In 2012, the Metropolitan Housing Alliance (MHA), formerly known as the Little Rock Housing Authority, was one of only 13 communities across the country awarded a $300,000 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant. An approach that supports people first, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative serves to transform distressed communities into viable, sustainable, mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods, by linking housing development to appropriate services that increase residents' health, safety, education and economic development. Uniquely, the grant's design naturally couples grassroots efforts with local initiatives to support a shared community vision.
The comprehensive approach of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative encourages creative and out-of-the-box strategies, such as economically developing a community by connecting two of its most valuable resources: its people and its anchor institutions. Flanked by establishments like the Arkansas Children's Hospital and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Little Rock Choice Neighborhood (LRCN) allocation lends itself to a more localized economy. There are more than 10 anchor institutions within a three-mile radius of the LRCN, making it an ideal location to bolster the local economy. This corporate/community partnership also reduces social proximity between the two entities through an acknowledgement of interdependence and a common goal of holistic development. This creation of shared value demystifies the grandeur that sometimes surrounds anchor institutions, lessens the fear of the unknown, encourages buy-in, and fosters the integration of possibility, opportunity and access.
The Brookings Institution has reported several advantages of linking "eds and meds" (educational and medical institutions) to economic development, including job creation, improvement of residents' skills and setting a trend for the remainder of the local labor market. In efforts to apply this best practice most aptly, the residential and commercial communities of the LRCN were surveyed to ascertain the needs of the community. Residents reported "No Job Opportunities" as the No. 1 factor in making work difficult to find. They identified computer-skill development and vocational training as the community's most-needed instruction. This information will serve to inform the MHA's approach to engage anchor institutions, and to identify gaps in the neighborhood as well as methods that will allow the community to meet its own needs. For example, in the LRCN there is a large group of disconnected youth (who are under age 25, have not completed high school, and are unable to obtain a college degree or the skills necessary to obtain gainful employment) as well as a disproportionate number of distressed homes. Training these youths in home repair yields a population of skilled and employable residents, stimulates the economy, improves the housing market and strengthens the neighborhood. The MHA also plans to create economic viability through establishing high school internships with anchor institutions and apprenticeships with local industries; linking summer jobs for youth to professional development courses at local colleges; and creating a workforce to fill jobs identified by anchor institutions as "high-turnover positions."
The tenants of the LRCN will bolster this economic development strategy with plans to increase bus-route hours, as well as stops and locations that connect neighborhood residents to anchor institutions. Future plans to develop other necessary services, such as a work-subsidized childcare/after-school program, will also reinforce LRNC's strategies. These and other plans will be developed via the input of the community, the city of Little Rock and local partners for the improvement of the LRCN. Follow our transformation on our web site.