Mayor's Neighborhood Interaction Teams Enhance Quality of Life
In June 1998, Mayor Greg Lashutka established a pilot program called the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team in Franklinton, a community in Columbus. The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team was designed to provide more effective and efficient City services. Drawing upon the City Health Department's goal to become "The healthiest city in America," the intent was to consolidate several agencies in a central neighborhood office in order to reduce administrative overhead and improve service delivery for health and safety issues in Columbus.
Mayor Lashutka developed the concept in response to concerns from community leaders regarding the fragmentation or duplication of responsibilities within City agencies that prevented efficient resolutions to complaints from residents. For example, prior to the pilot, a resident could call the Refuse Division, Code Enforcement, and Health Department in order to resolve the same solid waste problem. The complaint could potentially trigger three separate service requests, resulting in three city staff responding separately to correct the problem. Furthermore, the complaint could result in three separate legal actions. Establishing a community center that included representatives cross-trained to respond to various service requests from one location limited fragmentation and duplication of the City's response to residents. Through the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team, the City could increase public access to City services as well as improve interagency communication.
Selection of the Pilot Community
Franklinton, the neighborhood selected for the pilot program, is located immediately west of downtown Columbus. It is the oldest neighborhood in the City and is situated on a floodplain. The impact of past flooding and its floodplain designation have hindered development in the neighborhood. Its mixed zoning includes residential, commercial, manufacturing and industrial designations.
In addition to development issues, the residents in the Franklinton community were suffering from a high poverty rate. Seventy-five percent of its 4,500 households earn less than $25,000 per year, and nearly 40 percent of the residents are unemployed or are on some form of government assistance. Despite its economic challenges, the neighborhood boasts of a number of successful businesses, a major hospital, several churches, an active United Way Community Center, and a strong neighborhood watch program.
Due to its relatively small size, its active community leadership, the availability of social services and other community service organizations, and the underserviced needs of the community and its current demographics, Franklinton was chosen as the pilot.
The first major task of the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team was to conduct a community assessment to determine perceptions of City services in order to improve the quality of life within the Franklinton area by targeting issues of greatest concern to its residents. The community assessment would also provide baseline statistics for the purpose of measuring and assessing the effectiveness of the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team.
Employees of the Health Department and volunteers from the community conducted a block-by-block canvassing to conduct interviews with residents during the summer of 1998. Beginning at assigned areas, interviewers went house by house until an occupant agreed to complete an interview. For purposes of statistical significance, the interviewer then by-passed the next four occupied structures and repeated the process until successfully completing the block.
Collectively, they interviewed 297 households, or approximately 5 percent of the households in the community, to determine their opinion about 20 issues of concern there. Residents cited alley cleanliness, garbage, and vandalism/graffiti as top priorities next to complaints of drugs, alcohol, and theft. The results also confirmed that residents were dissatisfied with the enforcement of codes, nuisance inspections, and the recycling program.
City officials noted that additional environmental issues of concern included unsanitary interior housing conditions, poor structural condition of buildings, unsanitary conditions caused by pets and overcrowding, inoperable motor vehicles, homeless camps, high grass and weeds, and vacant structures. These problems all contributed to the overall decline of the neighborhood over the years.
In response to the results of the community assessment, several different City of Columbus agencies were asked to have staff participate in the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team: Columbus Health Department, Columbus Division of Police, Refuse Collection Division, Trade & Development Building and Development Services, and Trade & Development Housing and Community Services. The staff provided from these agencies consists of one health inspector, three code enforcement officers, one development liaison, one police officer and one student intern. In addition, the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team employs one community liaison that lives in the community and is active in numerous neighborhood organizations.
The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team is dedicated to "a holistic approach in the prevention, detection, and elimination of environmental conditions that impact the health and safety of Franklinton residents." The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team's core activities and issues concern vacant lots, illegal dumping, solid waste management, code enforcement, graffiti, alley improvements, interior and exterior housing improvements, high grass and weeds, junk cars, community education and safety issues.
The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team established the following goals for improving service to the community:
The funding for the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team was approved by the Columbus City Council in the amount of $170,000 for one year. Its budget was managed by the City's Health Department. The funding was used to pay for two new positions (a coordinator and an administrative assistant), office equipment, computers, supplies, furniture, rent, and a part-time community liaison position. It is estimated that costs for its second year would be approximately $80,000. All other staff of the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team are already paid for by various City agencies that they represent.
To promote the services of the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team, it was initially presented to the leading community organizations and to key community leaders, including the Franklinton Area Commission, Gladden Community Center, Franklinton Board of Trade, Franklinton Neighborhood Watch, and the West Side Boys and Girls Club.
As a kickoff event, Mayor Lashutka hosted a press conference and ribbon cutting ceremony for the new office. Community leaders, City council members, City administrators and media representatives were invited to attend. Shortly after opening, the office hosted a social service open house, in which all area service providers and churches were invited to meet the staff of the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team.
The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team primarily advertises its services through the local newspaper, the Franklinton News. The full-page advertisement is run monthly and lists the services provided, the office location, and educational information pertaining to health, housing, zoning, safety, refuse, and other City services. The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team also sends a representative to all commission, board of trade, and blockwatch meetings.
The neighborhood office is open to the community daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and residents can bring their complaints or questions directly to this office. To date, the office receives an average of 75 inquiries and/or complaints each month. During the summer, this average is generally higher, while during the winter months the average is usually smaller.
The response of the office to community inquiries and complaints varies. Generally, a complaint generates a written service request, which is given to the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team coordinator. Based on the type of complaint, the coordinator informs the appropriate staff members, and it receives a response in less than 24 hours. Quite frequently, complaints are addressed in less than one hour after they are received.
For example, if the Neighborhood Quality Improvement Team receives a resident's complaint alleging unsanitary conditions, drugs and prostitution in a three unit residential house, that complaint will trigger an initial visit to the property by a code enforcement officer and a police officer. The following response activities could occur:
(1) After inspecting each of the three units, the code enforcement officer determines that interior conditions and housing violations are so severe that the units must be vacated to protect the safety of residents.
(2) The code enforcement officer writes an emergency order to vacate each unit within 15 days due to severe structural, electrical and plumbing violations. The code enforcement officer also notes that all units are infested with roaches and have animal sanitation problems.
(3) The code enforcement officer contacts the refuse division to haul away debris and trash on the site.
(4) The police officer observes signs of illegal activity in the units and checks occupant's identification. The occupant has outstanding warrants, is arrested immediately and taken into custody.
(5) Following the inspections, the officers report the information back to the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team coordinator. The following day, a community liaison interviews each of the occupants and begins a search for relocation of the occupants to safe housing. The liaison will use City, community, and private resources to relocate the occupants.
(6) The case is added for discussion at the weekly Team meetings and staff suggest possible actions for resolution.
(7) The occupants are placed in safe housing and both the community liaison and a health officer follow up with them to ensure they are provided with any services they may need.
(8) The code enforcement officer will follow up to determine that all exterior and interior housing codes are met before the property is rented again.
Based on this example, it is clear that quite frequently more than one City agency is involved in providing permanent solutions to environmental blight in neighborhoods. Most cases require the expertise of health, housing, safety, and social service officers. The knowledge and actions of these officers partnered with community resources allows for improved service to the residents and more efficient use of limited City funds.
The office tracks several important statistics related to its priorities for housing, zoning, health, enforcement, and crime in the community. The results reflect favorably on the services it has provided during its first year, clearly revealing that the overall environment in Franklinton is showing improvement.
The number of written orders and legal actions taken for housing and zoning violations totaled 445, with a compliance of seventy percent, slightly higher than the citywide compliance rate of sixty-three percent. The compliance rate showed significant improvements from the previous year, particularly in housing, which showed a dramatic rise of 32 percent. The number of legal actions taken to enforce codes also increased by 88 percent.
The Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team partners with its local Keep America Beautiful affiliate to address specific resident concerns about trash and litter in the neighborhood. Keep Columbus Beautiful solicits private sector support and in-kind services, mobilizes volunteers for cleanup activities, and conducts public education for residents. Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team members have participated in three community cleanups, in which many illegal dump sites were removed. In addition, the Team coordinates several neighborhood cleanups with area elementary and middle schools.
The pilot measured decline in criminal activity throughout Franklinton since the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team had been established. Although some crimes, such as assault and larceny, remained nearly the same, robberies in the community declined by nearly 16 percent. This statistic could indicate that the increased presence of police and code enforcement officials, as well as the improved coordination of City services, has contributed to a reduction in crime in the community.
The Franklinton community was very enthusiastic about maintaining the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team following the end of the pilot. Gale Gray, Chair of the Franklinton Area Commission, commented that "We are grateful to have the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team right in our neighborhood. You have approached housing needs, seniors, rubbish, code violations, law enforcement, and many other issues successfully."
Mike Fielding, Program Manager for the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team, summed it up quite well, stating:
"I have a very good feeling about the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team and the successes they have achieved so far. I saw cooperation, trust, and a willingness to experiment with new ways of interacting to resolve the complex community problems the team members face on a daily basis. Community leaders, City officials, and residents related numerous anecdotes revealing the advantages of all team members being housed under one roof. They have consistently sidestepped the bureaucratic slow-downs that have plagued inter-departmental cooperation in the past. By acting in concert, the group has been able to increase their impact when attempting to get landlords and/or homeowners to take action."
Mayor Lashutka recognized the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team for its outstanding success by presenting it with the 1999 Mayor's Award of Excellence for utilizing technology, community resources and partnerships in creative ways to improve the overall quality of life for all.
The program will hopefully continue in Franklinton and be expanded beyond its initial pilot area soon, and residents of Columbus are eager to receive the Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team soon in their neighborhoods. Continuation and expansion of the program is under consideration by the Neighborhood Coordinating Committee and the Columbus City Council. The committee is currently reviewing demographics and agency statistics for several central city neighborhoods before a decision is made. Space for a second office is currently under construction in a new public service facility to be completed in the summer of 2000. The program's administration could be replaced after a new mayor takes office in January 2000, however, the Franklinton Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team is optimistic that its solid base of community support will drive further expansion of this successful pilot program.
For more information, please contact:
Mayor's Neighborhood Quality Interaction Team
J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352