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First HAND – 05/02/2016

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Last week I touched on the effects of disparate impact and today I wanted to further explain its importance and relevance. Again, disparate impact is a legal doctrine under the Fair Housing Act saying that any policy imposed that unintentionally creates discrimination or imbalance in a community, must be changed. The doctrine was first created after Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs vs Inclusive Communities Project Inc.

Inclusive Communities Project is a non-profit in Texas that helps families find and buy affordable housing. The organization claimed that Texas agency was disproportionately giving tax credits. By giving most of their tax credits to predominately black inner-city areas, the poverty there was being contained in those areas, making it difficult for residents to escape the poverty cycle. Inclusive Communities Project argued that the Texas agency should also give tax credits to economically stable suburban areas to create educational opportunities and job opportunities for lower income families. Giving tax credits to these locations would help prevent the economically unstable cycle many people found themselves in. The case was taken to the Supreme Court where they ruled in favor of Inclusive Communities Project. The ruling made it clear that disparate impact claims are under the Fair Housing Act, meaning it is recognized as an indirect form of discrimination.

The ruling makes it apparent that any form of discrimination, whether intended or not, will not be tolerated. Many states were prompted to correct any policies or laws that went against the ruling. Today, Indiana aims to maintain a balance in building affordable housing in prospering neighborhoods to enable economic mobility, or the ability to improve economic status, for all families and individuals. By continuously creating housing for all types of people with varying incomes, Indiana can produce an environment where anyone can receive a good education, quality jobs, and other opportunities. Increasing the economic mobility and making it available to all residents is extremely important for overall economic growth and resident wellbeing.

HAND hopes that the court case will increase the prevention of housing discrimination and hopes the effects of disparate impact will continue to be limited. People need affordable housing, and not in areas that keep low income families and individuals trapped. As Americans we believe in the land opportunity, and the ability to transform your life with hard work. When unfair treatment such as discrimination and disparate impact are still present in our society, it becomes difficult to achieve the dreams and ideals that make American citizens proud.

First HAND – 04/18/2016

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In honor of Fair Housing month, I thought I would explain what it entails and why it is important to HAND. The month is meant to celebrate and educate people about the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968. The act was created to prevent discrimination of race, color, disability, national origin, religion, sex, and family situation when buying, renting, or securing financing for housing.

The Civil Rights Movement started coming to a close when the Fair Housing Act was passed. The act was signed in response to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots the followed his death. The act was the last to be passed because of the Civil Rights Movement. It fought to integrate people of color, and other persons, into white communities by create housing equality. Today the act still plays a huge role in trying to prevent discrimination in housing in order to construct healthy and balanced neighborhoods.

Despite the long journey towards creating equality across America, there is still discrimination everywhere—including Hamilton County. Executive director, Nate Lichti, explains that the discrimination is seen through more subtle ways. He explains, “We’re talking about affordable and community housing not being developed because of community standards. Those standards drive up the price of housing, and unnecessarily impact groups that are capable of contributing to the community.”

With a prospering city comes the desire to create more and more expensive housing to obtain a higher standard of living. However, a growing community needs people to work and serve in that community, making it necessary to have all types of residents with all types of incomes to live and thrive. The Fair Housing act goes a long way to protect citizens, but it fails to stop housing discrimination against many groups such as those who make low income. HAND hopes that with upcoming studies, Hamilton County can help fight against this injustice. Nate explains to aid this cause, “We can, through the development or promotion of policies that support affordable housing, help combat housing discrimination.”

HAND is also trying to learn more about fair housing as well as educate the community, because with awareness and sensitivity, more can be done to stop the discrimination Americans are still fighting against today. HAND hopes that outside companies and residents will be willing to jump into to aid the cause. Nate states there are ways to get involved saying, “There is an analysis being done this spring that will update a five year old study about the barriers to fair housing; during that process there will be an opportunity for public engagement. We’re hoping that, through the new housing advisory council and discussions with other community stake holders, we can identify some pertinent, relevant strategies to address the concerns that come out of the report.”

Another important term to know and understand this month is disparate impact. Disparate Impact is a legal doctrine under the Fair Housing Act saying that any policy imposed that unintentionally creates discrimination or imbalance in a community, must be changed. The doctrine is closely linked to the goals of HAND and other supporters who want Indiana to change some of its housing policies to get rid of unintentional discrimination in the state. By incorporating affordable housing in economically stable places, such as Hamilton County, discrimination can be diminished. Giving all types of people access to healthy neighborhoods and growing communities can help prevent unfair treatment across Indiana.

An Open Letter to Hamilton County from Nate Lichti

Dear Hamilton County:

I wanted to express my gratitude to the people of Hamilton County for extending me your trust during my service as the Executive Director of HAND.  My first time in downtown Noblesville was when I interviewed for the position in 2012, and since then I’ve gotten to know this community in exceptional ways.  In addition to city leaders and neighborhood advocates, the Good Samaritan Network, Chambers of Commerce, and Hamilton County Leadership Academy (HCLA) all provided great introductions to the best of what Hamilton County has to offer.

As you continue to lead the State in so many ways, I encourage you to maintain a long view and pursue comprehensive strategies that will lead to a healthier, more vibrant region.  Through a participatory process, HAND has developed a comprehensive set of strategies to deal with prominent community issues such as: Growth, General Affordability, Sustainability and Senior Housing.  In building these partnerships, HAND has proven to be a true community asset, and I hope you will continue to invest in and support HAND’s mission.

Once the new director begins, I encourage you to get involved in helping to define concrete action steps that can be taken.  These actions require resources, and HAND has come a long way without substantial local support.  This will need to change for HAND to maintain a robust presence across the county.  HAND’s Board of Directors is going to lead a campaign to generate long-term support, and I hope communities step forward to address these needs.

Local support could allow HAND to focus on delivering services, partnering with neighborhoods and designing local solutions.  I hope communities can jump on board and find ways to make meaningful pledges so everyone can move quickly into the more important conversations – what local solutions would we like to explore?

HAND’s Board recently reaffirmed its commitment to two local solutions – the Noblesville Granary and Blackhawk Commons. After assessing the results and learning just how close each project came to getting funded in February, we know these projects have a very high probability of getting funded in 2017.  Since they also provide the greatest potential community impact and best housing options possible, HAND will continue to explore these possibilities.

Another potential path to long-term, substantial change comes in connection to the recent COIT disbursement approved by the State.  Local communities maintained control over 25% of the $65 Million, so I’m going to throw one idea into the hopper: What if 10% of the funds were deployed to start a Hamilton County Housing Trust Fund that would support the development of innovative, quality affordable housing projects?

These Trust Funds are a common way to pool community resources to support projects that provide real impact.  Once capitalized, a county-wide Housing Advisory Council could provide recommendations on what investments would have the greatest benefit. If not these funds, how about another ongoing source?

For example, Hamilton County could start a program to help teachers, firefighters and police officers to purchase housing in the communities they serve; provide emergency and transitional support to victims of domestic violence; develop housing that Millennials can afford; and more.  Smart private developers could easily leverage these funds to generate $3+ for every $1 committed locally (HAND typically achieves a $20:$1 leverage).  Let’s not let your fears of what might happen stop you from addressing real pressing problems faced by those living with unstable housing.

I trust you will continue to support HAND by thinking globally and acting locally. Everyone in Hamilton County can play an important role by supporting the soon to be unveiled public awareness campaign.  Started by an HCLA team, the campaign will spread the message by distributing decals to be displayed by HAND’s supporters.  Churches, schools, and civic groups can help spread the message that Hamilton County can be sustainable, diverse and livable by promoting a “Housing for All” strategy.

With your help, HAND will be an essential community partner that helps you build quality, safe and sustainable neighborhoods.  I urge you to get involved, pledge your support, and contribute real solutions to the cause.

With gratitude,

Nate Lichti

Outgoing Executive Director

March 21, 2016

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Hello readers!

I am back to tell you about another outstanding employee at HAND. Her name is Michelle Westermeier and she is HAND’s housing coordinator. She is the mother of a ten year old son as well as the owner of a cat, two dogs, a turtle, a rabbit, a bird, and a fish! Westermeier’s favorite color is blue and she loves being a part of her son’s hobbies and interests.

Westermeier originally had a career in landscaping, working for the parks department in Anderson. While working there, she discovered her desire to help people. She loves working at a nonprofit organization, speaking to the fact that HAND has all that she desires in a job. When I asked her about her transition from landscape work to HAND she explained, “Even in the parks department I felt like I was benefitting the community as a whole because everyone gets to enjoy the parks. I was fortunate to be exposed to community development when I was in Anderson. I was also around construction, so I was familiar with that aspect of things. It was a fairly comfortable transition to shift to affordable housing.” Westermeier is proud of the work she is able to accomplish at HAND; being able to help so many people has been very satisfying to her.

I then asked her what about her job she loved, what made the hard work worth it. She immediately replied, “I want to be able to help people, and I get direct satisfaction from that. Meeting the residents that move into our rental communities, hearing their stories about how much this has actually helped them—it can be easy to be separated from that and not really hear those stories, so I really enjoy meeting our tenants and getting to know what their stories are. They’re all just so appreciative and wonderful.” She went on to clarify the benefits of HAND as an organization, saying that HAND has allowed her the opportunity to form personal relationships. Oftentimes businesses treat people as strictly clients, but the staff at HAND have been able to get to know the residents they serve and establish authentic relationships that mean more than a simple business deal.

Westermeier and I also got to explore some of the obstacles HAND is faced with. The misconceptions about affordable housing can often create misunderstandings. Westermeier explains, “There’s a mistaken belief that Hamilton County doesn’t need affordable housing and doesn’t need these types of programs for homeowners.” This can sometimes generate controversy and reluctance from neighbors to HAND projects. However, when HAND is able to educate its community on the housing issues, Hamilton County residents often embrace the organization’s programs. Westermeier went further to point out, “We all struggle from time to time with our financial situation. So really, to have a healthy community across the board, it’s important that we have affordable housing in all aspects. Regardless of what your income is, we all need affordable housing. It is too easy for people to assume that because we do have a lot of wealth in the county, that there’s not the need, there’s not those people struggling to make their monthly rent payments. It’s important to educate people, and I think HAND is one of the few organizations out there that has really been in a good position to promote that and increase that awareness.”

We ended our short interview with Westermeier clarifying the background of HAND. Many people become concerned about the motivations of a nonprofit, whether or not their intentions are to help the community. Westermeier says, “HAND is a true nonprofit. We weren’t a spinoff of some private, for-profit corporation. We were created by Hamilton County residents that were concerned about all the people living in this county. It’s a true, local nonprofit. With that, I believe we are part of Hamilton County and our passion and focus is for the benefit of everyone in our community.” With the creation of HAND came the creation of an organization aimed solely to aid its community. HAND works hard every day for the benefit of what they care about most: their neighbors.

March 7, 2016

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Hello returning readers!

Today I wanted to address the concept of advocacy. For HAND, advocacy plays a huge role in the day to day process. For those of you who might not know, advocacy, in a broad sense, is working alongside people to help their voice be heard. I sat down with Tracy Heaton, the head of HAND’s advocacy. She explains advocacy saying, “You’re not their voice, and you’re not ahead of them. A true advocate would be more like a shepherd from the behind, guiding folks along an issue, because they will go where they need to go, not where you think they need to go. It’s a lot of listening, standing alongside, hand holding, but not so much leading.” HAND is involved in advocacy at the state level by staying informed and the neighborhood level by working to improve the local community.

HAND’s participation in advocacy has been a priority for the agency. Recently, HAND worked with the SouthWest Quad in Noblesville to improve their local park. Heaton explains, “The city looked at what assistance they could bring to the park after the neighbors showed their value by hosting a work day where we painted things, ripped out weeds, and planted new plants. The neighbors are willing to do their part, but at some point the city needs to make that investment and it seems that they’re willing to.”

Many people do not understand the importance of advocacy and their individual role in it. While HAND is here to help, it takes the power and voice of residents to get the job done. I asked Heaton why it was important for neighbors to work together and she replied, “When you need that cup of sugar, but you don’t know your neighbor’s name, it’s a little hard to go knock on the door and ask for that. When you accidentally let your dog out and you’re running through the yard, it’s kind of hard to yell for your neighbor’s help when you don’t know their name. On bigger issues, when the orange signs go in front of a business and they’re going to change the zoning, but it’s all these individual voices versus if you knew your neighbor’s and met with them beforehand, you could go to the zoning hearing as a united voice, which is bigger than a bunch of little voices.” When everyone can get together to express their concerns or requests as a group, they are heard and listened to more. Heaton went further to say, “I don’t know that residents know their role in this, that they can begin holding their elected officials accountable for some choices and decisions that they make that may not reflect the values of the voters in Hamilton County. Directions and decisions in our towns need to reflect the compassion and care that I believe Hamilton County voters have.”

Understanding the role of residents is the first step, but what should neighbors do next? How do individuals begin to make the difference in their community? Heaton provided some simple, yet crucial steps to take, “Tapping the expertise of HAND is the best step. Then the really hard step is actually talking to your neighbors. It might seem embarrassing or awkward, but it’s so powerful and it’s a lot easier then it seems.” Talking to the surrounding neighbors can do so much good for the community. Many people find that close knit communities are able to accomplish more; they also tend to enjoy their neighborhood much more when they have a role in it. Our talk ended with her saying, “Advocacy might seem like an angry crowd with burning torches and pitch forks, but typically it isn’t, and we’d like it to never get to that point. If we’re doing little actions of advocacy along the way, then we don’t have to have the big confrontation, because we’re in constant communication, and were constantly telling our towns what we want to see and what we want to see happening.”

Hopefully this information and message can inspire you to take a role in your community. Advocacy plays a big role at HAND and it should in your neighborhood too. It starts with getting to know your neighbors, then it can blossom from there!