A Neighborhood Association is a distant cousin to the more traditional Home Owners’ Association, established to give residents of a neighborhood a voice in advocating for improvements, in planning and implementing community activities, in fostering communication and cooperation between neighbors, and in improving the quality of life for local residents. Traditional Home Owners’ Associations (HOAs) are typically limited to just people who own the homes of an area, including people who own property but don’t live in the neighborhood. They usually require that all homeowners in an area pay regular fees, which can be quite sizable, to create a pool of funds for repairs, maintenance, snow plowing, and other communal services. Unlike HOAs, participation and membership in Neighborhood Associations are typically voluntary, and they do not have the legal authority to establish rules or place restrictions on residents. However, they can be a great asset in developing a sense of community, organizing events, and coordinating volunteers.
There are a number of things that we can do as individuals to make our communities safer and more enjoyable, but if you want to really mobilize as many residents as possible, a Neighborhood Association is a great place to start. These steps can help you get started:
1. Identify Your Early Adopters and Community Organizers
You probably already know who these people are, but make a list of people that live in your neighborhood that you think might be really interested in helping to establish a group. Take time though to invite people outside of your normal circle of friends—the perspective of different backgrounds may significantly improve your likelihood of success.
2. Define Your Primary Purpose(s)
Have a good, in-depth conversation with your early adopters on what they think are the most important issues that a Neighborhood Association can or should address. Be respectful in hearing people out—different people will have different objectives, but some objectives can be grouped together under a broader heading of activities. If needed to form a consensus, record these suggestions and have people vote for their top three. Common reasons to form a Neighborhood Association might include:
- Opportunities to socialize and network which can include building friendships, establishing book clubs, coordinating block parties and events;
- Fostering the use of local services and businesses;
- Advocating for community improvements and establishing a mechanism for communicating with local government services;
- Fostering beautification activities in the neighborhood;
- Organizing for crime prevention and neighborhood watch programs;
- Organizing for disaster relief and establishing a Community Emergency Response Team;
- Fostering activities and opportunities for neighborhood youth including support of local school systems; and
- Reducing neighborhood complaints, including pet issues, lawn maintenance concerns, potholes, etc. (Although these things are typically the purview of an HOA.)
Once the primary purposes are defined, be sure to remind people that this doesn’t mean that the HA won’t address less popular concerns. It just helps to build a map for priorities for future growth and focus.
3. Map Out Your Endgame
Discuss among your early adopters what they want to see this group look like in five years time. Do they want a loose association of residents that changes over time? Do they want to pursue formal registration with the city? Will they establish bylaws and vote in officers? What is the plan to recruit and replace someone if a key organizer moves away?
4. Identify Available Resources
Neighborhood Associations are typically recognized by your local city or county government if they have such a program. Contact your city to find out what resources might be available to help you in this endeavor. Some cities go out of their way to foster these types of groups! Some cities even have grants available to help fund community events and fund permanent assets for neighborhood gatherings. An example includes Rochester, MN. They make available a Backyard Movie in a Box kit for public use, which includes a massive outdoor screen and projector, DVD player, speakers, power strips and cables, all ready to establish a neighborhood viewing party. Arvada, CO offers Neighborhood Associations free use of their Block Party trailer which includes tables and chairs, coolers, and games. If your city doesn’t have a program to foster neighborhood engagement, don’t be shy about asking if they want to start one!
This can be through social media, flyers, newsletters and other formats. Broadening your Neighborhood Association’s reach is essential to its long-term success. The members of the Association should mirror the demographics of your neighborhood and include renters, families with children, retirees, and people of different racial and religious backgrounds. Establish a forum on social media, but also investigate at least two other avenues to share information and foster engagement, as not everyone uses social media platforms. Old-fashioned newsletters and flyers might be an option, as well as an established phone-tree to reach residents who aren’t connected to the internet. Use these formats to recruit volunteers, market upcoming events and block parties, and solicit ideas for future activities.
6. Hold Regular Meetings or Events to Foster Ongoing Interest
Initial interest in the Neighborhood Association may be quite high. Residents will be eager to meet new faces or make new connections, but over time interest may wane. Plan to have some regular events that occur seasonally to keep residents engaged. Some ideas include:
- Spring cleaning neighborhood work party scheduled to coordinate with Earth Day (April 22nd).
- Summer block party with water sprinklers, bounce house, games, etc.
- Fall harvest progressive dinner party—one home serves appetizers, another home serves an entree, and the final home serves the desserts.