COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on communities across the country for the past year. But some cities have been able to keep residents connected with each other and vital resources. Home deliveries of personal protective equipment, virtual community block club meetings, and socially distant community clean-ups are just a few of the Love Your Block (LYB) program’s pandemic projects.
LYB is a two-year Cities of Service grant program that connects mayors’ offices with communities to revitalize neighborhoods one block at a time. The program provides $25,000 in grant funding and two AmeriCorps VISTA members to cities. Cities use the funding to disburse mini-grants, often between $200 and $2,000, to neighborhood groups that propose and implement volunteer-led projects focused on improving land and properties that are vacant or in disrepair in their neighborhoods. From 2018 to 2020, 10 cities participated in the LYB grant program: Buffalo, New York; Gary, Indiana; Hamilton, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; Huntington, West Virginia; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey; Richmond, Virginia; and South Bend, Indiana.
We recently completed an evaluation of LYB; through interviews, focus groups, quantitative data on mini-grant outputs, and an annual survey, we collected comprehensive data about LYB, including insights from city staff, AmeriCorps VISTA members, residents, and nonprofit organizations who partnered on the two-year grant. In March 2020, the evaluation expanded to include documenting city responses to the effects of COVID-19 through LYB. Based on LYB cities' work during the pandemic, here are three insights for local governments seeking to adapt their community and neighborhood-based services during this public health and economic crisis.
1. Cities incorporated the Love Your Block mini-grant structure into their COVID-19 response
The pandemic began during the second year of LYB. In our survey, nearly all grantees reported using the LYB program as part of their cities’ broader responses to the pandemic. Cities of Service permitted flexible use of mini-grant funds, and cities used this increased flexibility to meet community needs.
For example, Buffalo created a Love Your Block Community Response Fund, funding projects to provide PPE, cleaning supplies, food, and exercise equipment to encourage physical activity during the pandemic. South Bend created Acts of Kindness grants ranging from $250 to $350 for residents or organizations creating initiatives that supported socially distant community building. These grants have provided funds for neighbors to pick up groceries and other essentials for immunocompromised residents and for creating new communal garden spaces. And Lancaster refocused its mini-grants on COVID-19 prevention and community-building. One mini grant supported a sewing program to create masks to distribute to people experiencing homelessness or staying in domestic violence shelters.
Last year offered numerous examples of how communities come together to organize neighborhood-based mutual aid during the pandemic. As in the case of LYB, funders can allow greater flexibility to grantees during COVID-19 and enable city government to access flexible funds for resident-led mutual aid work to help meet community needs during the rest of the pandemic.
2. Love Your Block cities reimagined resident engagement during the pandemic
COVID-19 posed significant challenges to Love Your Block as an initiative predicated on building strong relationships between neighbors through in-person volunteer events and outreach, but challenges that could be met by adapting the program.
“With Love Your Block, so much of our work is community and resident engagement. Canvassing work, knocking on doors, having residents interact with each other and city staff… We wanted to maintain that level of community engagement [during COVID-19]. This is an opportunity. Here’s an opportunity for a new way to engage residents that can be long-term tools.”
— City official
Findings from a previous Urban Institute study of Love Your Block found increased social connectedness from participating in the program. In a moment of increased isolation, cities continued to connect neighbors by adapting their engagement to respect social distancing and public health awareness.
For example, Buffalo convened weekly virtual “block chats” with the city’s block clubs. These virtual chats provided an avenue for sharing city-level updates and created an opportunity for dialogue with residents. Those conversations led to the development of the Good Neighbors Network, a system of distributing door hangers to residents with a list of resources on one side, and on the other side, a visual way to signal that their household is in need, so neighbors and community service providers know they are welcome to reach out and provide support.
“While social media, newsletters, and other electronic advertisements can reach many people, not everyone has access to the internet, especially in marginalized communities. Door hangers ensure city staff reach every household in target neighborhoods easily and safely.”
— City official
Buffalo took the rich civic infrastructure it had developed in part by engaging block clubs through Love Your Block and sustain it during the pandemic. South Bend similarly maintained social connections by providing neighborhood associations with free subscriptions to Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms so that they could still connect virtually. Cities interested in engaging residents during the pandemic and improving response to community needs could consider similar approaches.
3. Love Your Block increased coordination within city hall which helped with COVID-19 response
Urban’s annual survey of LYB cities indicated that Love Your Block and the technical assistance provided by Cities of Service improved collaboration between city departments. Collaboration proved especially valuable as the pandemic began. Connections formed through Love Your Block helped one city coordinate its outreach efforts across different departments during the pandemic. Other cities developed interdepartmental working groups through LYB—groups that remained vital parts of city department coordination at the onset of the pandemic.
In addition to collaboration within city government, LYB offered city officials increased opportunities to learn from other cities tackling the public health crisis. As one city official reflected, “the resources that Cities of Service shared provided best practices and the ever-changing ways that different communities are responding to the crisis.”
As the pandemic continues and cities explore new ways to address resident and neighborhood needs, they can turn to the examples set by LYB cities.