll as well. This realization led us to broaden our focus from programs like CONNECT to those that facilitated intra-community solidarity.

One example of this sort of solidarity work took place in partnership with OppCo member Nuestra Comunidad, a community developer in several of Boston’s historically Black neighborhoods. Nuestra Comunidad recognized that the impact of the pandemic combined with the traumas that lead to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer generated a unique need in their communities for projects that celebrated Black life and culture. In that spirit, they held a series of public, socially-distanced events using art to build and maintain community. Events included jazz concerts, drive-in movie nights, and the unveiling of a mural celebrating social justice at a Nuestra construction site at Bartlett Station near Nubian Square, which is in the heart of Boston’s Black community. Over 8,000 people attended the arts series events, including 5,000 in person and 3,000 online. The series generated $58,000 in commission and other revenue opportunities to artists and vendors. 

photo credit: Robin Lubbock of WBUR

Nuestra received two kinds of feedback on the 2020 arts series.  The participating vendors and artists reported approval and interest from customers and attendees in coming back for more events.  Second, a community advisory committee enthusiastically recommended holding a 2021 arts series to build on the success of 2020. They recommended Nuestra incorporate a steel container arts studio in development by a local artist, Radiant Jasmin. Nuestra adopted this recommendation and is planning a 2021 arts program focused on mural installations, music performance, a food/beer garden venue, and the steel container studio.

What has OppCo done to promote racial equity during the pandemic?

The racial skew of the COVID-19 pandemic is by now common knowledge, but it is important not to forget that it is just one more item on a long list of disasters that have disproportionately affected people of color, and that in no cases was this racial skew accidental. Time and time again, the needs of communities of color have been ignored, which has left members of these communities disproportionately vulnerable to the harms of pandemics, natural disasters, economic downturns, and myriad other catastrophes whose burdens fall along racial lines. This is especially the case in the Boston area. In 2015, the Boston Federal Reserve found that while White households in Greater Boston have a net worth of $247,500 on average, the typical Black household had a net worth of just $8. The study links the difference to intergenerational wealth transfers, largely based on homeownership. The same study found wealth disparities between White and Hispanic households that were nearly as large.

We at OppCo recognizes that the history of racial discrimination in the United States is so pernicious that racially-specific remedies are appropriate to correct for historical and present-day harms inflicted on people of color. This recognition, combined with the fact that homeownership is the most important method for household wealth creation in the United States was the inspiration for the Homes for Equity program, which aims to develop a sustainable program that is focused on households of color harmed by systemic housing discrimination, designed to build wealth through homeownership and reduce the racial homeownership gap. The program was conceived as a collaboration between OppCo and the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, which aims to create a scalable model for homeownership and wealth creation for households of color. A crucial aspect of the project is the documentation of the history of housing discrimination in Boston – the history that made the remedy necessary in the first place – for the purpose of building widespread public support for redress via homeownership. The project is currently in its pilot phase, for which we will leverage 40 homes in development through its partnership with Nuestra Comunidad.

What lessons has OppCo drawn from your experience during the pandemic?

One lesson has simply been that healthy, stable and affordable housing is its own sort of vaccine against the risks posed by public health crises. Residents in the properties we service remained healthier and more economically secure than their neighbors in market-rate housing. For us and our partners, those results only reaffirm the importance of dedicated affordable housing to keep communities safe and vibrant.

Another lesson is that building a sense of community identity and connections can play an important role in community and family resilience. While building community connections requires time and attention, the investment pays off during crises. Our administrative and technical supports allowed TND and Nuestra Comunidad to focus on community well-being, confident that their organizational needs were well-managed. Nuestra’s cultural work provided a voice within a community at the heart of Boston’s racial reckoning. TND’s virtual community gatherings linked community residents and civic leaders in one of the nation’s hardest-hit communities.

The confluence of events and issues that dominated our country in 2020 called for both immediate response and a longer-term look at more systemic solutions. The marrying of locally controlled, community-based insight with more scaled supports has provided OppCo and our members with essential tools. For example, due to its partnership with OppCo, TND was able to quickly identify emerging needs for access to public benefits in Chelsea and Revere and respond with the CONNECT hotline, leveraging resources and support available. The partnership has similarly facilitated the Homes for Equity pilot that utilizes under-recognized duty in the Fair Housing Act to remediate the harms of housing discrimination to meet a local goal of wealth building for Black households. Organizations with OppCo’s scale typically work at the metropolitan or state level and are vulnerable to missing the granular local knowledge essential to meeting the emerging needs of residents. Organizations at the local scale of TND and Nuestra, meanwhile, are not usually able to leverage the sorts of administrative resources required to manage the work. The joint-venture model allowed each of OppCo’s entities to play to their strengths while relying on their partners for those areas where they would have otherwise fallen short.