By Cameron Brown and Alanna Margulies
For almost 30 years, the Charlotte Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services has sought to engage community members and connect neighbors by incentivizing residents to volunteer and invest in their communities. One of Charlotte’s most successful and long-standing programs is its Neighborhood Matching Grants (NMG) Program, which strives to simultaneously engage community members in volunteer service around their neighborhoods and address important neighborhood small-scale needs surrounding public safety, beautification, signage, and more.
NMGs provide funding for improvements that are too small for city government to prioritize, but too large for a neighborhood to independently amass resources to address. The NMG Program concurrently provides an opportunity for community members to get to know one another, take ownership over their neighborhoods, and feel pride in where they live. Meanwhile, Charlotte residents gain access to services and amenities that genuinely improve daily life and make Charlotte a more desirable and equitable place to live.
Neighbors are often a community’s “initial first responders.” In times of need, community members rely on networks found in their neighborhoods for support, guidance, and social connection. Studies have demonstrated that residents with broader and deeper social networks in their own neighborhoods develop a more profound connection to their community and a more robust sense of belonging that translates to effective community engagement and meaningful service. Accordingly, people are more likely to contribute to their community if they develop better relationships with their neighbors.
This phenomenon is at the heart of the work that the Charlotte Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services performs. By stimulating neighbor to neighbor interactions through programs developed to encourage community members to work together, they have built a strong apparatus of intra-neighborhood networks that can advocate for themselves and increase unity and self-determination. Charlotte Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services fosters this growth by providing tools that neighborhoods can utilize to expand their available services, quality of life, safety, and livability.
The department’s flagship Neighborhood Matching Grants Program was launched in 1992 and has been working to expand and engage new neighborhoods in the program ever since. For almost 30 years, the program has been so successful that its funding has either stayed constant or increased every year. For the 2021-2022 cycle, the program has been approved for a budget of $400,000. Over 495 unique neighborhoods (1,220 grants approved) have participated in the program, and oftentimes, neighborhoods will receive several matching grants as they come up with new ideas to improve their surroundings. While the Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services houses several unique and thriving programs to engage neighborhood leaders and community members, the Neighborhood Matching Grants Program stands out for its longevity, its effectiveness at creating tangible impacts on neighborhoods, and its ability to cultivate meaningful connections between community members.
Neighborhood Matching Grants
The NMG Program has four primary goals:
- Building neighborhood capacity and participation,
- Empowering neighborhoods to self-determine improvement priorities,
- Leveraging resident involvement and resources to revitalize and reinvest in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, and
- Stimulating development of partnerships between the city and community groups.
Because of this multifaceted mandate, Charlotte takes a unique approach to granting matching funds. When applying for grants, neighborhood organizations have the opportunity to match the money they receive from the city either with money, in-kind donations, or service hours. A minimum of 50 percent of the funds received must be matched with service hours. Service hours are evaluated at a rate of about $27 per hour. This unique funding structure both incentivizes community members to come together to improve their neighborhoods and lowers the barrier of entry for communities
The matching grants target projects that are outside of the city’s capital improvement bracket, meaning that they are too small for the city to prioritize but too expensive for communities to fund on their own. Neighborhood organizations can apply for funding in two brackets. Neighborhoods with a median assessed property value of less than or equal to $104,110 are eligible to apply for up to $25,000 per application, while neighborhoods with median assessed property value is greater than $104,110 and less than or equal to $181,703 are eligible to apply for up to $10,000 per application. Neighborhoods in the higher property value bracket are ineligible for grants that target exterior curb appeal and existing community property improvements.
Neighborhood organizations are encouraged to apply for funding for projects that fall under twelve categories: art & beautification, festivals & special events, public safety, organizational development, programming, recreation, property enhancement, resource conservation, signage, community garden, marketing & branding, and neighborhood cleanup. Communities may receive grants for projects in several categories over the course of one year or several years. The application for NMGs prioritizes community engagement and volunteering plans as much as the specifics of the improvement that they are pursuing. These factors contribute to the centrality of community building in the execution of the NMG program, and the program’s staff are accessible and eager to assist neighborhood organizations to design projects with community engagement and growth in mind.
The application and approval process for neighborhood organizations to receive matching grants is comprehensive, but participants engaged in the program report that it feels “user-friendly.” Participants indicate that the Housing & Neighborhood Services staff are extremely helpful in helping them navigate the process. The department provides three windows per calendar year for neighborhood organizations to apply for the NMG Program. Once each application deadline passes, an independent board of community members convenes to review the applications and decide to whom they wish to grant funds for that application cycle.
Once an application for an NMG from the neighborhood association has been formalized, it is assigned a service area liaison to assist the neighborhood organization applicant in the fulfilment of their NMG-funded application. After an organization completes their application with the guidance of the service area liaison, there is a brief clarification period where the NMG committee can provide applicants with initial feedback on their application. This step provides applicants an additional opportunity to present in front of the review committee before the formal consideration and approval of the potential NMG-funded project. If a neighborhood organization fails to receive funds in a given cycle, city staff will work with that organization to improve their application for subsequent cycles.
Following the formal approval process, the city tenders successful neighborhood organizations written contracts that promise the completion of the agreed upon neighborhood improvement project the organization indicated within a set time - generally one year from the point of approval - in exchange for cash donations, in-kind donations, and/or volunteer hours. Payment to neighborhood organizations is rendered through the City of Charlotte’s pre-existing reimbursement program. To avoid intractable disputes surrounding funds or the inappropriate application of funds, the neighborhood association applicant does not receive the funding before a contract is signed for the NMG-funded project.
Although neighborhoods do not receive project funds until after signing their contracts, the city will provide “special incentive grants” to assist neighborhoods in paying for immediate needs, such as meeting tools, Zoom meetings, and temporary food pantries. For neighborhood organizations or associations operating in low-income areas where a traditional reimbursement would be a potential barrier to entry, the assigned service area liaison works directly with relevant vendors to commit to the execution of project work in advance. Vendors instead deliver an invoice to the city that will be honored at the end of the contract period designated in the agreement between the city and applicant neighborhood organization. Given that the vendor must deliver an actual invoice on the letterhead of a verified entity listed in the NMG Program application, this has yet to be an issue for the proper execution of NMG-funded projects.
The NMG program’s contributions can be felt most deeply at the neighborhood level. Because of the accessibility of NMGs and the supportive environment that Housing & Neighborhood Services staff foster around the program, neighborhoods across the socioeconomic spectrum have enthusiastically participated in NMG projects time and time again. While there is some anecdotal evidence that participation in NMGs has encouraged Charlotte residents to engage and participate civically and politically on a city-wide level, this impact can and should be further investigated. However, it is clear that after developing their skills and credentials as leaders in their neighborhoods through the NMG program, members of neighborhood boards go on to contribute to Charlotte at large through other city programs, including attending the neighborhood leadership retreat and mentoring other neighborhoods applying for NMGs for the first time.
Residents and neighborhood leaders who were interviewed about their experiences with the NMG Program feel that their communities are stronger and more vibrant after completing a neighborhood improvement project, in ways not only directly related to work done during the project, but also indirectly through the camaraderie that was built as a consequence of the neighbor-to-neighbor interactions. Terri Rice-Abercrombie is a member of the Homeowners Association (HOA) Board in the Sherbrook neighborhood of Charlotte, which she describes as a working-class neighborhood.
Through their volunteer hours, Sherbrook residents have been empowered to beautify public spaces in their neighborhood and provide themselves and their neighbors with vibrant gathering places. As a consequence, Sherbrook has continued to apply and receive grants covering a wide range of communal needs, starting with adding streetlights to the neighborhood to increase public safety, and moving on to community entrance lighting, treescape preservation, and decorative street signs and toppers to identify and brand the community.
Rice-Abercrombie explains that through participating in the NMG program, the members of the HOA Board sought to imbue a sense of dignity in Sherbrook residents. She emphasizes that the HOA Board’s participation in the NMG program was part of a broader effort to encourage Sherbrook residents to believe that they deserve to live in a neighborhood that they can be proud of, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Rice-Abercrombie and the rest of the HOA Board continue to brainstorm ideas for new ways they can utilize the NMG program to improve their neighborhood while continuing to provide opportunities for neighbors to partner together and lend a hand in making Sherbrook a better place to live. For their next grant, the Sherbrook group plans to create a communal location where neighbors can access tables, chairs, and other materials necessary to host neighborhood or private events for friends and family.
While the Sherbrook neighborhood has certainly benefited from the structural improvements the city has contributed to their streets and common spaces, even more striking are the changes that Rice-Abercrombie describes among the individuals living in Sherbrook. After participating in volunteer hours for the NMG community contributions and seeing their surroundings revived and updated, says Rice-Abercrombie, community members are spending more time walking about the neighborhood and interacting with their neighbors. She also explains how neighbors are now more likely to pick up garbage around the neighborhood when they see it, which was not previously the case, a true testament to the sense of pride and care Sherbrook residents now feel towards their neighborhood after the implementation of projects made possible through the NMG Program.
Much of the Neighborhood Matching Grant Program’s longevity can be attributed to its unique ability to evolve and adapt over time to meet the changing needs of Charlotte and become more equitable and accessible in its execution. While the core of this program has remained consistent, NMGs have made aesthetic and technological updates, as well as procedural changes to their recruitment and application process. Over time, both NMG administrators and participants have adapted and grown, learning to maximize the potential of the program.
Monroe Road Advocates (MoRA) is a grassroots organization that seeks to attract people to and build a stronger sense of community around the Monroe Road area of Charlotte. Since founding this organization in 2014, members of the MoRA Board have received three Neighborhood Matching Grants along with a plethora of support and funding from various programs housed within the Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services. In fall 2021, MoRA completed their most ambitious NMG project yet: recruiting local artists and community members to paint murals on the sidewalks of four intersections on Monroe Road. In completing this array of projects and growing MoRA over the past six years, MoRA’s founders have seen the program evolve and become more equitable and accessible for Charlotte residents.
Chair Kathy Hill, Vice Chair John Lincoln, and Community Outreach Chair Dean Brodhag explained both what they have learned over the years and how the NMG program has grown. When they first began engaging with the NMG program, Hill, Lincoln, and Brodhag immediately noticed the greatest barrier of entry to receiving a grant: time. They found that each step along the way was time-consuming, from filling out the application, to refining it with the city, to recruiting neighbors for service hours, to completing the requisite book-keeping for city government records. Members of the MoRA board recognized that for the communities that need NMGs the most, sacrificing time could be a significant deterrent.
To address these concerns, the Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services has significantly streamlined the process for NMG applicants and participants since 2014. The city has provided more thorough and user-friendly instructions for filling out the application, and staff members are available to help applicants make their case. Once an organization receives a grant, it is required to report service hours on a bi-monthly basis, rather than a monthly basis. In addition, the city now encourages applicants to appoint a designated individual or group of people to be responsible for logistics, ensuring that there are people on each project planning for unforeseen circumstances and focused on execution. These are just a few of the adaptations and improvements the city has made over the past several years as they have sought to include more low-income neighborhoods in their mission.
Al Minter, a member of the Amberleigh HOA Board, describes how impactful the recent addition of an NMG mentorship program has been to newcomers to the program. The Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services has paired Minter, along with several other experienced community leaders, with less experienced neighborhood organizations that are new to the program. In doing so, those with more experience navigating city bureaucracy and designing projects using the NMG system have the capacity to guide less experienced neighborhood organizations towards establishing themselves in their communities and creating meaningful NMG projects.
From an organizational perspective, the MoRA board members, Minter, and Rice-Abercrombie all emphasize the importance of effective communication with both city officials and community members. When applying for NMGs and other grants from the city government, MoRA believes that messaging is important enough that they include a specific allocation of funds for a social media and marketing expert who is best equipped to maximize participation and effective outreach for the neighborhood’s volunteer projects. MoRA board members stress the dual role this has to reach community members and demonstrate to these community members how exciting and impactful the current project work is. On their most recent sidewalk mural project, MoRA was able to attract between 60 and 70 volunteers to help paint murals throughout the summer and fall, which they say would not have been possible without expert marketing and outreach. They strongly encourage any organization pursuing NMGs, and community-building in general, to think critically about how they plan to communicate information with their neighbors to engage more people in the execution of NMG-funded projects and make genuine connections that enhance neighborhood cohesiveness.
Nicole Storey, the Neighborhood & Community Partnerships Manager for the City of Charlotte, hopes to enhance the NMG program to incentivize capacity building and engagement citywide, with the greatest resources applied in areas with greatest need. Future program expansion could include smaller grants which specifically encourage relationships and bridge building between neighborhoods and neighbors which may not otherwise have taken the opportunity to know one another. Similar pilot efforts have demonstrated successful outcomes. Introducing all neighborhoods to the NMG Program will ensure the NMG Program’s work is not only whole-city in scope, but also a long-term investment in the development of community partnerships that seek to unify all Charlotte neighborhoods across the city’s tax base.
The Neighborhood Matching Grant Program is just one of many efforts Charlotte’s Department of Housing & Neighborhood Services offers to Charlotte residents to develop their communities and grow as neighborhood leaders. The Department maintains Charlotte’s voluntary list of neighborhood boards, stimulates camaraderie within these boards by developing neighborhood board retreats, and conducts a Charlotte “Civic Leadership Academy,” which emphasizes civic education.
However, the NMG Program is unique in its propensity for building strong relationships between city government and neighborhood residents while developing thriving neighborhood communities. By providing concrete services to Charlotte neighborhoods that effectively address relevant neighborhood priorities, NMGs provide tangible benefits to residents. In doing so, the NMG Program fosters a sense of trust and partnership between city government and its constituents. As residents and community leaders further develop this relationship with their government, they are also taking greater ownership over the neighborhoods where they reside, leading to future development and investment. Time and time again, this program has motivated residents to band together to grow and develop their communities beyond the minimum each time they sign a contract with the city and receive their grant.
While equity has always been at the center of the program’s mission, the NMG staff and longtime participants in the program have worked diligently to make this ideal a reality. By removing the barriers of entry that disadvantage low-income communities and streamlining both the application and implementation processes, Charlotte has been able to include neighborhoods across the socioeconomic spectrum that can benefit from these Neighborhood Matching Grants. The NMG Program’s success combines dedicated city staff, passionate neighborhood leaders, and an ironclad commitment to harnessing Charlotte residents’ passion for their city to improve it from the neighborhood level outward.
Alanna Margulies is a senior at Johns Hopkins University where she studies International Studies and History and serves as a research assistant at the SNF Agora Institute with the Democracy Cities project. She has previously studied the role of leadership academies in Lancaster, PA and equitable engagement in Durham, NC.
Cameron Andrew Brown is a research assistant for Democracy Cities at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He has written previous case studies on neighborhood organizations in Detroit and delivering services via digital platforms in Orlando.