Four Locality members visited New York in October to take part in a peer learning event with the International Federation of Settlements (IFS).
The settlements of New York do some amazing work in incredibly difficult circumstances, often forced to battle the prevailing political climate in order to deliver the best possible outcomes for their clients.

There has always been an international dimension to Canopy’s work. We are proud of our Leeds roots, but our volunteers (and staff) come from all corners of the world.

The UN Habitat Award we won three years ago, in partnership with Giroscope, helped us strengthen links and share learning with sister organisations in Canada, Japan, Spain, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Thanks to a £500 bursary from Locality’s Knowledge and Skills Exchange Programme, we can add the USA to that list.

We have always been acutely aware of the geopolitical forces that drive what we do and the way we (and others like us) strive to do things. Housing is an issue that vexes every nation on earth and homelessness is a disease that can affect the richest countries in the world every bit as much as it affects the poorest. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States. In New York alone, some 60,000 people sleep (if they can) in homeless shelters every night. So, the opportunity to spend a few days at the IFS Conference there was one I could not pass up. Three days of visits took us to The Bronx, Washington Heights, Cypress Hills, Brooklyn and Queens. These visits threw up more differences between the US and UK than I had anticipated they would.

The “settlement” model is unfamiliar to most people in the UK. They tend to be independent community anchors responsible for a broad range of services: homelessness, youth provision, elderly services, tackling domestic violence, citizens advice, adult education, after-school provision, community cohesion, healthy eating, etc. In the US, they are huge. By way of example, Bronx Works has around 150 separate contracts with the City of New York.

A question of money

The starkest contrast for me was in the way services were financed. Most of the settlements had turnovers in excess of £60m yet tended to own fewer than fifty properties. Business models were heavily reliant on long-term contracts (5-9 years) with the city authorities. Earned income was typically less than 5% of turnover, with the notable exception of Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, which owns around 700 properties, and is now developing newbuild 17-storey blocks, taking advantage of changes to the planning regulations introduced by Mayor De Blasio.

I asked all of the settlements why they didn’t develop more. After all, two-thirds of Canopy’s income comes from rents (admittedly much of it by way of housing benefit) and owning more properties themselves would make it much easier to tackle homelessness. The answer came back the same almost every time.There is no capital funding on offer from central or local government and it is difficult for settlements to borrow money, even when they set up special purpose vehicles.

This nervousness on the part of lenders is perhaps understandable. In the UK, Homes England – the primary capital funder of social housing – are cautious about lending to organisations with their fingers in too many pies. Properties need investment and in times of austerity, it can be tempting to divert reserves to support desperate frontline services. Lenders understandably want to ensure that their investments are being looked after and thus see organisational complexity as a significant risk.

But by starting small, perhaps a few properties in an underused car park, there seems little reason why some of the settlements could not set up a subsidiary or standalone company to start earning its own income that could be ploughed back into the parent/sister organisation. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, so it is perhaps telling that Cypress Hills – the most entrepreneurial of the settlements we visited – feature an oak tree prominently in their logo. Aside from property development, they had established a 62-member Merchants’ Association to represent the interests of the ‘mom and pop’ businesses in the area, offering legal support in the face of foreclosures and access to grants to help companies improve their store fronts and security. This seems the sort of model we could replicate in Leeds – a people’s Chamber of Commerce for local neighbourhoods.

Homelessness and the working poor

Rents in Manhattan start at around $800pcm for a studio flat. In Queens, you can rent a two-bed apartment for $1,500 pcm. Given such high rents, it is heart-breaking yet perhaps unsurprising to find that it takes around one year to rehouse a homeless family; several years to rehouse homeless individuals and a decade or more if those individuals are undocumented. Despite some positive initiatives, such as reserving 10-15% of new developments for homeless people, the settlements – with little stock of their own – are left negotiating deals with private landlords, sometimes offering a whole year’s rent upfront in return for rehousing someone from a homeless shelter.

Such deals are too good to turn down for many landlords but on the flip-side this can marginalise the working poor, who cannot afford to match the packages on offer from the settlements. The plight of low-paid families was a recurrent theme. Most settlements had well-staffed legal departments with the bulk of their work devoted to assisting long-settled, undocumented citizens. Families striving to move on with their lives, in the face of high rents, appeared to be further marginalised by sharp cut-offs in benefit when members of their household started work. With barely regulated private landlords dominating the sector, rents have become unsustainable; disabled and elderly people, despite the ability to apply for rent freezes, often find their benefits barely cover their rent so it is perhaps unsurprising that the homeless shelters are so well used.

The “Give Get”

The cultural differences between the US and UK were most apparent when looking at Board membership. The “give get” is deeply ingrained in American culture; people who wish to join Boards of non-profits are not only expected to bring their skills, but also to make a financial contribution of perhaps £10K to £50K per annum. There is no doubt that this can make a significant difference to the company’s bottom line when times are tight and it also improves the chances of finding Board Members who are committed to the venture, but at what price? In the UK, we would be worried about conflict of interest. Do bigger donations buy more influence? Could financial incentives sway the way contracts are let? Or give a family member an unfair advantage when seeking promotion? And whither democracy?

In the UK, our Boards are increasingly diverse, targeting service users, the local community, young people and others who could never hope to be in such positions of influence if the “give get” became part of our culture. Indeed, in the UK we often do the polar opposite – we pay (or otherwise incentivise) the people we want to join our Boards.

The “give get” is a complex conundrum that would bear more investigation. The visits had me wondering whether we could ask for financial contributions from a proportion of our Boards. With well-designed procedures designed to prevent undue influence and ensure a culturally diverse membership, why not?

The experience

The settlements of New York do some amazing work in incredibly difficult circumstances, often forced to battle the prevailing political climate in order to deliver the best possible outcomes for their clients. I met happy school children, proud immigrants, hardworking staff, conscientious adult learners, thriving market stallholders and energetic pensioners, all of whom had had their lives enriched by the work of the settlements.

That this movement has an international dimension is magical and I for one will be saving up with the hope of being able to afford next year’s conference in Sydney, Australia.

Four Locality members visited New York in October to take part in a peer learning event with the International Federation of Settlements. The members were awarded grants through our Knowledge and Skills exchange, a funding programme open to all Community members. Locality is a part of the International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres, and we’re committed to widening access to international networking and exchanges for members.