One of the Office of Innovation’s major goals is to create a City government that is as customer friendly as possible. Customer service is often perceived as something reserved for the private sector, but anyone who has had to renew a driver’s license or pay a water bill knows how important customer service is in the public sector as well. In 2018, Mayor Warren directed the
i-team to explore digitizing the process by which citizens reserve City facilities for public use, specifically our lodge or cabin rentals.
In February, the City launched its new online reservation portal, eRESERVATION, where citizens can look up lodge availability, book their events, and process their payments all from the convenience of their own home. It is what our citizens expect from City government now in this digital age. Since its launch, just over 200 residents have made reservations using the online portal
The task of creating this system may have sounded simple, but it involved nearly every department at City Hall, including the Departments of Recreation and Youth Services (DRYS), Information Technology, Finance, Budget, Communications and Special Events, Environmental Services, and Law. Thank you to each of these teams for making this possible, and a special thanks to the individuals who were part of the core project team: Mai Ho, Leslie Green, Zuleika
Laboy-Llionat, Jim Farr, and Kristina Heiligenthaler from DRYS and Vikki Cheal and Tracey Van Tassell from IT.
We began by mapping the original, in-person process so that we could replicate it digitally in partnership with Hamer Enterprises, the company that the City contracts with for all its online payment systems. This provided us the opportunity to pause and question whether all steps of the original process were actually necessary and efficient. We learned that the answer often was no—there were steps that we agreed were actually just bureaucratic headaches that were not required anywhere in law.
Staff had felt required to complete these steps simply because it was the way things had always been done. For example, in the original process, customers were required to get a signature from a notary and complete a walk-through at the event space before completing their reservation. Upon further research, we determined that nowhere in writing was this actually required but it was just simply a matter of practice that needlessly cost the City and its customers time that could be better spent elsewhere.
We learned that by making the process easier for our customers, we also made things easier on our own staff. Think, if DRYS staff were working with customers to make their reservations for 15 minutes per customers, a generous underestimation, then they have already saved about 50 hours in staff time that can be productively reallocated to other important work.
For now, the system allows citizens to make reservations at all seven of the City’s lodges: Tay House Lodge, Lake Riley Lodge, Danforth Community Center, Genesee Valley Field House, Edgerton Stardust Ballroom, Norton Village Lodge, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park Lodge. In the future, we hope to add dozens more of DRYS facilities to the system, including baseball fields, basketball courts, and more!
Take some time to explore the eRESERVATION system and let us know what you think!
The Bridges to Success program is one of the Office of Innovation’s longest running projects for which I have been part of the project team. The program was an early pilot launched by the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) and then led by partner organizations Catholic Family Center, Action for a Better Community, and The Community Place of Greater Rochester. The program provides families a dedicated life coach and a framework for setting and achieving goals to improve major areas of their life. The life coach assists the family in accessing services and resources to achieve the goals. The program is modeled off of the nationally acclaimed EMPath Program which was developed in Boston, and shares the same goals to help families achieve economic mobility and increased household earnings.
Importantly, the program is being evaluated using a rigorous randomized control trial methodology that will provide irrefutable evidence of whether the program is working or not. When participants apply to the program, they complete an intake assessment that provides baseline data on the family, and are then randomized into the ‘service’ or ‘comparison’ group. The ‘service’ group receives the full suite of intensive services from the program for two years. The ‘comparison’ group is referred to other area services that can assist with any immediate needs, but doesn’t receive the life coach or long-term, comprehensive approach provided by the program. Both groups are tracked over time through follow up surveys and data provided by the NYS Department of Labor and Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Comparing the ‘service’ and ‘comparison’ group outcomes helps screen out the effects of any global economic forces that would theoretically either help or hurt both groups equally, such as an economic recession. The difference between the two groups is the true effect of the program. The main metric the program is seeking to improve is household earnings. In effect, the evaluation is testing the impact on earnings of providing a life coach and goal setting framework. The hypothesis is this service helps families better navigate and access the wealth of existing local services and make better long-term decisions to set themselves up for economic success. The official results of the evaluation are expected to be available in 2020, with additional ongoing updates as the participants are tracked after they graduate. We are hoping to see at least a 19 percent increase in earnings attributed to the program.
To help design and oversee the sensitive evaluation, our local partners have been fortunate to engage the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunity, who are some of the nation’s leading experts on this type of evaluation in the anti-poverty and non-profit space. The evaluation has been funded by MIT Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s (J-PAL) and their North America Local Government Program. Members of the Office of Innovation provided significant early support for the design of the evaluation, helping to build it into the operational design of the program while working with our non-profit partners to navigate concerns and issues. I have also had the opportunity to attend an intensive J-PAL training on randomized control trial evaluations and a series of J-PAL convenings that brought together other local communities implementing similar evaluations.
Click here to read more detail about the evaluation in a recent blog post I wrote for the J-PAL’s blog.
My name is Jesse Llop, and I am enthusiastically joining the Office of Innovation as a Senior Data Analyst. I come to OISI fresh from a consulting contract with the City of Rochester's IT Department in data strategy, and before that, several years of data work in functional genomics. My career in science focused on statistics development for experimental data, and on analysis and prioritization of experimental data.
My primary focus in this role will be coordinating a City-wide data strategy and building a culture of analytics for data-driven decision-making. I'll summarize here what "data strategy" and "analytics" mean to me and what these ideas can deliver to our city. Data strategy means having focus on data coordination, particularly among City leadership. Analytics means deriving value from data by making better, more efficient decisions.
Data Strategy is Focus
For many organizations, data strategy gets conflated with data management. There is, however, an important distinction to make: data management is all about where data is stored and transported, i.e. databases and computers. Data strategy, on the other hand, is all about creating a focused vision for how we use data to get where we want to go as an organization. A clear, focused vision tells you where to develop resources, which programs to prioritize, and what projects to take on. Having focus enables you to make big decisions confidently and to succinctly justify them. It also lets you gracefully say no to opportunities that look attractive but would pull you in the wrong direction.
City Leadership’s Role in Coordination
There are many potential directions to place our strategic focus. For City leaders, the focus must be on coordination. We have more than a dozen City departments and bureaus that each provide very different services to citizens. They all rely on City leadership for a unified direction, allowing each department to make the most of not only their own data, but also each other’s data. By coordinating the flows of data, we create value through two types of synergies: cost and service. Cost synergies come from eliminating duplicated effort, an important achievement when local governments are expected to deliver more with less. Service synergy comes from multiple departments coordinating to provide better services to our citizens. Identifying and delivering opportunities for these synergies will require more analytics based decision making across the City.
Analytics for a Stronger, Smarter City
There are two categories of data use: operational and analytical. Operational uses answer questions about a single event, person or transaction, such as "where do we need to dispatch a crew to service this 311 call?" Analytical uses ask broader questions about populations and patterns, "Where do people like to park on Wednesday evenings?" or "Which citizens are hardest hit by poverty, and why?" As a city government, we have room to grow our analytical capabilities. With good analysis, we will make better decisions, provide higher quality services, and reduce the cost of operations. I'd like to acknowledge here the advanced analysis and crime reporting of the Rochester Police Department, which can be pointed to as a leading example for others.
Organizations that lag in analytics capability often face an interesting hurdle. Before they can justify and choose investments in data analytics, they need to see the value analytics can create. Meanwhile, before they can see the value analytics can create, they need to perform the analytics! This chicken and egg scenario, if left alone, can stall the progress we need. Here, the Office of Innovation can help foster an appreciation for analytics in the City, by making our skills available for pilot projects and ad-hoc analyses and eventually empowering our colleagues with the tools to sustain this work. From the seeds planted by these collaborations, we can build strength in our analytics across the City.
My first month on the team has been engaging and productive, and I can't wait to see what we accomplish next!
As we enter into the New Year, it’s fitting that we take a moment to reflect upon the progress we have made as a city in 2018. Companies across Rochester like Bausch and Lomb, Datto, and CGI grew their businesses and created more jobs for residents, new Patrol Section offices were brought to neighborhoods to make them safer and contribute to another year of falling crime rates, and important investments were made in R-Centers and City libraries to transform these facilities into important education centers for students and adults. The Office of Innovation had its share of accomplishments as well (Including launching this blog!) Below you will find some info on some of the projects that we worked on throughout 2018.
Bank Partnership for Commercial Corridor Development
Since February 2018, staff from the Mayor’s Offices of Innovation and Community Wealth Building and the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development have been convening representatives from 10 local banks to develop solutions that bolster investment in Rochester’s distressed commercial corridors. Among potential solutions, the taskforce identified the need for a predevelopment loan product that can be used to prepare distressed commercial properties located in opportune locations so that they are ready for development and traditional bank financing. City staff are now negotiating with the banks to invest into fund held by the Rochester Economic Development Corporation, the City’s non-profit development arm. The City will also release the results of its Commercial Corridor study in early 2019, which will help inform a comprehensive strategy to redevelop targeted corridors that are shown to have capacity to support new investment and redevelopment. Look out for some big announcements in 2019 with lots more is in the works.
Affordable Housing Charter Amendment and RFP change
In the summer months, the Office of Innovation worked closely with partners in the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development and across the community to amend the City Charter to redefine what it means for housing to be labeled “affordable.” Before the amendment, the City Charter defined affordable housing as housing not costing more than a third of someone’s income who earns up to 120% of the area median income (AMI). This meant that affordable housing efforts could target a family of four making more than $88,000 annually, a population that is obviously not reflective of those who are most in need in the city.
The Charter amendment added clarity to the definition of affordable by breaking down income ranges into four classes: extremely low income (0-30% AMI), very low income (31-50% AMI), low income (51-80% AMI), and moderate income (81-120% AMI). The first tangible impact of this change was that it subsequently changed how the City’s annual request for proposals (RFP) for affordable housing developments is scored. Now, proposals are graded more favorably if they include plans to address extremely low income and very low income populations’ affordable housing needs as defined by the City Charter. This means that City support and potential financing will be awarded more often to housing developers planning to support those most in need.
In 2018, the Kiva Rochester program continued to have success and funded $107,000 in 0% interest Kiva loans to 22 small business owners. Since launching the program in August 2016, we have connected 71 local business owners to $365,525 in business capital. We supported entrepreneurs in a wide range of sectors – from a food truck owner, to a day care provider, a landscape architect, several artists, and a community video gaming venue. Our average loan size was just $4,900, but these loans are making a significant impact in the lives of our local entrepreneurs and in building a small business economy that is more reflective of Rochester’s diverse population. Many of our borrowers face barriers to accessing capital due to significant financial eligibility requirements. Kiva loans present an opportunity for financially excluded entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses by providing funding to purchase equipment and supplies, move into brick and mortar spaces, and hire employees. As the program matures, we are excited about the opportunity to analyze the data we have diligently been collecting since its inception. In 2019, we will conduct analyses on the impact of the program, including changes in business revenue and access to credit, job creation, and self-sufficiency.
OWN Rochester is the new name of our longest running project, formerly known as the Market Driven Community Cooperatives (MDCC) initiative. Director Henry Fitts has served as project manager and liaison since its earlies days, helping oversee the initial feasibility study in 2014 and the founding of MDCC in 2016. OWN Rochester celebrated its new name and rebranding in January of 2018, as well as the hire of our first staff, CEO Kate Washington. Kate Washington has helped oversee additional growth and development of the non-profit and its subsidiaries. In spring 2018 OWN Rochester launched its second company ENEROC Custodial. The company contracts overnight floor care services for Wegmans, and employs seven people. OWN Rochester’s first company, ENEROC LED, continues to operate with two employees and provides lighting installation and retrofitting for large commercial property owners. Most recently, ENEROC completed work at Foodlink’s warehouse facility. Both companies are overseen by General Manager Doug Caswell who has been with OWN since 2017.
With the launch and growth of the new Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building in 2018, support for OWN Rochester and Board operations is shifting in 2019 to Director Lomax Campbell and staff member Brad Willows.
NBD Business Grants and Loans Process Improvement
Innovation worked with the Economic Development team within the Office of Neighborhood and Business Development to streamline their processes governing how the City issues grants and loans to city businesses. This partnership brought together three separate work units that collaborate on these processes to map out every major step in delivering the service, identify pain points for both City staff and our external customers, define how long each step takes to deliver, and set goals for improvement. To date, the average time to issue grants and loans has decreased by roughly 20% thanks to the team’s innovations that focused on reducing unnecessary handoffs, updating and refining policy, improving program applications, and improving both internal and external communication.
In July, the Office of Innovation took over the project management of the implementation of Kronos, the online time and attendance application to better track, approve, and manage staff time. Innovation staff also worked with IT business analysts to train department end users on how to effectively use the new tool and provided on-site and remote assistance for user questions and concerns. The implementation will be closing out in March after multiple years of effort.
National Citizen Survey
Innovation managed a contract with the National Research Center to administer the National Citizen Survey to create a new data set of resident feedback on how well the City is providing specific services. In the next month, the City will be releasing the results of this survey, and OISI will be working with City departments to understand and apply the results to improve operations.
OISI also contracted Baker Tilly, a national accounting and management consulting company, to provide an analysis of the City’s high-level organization and major processes, resulting in recommendations for how we can improve our operational performance. OISI will be working on leading the execution of many of these recommendations with different departments over the course of 2019.
Employer of National Service Designation
This year, the City of Rochester was designated as an Employer of National Service, joining over 500 other organizations in the U.S. This designation provides special hiring consideration for alumni of national service organizations such as AmeriCorps and Peace Corps. Volunteers make a significant impact in our community and this year, Rochester was ranked second overall for volunteering among cities in the U.S. By formalizing our recognition of the valuable work performed by national service members – including those currently serving in our office – the City is demonstrating its commitment to fostering a diverse and mission-driven workforce.
While celebrating some of the accomplishments we had last year, it is also important to recognize that the work to improve our community and City Hall’s internal functions is never finished. We have a lot that we are looking forward to doing in 2019, including more internal process improvements, more initiatives to make housing more affordable and evictions less frequent, and more partnerships that will grow investment in our commercial corridors. We are also looking forward to closing out some projects and analyzing the outcomes from previous projects. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on everything the Office is doing throughout the year, and we hope to also hear from you as well on what you think.
Meet our new team members! The Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Office of Community Wealth Building are hosting four AmeriCorps VISTA members from the Rochester Youth Year Fellowship and New York State Empire Corps programs.
Rochester Youth Year (RYY) is a local AmeriCorps VISTA program administered by the Rochester Regional Network, a consortium of eight higher education institutions in the Rochester area. The program started in 2008 and has supported 93 VISTAs since, including fellow team members Brad Willows and Amy Ventura. RYY VISTAs serve at organizations that focus on education, economic opportunity, or healthy futures. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the expansion of the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) in 2016 to fund the Empire Corps program. ESPRI “supports community-driven, poverty reduction strategies that increase economic opportunity for all New Yorkers,” according to the Governor’s office. Empire Corps VISTAs serve in 16 communities across the state, including Rochester. VISTAs in these communities support local Poverty Reduction Task Forces, modeled after Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI).
AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) provide indirect service to their host sites
during their one-year term, focusing on capacity building at non-profit organizations and public agencies devoted to alleviating poverty. Indirect service is behind the scenes work. It could include recruiting and managing volunteers, writing grants, building community partnerships, and creating effective and sustainable systems for your host site beyond your year of service. Think about a high school tutoring program: a VISTA might develop the curriculum, recruit local college students, and train the volunteers. The program is sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
Considering half of our team members are current VISTAs or alumnus, it’s no surprise CNCS ranked Rochester the No. 2 city in volunteering nationwide with 45.6 percent of residents volunteering last year. This equates to 22.9 million hours of service, worth $553.9 million! The report titled Volunteering in America surveyed 51 metropolitan areas using US Census Bureau data from about 60,000 households, defining volunteers as “individuals who performed unpaid volunteer activities through or for an organization from September 1 of the prior year through the survey week in September.”
Learn about our new members:
I’m serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Office of Community Wealth Building through Rochester Youth Year. I was born in Rochester but moved away as a toddler and returned here as an undergraduate to study Economics and Spanish at the University of Rochester. I fell in love with Rochester through my volunteer experiences as a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity. My internship with Senator Gillibrand’s Rochester office demonstrated the importance of our government’s policies and the impact is has on the lives of City residents. I also realized the complexity of running a small business through my work with a local marketing start-up company. As a VISTA, I’m primarily working on our City Accelerator project. I’m very excited to apply my past experiences to my work at the OCWB and hope to improve the lives of all Rochesterians!
I am serving with the Rochester Youth Year Fellowship and am thrilled to be assisting with the Kiva Rochester program here in the Office of Innovation. Watching my mother start her business over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the challenges facing Rochester entrepreneurs firsthand. She’s wonderful at what she does, but the learning curve on the skills necessary to running a business can be punishing and finding time to learn about and access resources can feel impossible. It is an honor to be working with a project that focuses on building up people who would typically be denied financing opportunities. I am a recent graduate of Amherst College where I studied Sociology and developed a love for qualitative research. I worked as a contributor to Professor Vanessa Fong’s Dalian project and developed and executed evaluations for Girls Rock Rochester’s 2017 fiscal year. I’m very happy to be back at home and putting that knowledge to good use as an AmeriCorps VISTA.
At Office of Innovation, I will serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA through Empire Corps with a focus in analytics to drive neighborhood revitalization and community/economic development through New York’s Empire Corps program. I’m a Rochester native and a graduate from Gallaudet University with Bachelor’s in Sociology and a minor in business administration. After graduation, I worked as a Press intern at U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City for few months before coming back to Rochester to work with CGI Communications as a sales researcher. I’m passionate about giving back to the community, and helping it prosper.
I’m serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA through New York’s Empire Corps program. I grew up in the Rochester area and I graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Human Development and minors in Policy Analysis & Management and Inequality Studies. My interest is the intersection of sciences and human services, specifically how society can impact a young person’s development. Throughout college, I worked at a law-firm representing children in New York City’s family court, coordinated an educational urban outreach summer program in Ithaca, and created a sexual health curriculum for families in public housing units in the Bronx. I taught Biology in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America, then returned to Rochester and served as a Youth Advocate at Wilson High School. At the OCWB, I am focusing on the development of the Financial Empowerment Center initiative and youth financial empowerment opportunities within Rochester.
Throughout the history of our city, Rochester’s entrepreneurs and small business owners have brought a constant stream of new ideas and innovative services to our neighborhoods. However, structural and overt racism in our economy has historically denied large parts of our community – women and people of color in particular - the same opportunities to prosper as others. Today, the lasting effects of discrimination, lack of service coordination, and complicated processes inhibit many promising entrepreneurs from making their vision of business ownership a reality. Rochester is at a turning point in its history – our economy is shifting and once again growing, and it is essential that we seize the opportunity to break down historical barriers and create an equitable and inclusive economy.
As part of this effort, the City of Rochester is participating in the Living Cities and Citi Foundation’s City Accelerator for Local Job Creation and Business Growth. This project was described in greater detail here, in a previous blog post. The Rochester City Accelerator has several distinct goals, but focuses primarily on supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs as they seek to create and grow businesses, with special emphasis on businesses owned by people of color. Some specific examples of project strategies include creating a Business and Community Services Center that will host workshops and counseling sessions for businesses and entrepreneurs, hosted by area non-profit organizations; building a robust network of entrepreneurship and business service providers connected by state-of-the-art software; creation of a digital portal for individual business owners and entrepreneurs to access information about services, regulatory requirements of starting a business, and more; and an examination of City policies and procedures to determine how we can better serve our business community.
To ensure to that the City Accelerator project is successful, inclusive and equitable, we have developed a Small Business Support Survey that will gather information from the business community. From now until December 14th, Rochester small business owners and entrepreneurs are invited to share their experiences, information about their business, and how they perceive our local business support system. The results of this study will serve as the backbone of the entire project, guiding decision-making throughout our year of engagement with the City Accelerator and into the future. It is essential that the voice of the customer be represented as we work to create a more just economy – if you, or someone you know, is a business owner or entrepreneur, we encourage you to take the survey online at bit.ly/RocSmallBiz.
We believe that there is no more important aspect to program development than community engagement. Without taking into account the authentic voice, needs, and opinions of those whom we intend to serve, we will always fail to bring about organic and sustainable change.
To take the survey, visit: http://bit.ly/RocSmallBiz
Para hacerlo en español, visita: Encuesta de Apoyo
How do you feel about residing in Rochester? How would you rate the overall quality of life in the City? Do you feel safe in your community? Are you satisfied with the transportation of the City and available services?
It’s likely that your household has some opinions on life here in Rochester, NY, and with the upcoming National Citizen Survey you will be given the opportunity to share these opinions. More importantly, your opinions, in the form of survey responses, will ultimately influence the future delivery of services in your community.
For the first time ever, the City of Rochester is conducting a statistically valid citizen survey through the National Citizen Survey (NCS). The NCS is conducted by the National Research Center (NRC), of Boulder, CO, which conducts the survey for more than 350 jurisdictions annually. It is the most widely used and trusted survey tool of its type. The survey will be sent to 2,000 randomly, yet specifically, selected households throughout all of Rochester’s various neighborhoods. Although the selected survey recipients are random and anonymous, they have been chosen through a system that ensures the diverse needs of Rochesterians are represented throughout the collected results. The selected households and their responses are completely unknown by the City and remain anonymous in the data reports.
The purpose of the NCS varies per city, however, in Rochester the intention is that the collected data and citizen responses will allow the City to assess needs of citizens, measure service performance, and evaluate potential policies and initiatives intended to serve the community. The survey has already been mailed, and results will be collected throughout November. By the end of the year, the City will analyze the data and it will be used to support planning, budgeting, departmental operations and public engagement. In addition to the selected households that will receive a physical survey for the study, all other Rochester residents will have the opportunity to share their opinions through a public, online survey.
As we know, the residents and neighborhoods of Rochester are diverse across all demographics. Completed surveys will provide data that represents the different experiences and customer satisfaction that someone may have while living in Rochester. The results will be broken down by City quadrant to best understand the different experiences by geographic area as well as, demographic characteristics such as age, race, income, employment, household size, etc. This is invaluable information which the City can use to better understand the perception of services in areas such as mobility, safety, economic development, quality of natural environments, recreation, education and enrichment, and general government. Results will also allow for comparisons to other cities across the United States. Ultimately, the anticipated success of Rochester’s first National Citizen Survey in 2018 will ensure that this type of data collection continues in following years, so that the City can better track changes over time, and more effectively improve the quality of life for its resident.
In late September, members of the Innovation Team and the Office of Community Wealth Building traveled to Detroit to participate in the first convening of the City Accelerator program’s cohort on equitable local business and job growth. Each of the cities in the cohort was awarded a $100,000 grant and technical support from the collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation, and Living Cities. The two-day event provided an opportunity for our project team to get to know and learn from the participants from Atlanta, El Paso, Long Beach, and Newark.
Each city faces their own distinct challenges and is using different tactics to tackle the issues of equitable business development and job growth:
Our teams will come back together in several months to provide updates on each initiative’s progress and further learn from others’ experiences.
My name is Elizabeth Ingham, Kiva Rochester Assistant Program Coordinator, and after graduating Wells College in 2017 I joined the Kiva Rochester team. While in college, I took a semester to work with Kiva down in NYC, so I was excited to support a Kiva program in my hometown. As a Flower City AmeriCorps member, I have had the privilege of working with the Innovation Team for just over a year. Angela Rollins gives a great run down of Kiva Rochester, so if you haven’t yet, check it out here. AmeriCorps VISTAs focus on building sustainability, while Flower City AmeriCorps focus on day-to-day operations.
Over lunch one day, Angela and I were discussing how to make our communication more effective when Kate May recommended that we read the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Rochester’s own Richard Thaler. The book offered insights that were used to improve our messaging to Kiva applicants, resulting in more and higher quality applications.
Since then, we have made consistent revisions to our email messaging, and reworked our handouts and informational materials. Still, our Kiva borrowers kept coming back with the same questions and hitting similar roadblocks. I had been using one-on-one meetings to help guide the customer through the Kiva process and doling out worksheets as the customer needed them, but I needed a better way to get the information out. My solution was the creation of a new handout, A Guide to Kiva Rochester Small Business Loans, with a conscious balance of design and function. The idea of this book is that any business owner or aspiring business owner can pick it up and be as successful as possible when applying, fundraising, and repaying through Kiva.
A few Kiva applicants have used drafts of the book to help them, and so far the response has been positive. We are making physical copies available in all of the local libraries, a digital PDF available online for free, and distributing copies to many of our Rochester area partners. Hopefully, with its official release more of Rochester's entrepreneurs will be able to use Kiva Rochester to grow their businesses, and the Rochester community.
This week, the City of Rochester took two important steps to address housing affordability. First, City Council passed legislation amending the Charter of the City of Rochester to redefine affordability. Second, the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development (NBD) released its Request for Proposals (RFP) for affordable housing developments with new efforts taken to target low income and special needs populations. While these steps are only the beginning of the actions the City is taking, they represent an important commitment to focusing our community’s efforts on those who are most in need.
Prior to Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the Charter defined affordable housing as housing affordable to anyone earning up to 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI). AMI is calculated based on the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes all of Monroe, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Wayne, and Yates counties. The inclusion of non-city residents skews the median income upwards; in the MSA, the median income for a family of four is $74,000, while in the city alone median income is less than half of that. Mayor Lovely Warren directed City staff from the Office of Innovation and the NBD’s Planning and Housing teams to look into why the Charter’s definition was not adequately reflecting the reality faced by Rochester residents.
After thoughtful deliberation amongst the interdepartmental team, it was determined that the use of the MSA and not the city median income could not be changed due to the ways in which it would interfere with HUD funding streams and other programming. However, the team decided that the City could adopt more specific HUD terminology that would provide for a more nuanced understanding of who the target populations of the City’s affordable housing efforts should be. Eventually, it was recommended to the Mayor that the Charter be amended to define low and moderate income as follows:
With these definitions in place, the City has the language to say that affordable housing efforts ought to target those who are Extremely Low Income or Very Low Income because those are the financial circumstances actually faced by residents with the greatest housing affordability challenges.
The real impact of the Charter amendment is how it informs other policies and work undertaken by the City. The first tangible result of the Charter amendment is how it informed the RFP for affordable housing developments that also was released this week. Successful proposals receive City support either in the form of funding or letters of support written to New York State. The NBD Housing team took the new affordability definition into account and changed the way proposals will now be scored. The new RFP awards additional points to proposals that have plans to address Extremely Low Income and Very Low Income residents, as well as special needs populations such as domestic abuse victims or those suffering from drug addiction.
Housing affordability is a challenge that the City is constantly working to address. Thanks to the direction of Mayor Warren and the efforts of the Housing team, Planning team, and countless internal and external partners who were consulted, Rochester has taken important, innovative steps to support those in need. As the Office of Innovation continues to work on the housing affordability issue, we will keep the blog updated with our latest efforts.