The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance participates in the NOLA CPP as a Community of Interest Pilot Project. The following report is based on a survey of their membership organizations. It demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a shared interest coalition. The NOLA CPP hopes that GNOHA will serve as a model for other shared interest coalitions under the CPP. You can read the report below or go here for a pdf of the report GNOHA MEMBERSHIP REPORT Final.
GNOHA Membership Survey Report
The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) is a coalition of non-profit housing builders and community development corporations united by a common mission. The group formed in 2007 with the shared purpose of rebuilding New Orleans’ housing supply. This coalition closely mirrors the Community of Interest concept proposed in the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program (NOLA CPP) model, and could provide a way of soliciting community response to government proposals that reaches beyond the neighborhood association structure. In addition, GNOHA could be a valuable resource to neighborhood associations by providing information about affordable housing developments and other housing-related issues that may impact neighborhoods. In order to gain a better understanding of this coalition, and to test the Community of Interest concept, the New Orleans Citizen Participation program has been conducting a pilot project with GNOHA. As part of this program, the NOLA CPP conducted a voluntary survey of the group’s membership.
GNOHA member organizations were asked to participate in the short 25 question survey shared online through GoogleDocs. The survey was announced at two GNOHA membership meetings and the link was provided to the GNOHA email listserv. The survey was available for two months. All questions on the survey were voluntary. Because of the open-ended and voluntary nature of the survey, not all questions received the same number of responses. 23 individuals from 20 different organizations responded to the survey. While this number is less than the total number of organizations in GNOHA, a regular participant in the coalition estimated that only about 15 organizations actively participate in the group on a regular basis. Additionally, because the survey was open to any regular attendee of GNOHA meetings, some active but non-membership organizations responses may be included in this report.
While GNOHA is a fairly young organization, the responses seem to indicate a well-established, lasting investment from members. The majority of survey participants have been members of GNOHA for more than a year (39%), while almost as many (35%) have been members for three years or more. Only three survey participants have been members of the group for less than a year. Additionally, 95% of survey participants attend meetings regularly and 62% serve on a committee. These statistics, coupled with the membership length data, indicate that GNOHA has successfully sustained participation from its members over the course of time. This sustained commitment may be affected by the fact that 78% of survey participants belong to other similar coalitions.
One significant question that the NOLA CPP sought to answer with this survey is why such coalitions originally come together. For groups to provide input into the government decision-making process, there needs to be at least a basic system of organization in place through which to give and receive information. The NOLA CPP has encountered several groups across the city that struggle to attract members to their organization. In order to identify motivating factors for coalition members, the NOLA CPP asked survey participants to “describe your reasons for joining GNOHA.” Responses to this question can be summarized into three categories: to provide information, to receive information, and to collaborate with others. The most common response, to receive information, was cited as a motivating factor by 11 out of 18 respondents (61%). A significantly smaller number, just 2 out of 18 cited distributing information as a reason for joining the group. 11 respondents indicated the collaborative nature of the group was a major motivating factor in the decision to join GNOHA (61%). Interestingly, while connection to others was given less often as a reason for joining than receiving information, those who responded in this way tended to give longer responses, using four to five sentences in their responses, as opposed to one sentence or fragment. These responses also tended to utilize a specific vocabulary, including words like believe, value, unity, faith, and collaborate.
Another common problem often expressed by shared interest groups is a lack of participation from their members. GNOHA appears to successfully avoid this problem, regularly packing the room at their monthly meetings. In an attempt to identify, and possible help to replicate this success with other groups, the NOLA CPP asked survey participants “what most often motivates you to attend GNOHA’s monthly membership meetings.” Participants were able to select multiple responses to this question. 100% identified “Interest in current issues” as a motivating factor, while “networking with peers” was selected by 90% of survey respondents. Interest in guest speaker, sharing information about current projects and seeking support were also indicated as motivating factors by more than 50% of participants. While food is often perceived as a good way to motivate interest, “lunch” was chosen by just 8 out of 21 participants (39%).
In addition to identifying why a particular group participates in GNOHA, the NOLA CPP team also felt it was important to identify any barriers to participation. We asked survey participants to identify any “obstacles or barriers to your full participation in GNOHA”. Out of the 7 participants who responded to the question, 6 cited lack of time as a barrier. However, several recognized this as a personal barrier rather than organizational problem. One respondent ovserved “the length of meetings is good—long enough for quality of content and information but not so long as to be schedule-prohibitive.” Another noted that “not all issues discussed are relevant to our work”. Another expressed concern that GNOHA’s incorporation might bar housing advocates from holding voting status as members, stating “[t]his is a great concern as the organization will continue to advocate for housing but without the formal input of their advocacy partners.” However, GNOHA’s policy committee indicated that incorporation as a 501(c)4 organization could prevent this exclusion.
GNOHA, and other similar shared issue coalitions, are integral to a citizen participation structure because the collaborative nature of the group and the expertise of its members make it an information hub. As the NOLA CPP is interested in facilitating informed and inclusive discussions about city issues, it is important to determine what means are used to collect and distribute information by GNOHA members. Survey participants were asked “What methods does your organization currently use to provide information to the public?” Participants gave a range of answers but responses can be organized into two groups, online information dispersal which includes e-mail blasts, websites, social media and podcasts; and offline, which includes newsletters, brochures, posted notices, word of mouth, public meetings and postal mailings. Out of the 16 participants who responded to the questions, 4 listed only offline info sharing methods (25%), while 2 listed only online distribution (13%). Half of the respondents mentioned both on and offline distribution methods, however, the NOLA CPP would like to see more GNOHA members use some combination so that housing information can be disseminated widely in a timely manner.
Additionally, NOLA CPP asked survey participants “How would you prefer to receive information from GNOHA?” 100% of respondents prefer to receive information through email. Respondents could choose more than one answer, and 14 out of 21 (67%) also chose the Monthly Meetings. One participant also prefers Facebook updates, while another would prefer to receive information via telephone. The clear preference towards E-mail as well as meeting in person indicates that GNOHA successfully utilizes both on and offline forms of information distribution.
The NOLA CPP citizen participation model envisions the collaboration of neighborhoods, city government and communities of interest like GNOHA. In order to gain a better understanding of how these groups are interacting without a formalized participation structure, NOLA CPP asked survey participants whether participation in GNOHA has affected their organization’s relationship with neighborhoods and city government. Regarding city government, 9 out of 14 respondents indicated that their relationship with city government had been affected (64%), and in all of these cases the effect was positive. Survey participants most often cited better understanding of city issues, and increased access to city officials. 5 out of 14 respondents indicated that their relationship with city government had not been affected by GNOHA or that they were unsure of the effect (36%). One respondent indicated that the relationship was not affected but that “GNOHA has done [a] good job of communicating meetings and forums held by city council persons, etc. It’s just difficult to get city government to follow-up with you once you discuss an initiative with them.” So far GNOHA appears to have been successful at obtaining city information, but a consistently responsive government is needed for a truly collaborative relationship.
While the survey responses indicate a budding relationship with city government, the NOLA CPP would like to see GNOHA expand upon this cooperation and extend it to the neighborhoods. 4 out of 9 survey participants indicated that involvement in GNOHA had not affected their relationship with neighborhoods (44%), one was unsure (11%) and four stated that there was a change (44%). Those who saw their relationships affected saw an improvement, stating most often that more information was shared. One respondent noted “[n]etworking opportunities provided by GNOHA have allowed for greater awareness of issues affecting the neighborhoods we work in.” However, another responded that while there has been increased collaboration in the form of letters of support for projects, “we don’t have direct relationships with neighborhood associations.” The NOLA CPP feels that these direct relationships are essential to effective participation and would like to see communities of interest, such as GNOHA, take an active role in growing them.
When asked “How often does your organization interact with neighborhood associations?”, just 5 out of 23 participants responded once a week or more (22%). While 26% responded a “few times a month”, a plurality (35%) responded a “few times a year”. While it is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect organizations to interact with neighborhood associations daily or weekly, the NOLA CPP believes it would be beneficial for these interactions to happen on a monthly rather than yearly basis. More frequent interactions could result in increased understanding of housing issues, trust in housing organizations from the neighborhoods, and a better understanding of neighborhood needs, assets and concerns for GNOHA members.
However, GNOHA has been largely successful at providing their members with increased opportunities and understand-ing. Survey participants were asked to choose benefits they had received since joining GNOHA from a provided list. 100% (21) of respondents chose “increased understand-ing of citywide issues” and 81% chose “increased opportunities to collaborate with other housing entities”. 48% selected “improved overall effectiveness”, 43% “improved relationship or better com-munication with city agencies”, 38% “increased capacity” and “increased scope of work”, but just 33% indicated “improved relationship or better communication with general public”.
Finally, the NOLA CPP invited survey participants to provide feedback and suggestions for GNOHA going forward. The responses were, as a whole, quite laudatory. The full text of the member suggestions is included in Appendix A.
The praise GNOHA receives from its members reinforces our belief that shared interest coalitions or “Communities of Interest” are an essential feature of the NOLA CPP model. Such groups can serve to enlighten community dialogs with expert and impartial information. In addition, they can provide an extra avenue of participation. This is particularly important in New Orleans as research conducted by the Neighborhood Partnership Network indicates that less than 10% of New Orleans residents participate in their community at the neighborhood level. However, the city’s recent engagement history has demonstrated that participation does occur and can effect great change. To grow this engagement and achieve a sustainable system of participation, we must not force involvement through a limited number of avenues, but instead recognize the valuable role of organic coalitions such as GNOHA. Using these existing Communities of Interest as models, New Orleans can create a diverse, robust system of participation to serve our city.
Appendix A: GNOHA Member Suggestions
- If each member organization could pay an annual fee of $25-$100, GNOHA would have funds available to further advance its programs.
- Host a website where members and contributors can post relevant information, support blogs on topics of interest.
- Less focus on production and more on housing affordability and quality.
- Sponsor training on grant writing and capacity building for interest members.
- More/expanded policy work.
- More interest in the individual homeowners lacking resources to rebuild.
- It would be good for the organization to review how their members affect different income levels to see if they can improve target income levels for housing provision.
- Green building and green jobs in building construction industry are of most concern to us in regard to affordable housing.
- [Issues GNOHA should address are] FEMA and the city’s Duplicate benefits policy; improving the Orleans Parish Soft Second Program; providing interim construction financing for small developers and providing elevation grant funds for first time home buyers acquiring properties through a developer or on their own thru NORA that require more than the standard 3 feet elevation requirement.
- The City of New Orleans continues to lack a workable and ongoing Soft-Seconds Program for homeownership and the lack of having a workable program since Hurricane Katrina has hindered the city’s housing recovery. Because credit scores have declined due to the hurricanes, BP Oil Spill and recession, it is harder to get a mortgage loan so the city needs to consider an alternative mortgage product such as they have done very successfully in Chicago. It would be helpful if GNOHA could take a leadership role on this issue.
- We are very interested in the proposal GNOHA hopes to put forth regarding Soft Second funding in the city. This issue affects our organization directly, and many others as well. A comprehensive proposal put forth by GNOHA members would hopefully see the release of some of this funding in the right direction.
- Be recognized by the Mayor of Orleans Parish as an expert community housing advisor with a seat and voice on the Mayor’s Advisory Housing team.
- Our organization is only concerned that GNOHA incorporation will jeopardize our ability to affect decisions in the alliance. We hope that a balance will be found to preserve advocates role as voting members.