5 Reasons Veteran Homelessness in This State Dropped 75% in 100 Days

The Commonwealth of Virginia is poised to be the first state to end veteran homelessness, providing hope – and evidence – that we can end this national disgrace.

Terry-McGov. Terry McAuliffe recognizes community leaders who participated in the 100 Day Challenge, which aimed to place homeless veterans into permanent housing. (Flickr: Terry McAuliffe)

Yesterday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe joined federal, state and local leaders to celebrate a momentous achievement in the fight to end veteran homelessness. Over the course of 100 days, the Commonwealth of Virginia decreased veteran homelessness by 75 percent. The fastest drop in veteran homelessness ever made by a state.

The accomplishment builds on the success of a growing number of municipalities, including Phoenix, Salt Lake City and New Orleans who have ended or significantly decreased the number of homeless veterans in their communities.

“Ending veteran homelessness is a key component of making Virginia the best state in the country for active duty military personnel, veterans and their families,” said Governor McAuliffe. “I am proud of the progress we have made as a Commonwealth, but we cannot rest until every Virginia veteran has a safe and affordable place to live.”

How is such a dramatic change possible? Like most achievements – it took a lot of hard work. But for this once thought intractable issue, turning the corner has relied on these five components:

Virgina Veteran Homelessness Infographic

Click on this infographic to view it in a larger format.

1. Leadership

From early on, Governor McAuliffe and his administration made ending veteran homelessness a priority. McAuliffe was one of the first Governors to join the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. His commitment inspired 14 mayors and county executives to join the Challenge.

Under the Governor’s direction, Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey, led the Department of Veteran Services’ work to develop a statewide “boot-camp.” The statewide coordination was driven by the Governor’s Coordinating Council on Homelessness, local providers and guided by the experience of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, as well as nationally recognized organizations such as the Rapid Results Institute and Community Solutions.

In addition, to support local improvements in service delivery, the Governor proposed funding of $1 million that would help provide veterans with access to housing through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. He also proposed increasing the number of housing counselors working as part of the state’s Wounded Warrior Program from three to five. The counselors support veterans as they navigate the housing process. These proposals have broad bipartisan and bicameral support in the state legislature.

2. Collaboration

In late September, as part of a two-day homeless veteran boot-camp, local leaders from cities across the commonwealth joined with homeless service providers, veteran groups, local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs), officials from the state’s Department of Veteran Services, Virginia Housing Development Authority and from federal partners including the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The boot-camp focused on four regions across the commonwealth. The teams represented Richmond, Roanoke, the Peninsula region (Newport News and Hampton) and South Hampton (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Suffolk). During the boot-camp, each team developed week by week action plans based on the demand for services and the resources in each community.

In reviewing their success, each of the four teams acknowledged the importance of working with each other more effectively. Most teams met bi-weekly to discuss their progress, address obstacles, refine each partner’s role and responsibilities and collectively match clients with available housing. The improvements in community conversations were paired with commitment from federal leaders.

This collective dedication created an environment of accountability. With the setting of ambitious goals came an expectation by on-the-ground staff that they would be given the tools needed, such as answers to regulatory ambiguities that had previously slowed progress. Conversely, leaders had agreed upon goals with a timeline by which they could measure progress each week.

3. Data-Driven Planning

The 2014 point-in-time count found 620 homeless veterans statewide. The four teams aimed to house 370 homeless veterans during the 100 days. These goals were determined using data from community Homeless Management Information Service (HMIS) systems, VA data and on-the-ground knowledge of the area’s homeless veteran population informed by outreach workers and case managers.

This data quantified the existing demand for services and was paired with a mapping out of the services and resources available in each community. PHA representatives discussed the allocation of HUD-VASH housing vouchers, traditional housing choice vouchers (section 8) and other housing resources. Non-profits discussed their administration of resources from the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) programs, which provides money for homelessness prevention and rapid-rehousing, as well as the Grant and Per Diem (GPD) program that supports transitional housing.

Using this data to guide the way forward, each of the four teams exceeded their initial goals. All told, the four teams housed, or will place into housing very shortly, 462 veterans.

4. Proven Strategies

With progress being seen in communities across the country, there is a clear understanding of what works. Phoenix, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Houston and others such as those involved with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative have put in place coordinated assessment processes. The most successful of these processes include a prioritization component (the VI-SPDAT) to help efficiently place the most vulnerable individuals into housing.

In each community, these tools operated within a collective agreement that Housing First was the way forward. Stakeholder conversations were built upon the understanding that the best way to solve homelessness was by placing people in housing and providing them with the person-centered resources and services necessary to maintain housing.

In this environment, each community focused on how to make that concept a reality.

5. Concrete Goals

As elected officials have joined the Mayors Challenge and cities across the country have begun reaching a tipping point on veteran homelessness, many are asking what the end of veteran homelessness means. What does this look like?

In the past year, the term “functional zero” has surfaced as a way to talk about this concept. Recently, USICH published a two-page guide to help leaders better understand when their city has met the Mayors Challenge.

“There are no longer any veterans experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the community…the community has the resources and a plan and timeline for providing permanent housing opportunities to all veterans who are currently sheltered but are still experiencing homelessness,” says the report.

It is particularly important for elected leaders to understand the concept of functional zero.

No elected official operates under the notion that capital infrastructure projects are elements of a static municipal plan. Community needs for water, sewer and transportation evolve. Equally, functional zero brings cities to the point where they can maintain the progress that brings the availability and application of resources in line with the demand for services.

The social capital that cities develop in order to reach functional zero must be maintained and evolve over time. As homeless veterans are housed, they can be provided services and build the trusting relationships that can help even the most resistant individuals. Over time, these relationships and services reduce harmful behaviors, such as addiction, and connect veterans and their families to education, employment and credentialing opportunities.

Today, we are less than 11 months away from the federal goal to end veteran homelessness. To help spread the lessons learned in Virginia, NLC is holding regional forums with HUD across the country, including at our upcoming Congressional City Conference next month in Washington, D.C. (register here today).

As the Commonwealth positions to be the first state to end veteran homelessness, they provide hope, but more importantly evidence, that we can end this disgrace.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Serving Veterans in Rural America Requires City Engagement

After enduring years of Vermont winters on the streets, a homeless veteran finally found a place to call home through a partnership between regional nonprofits, the Veterans Administration and the City of Winooski, a town with a population of less than 7,300.

When asked about the impact on his life, he said, “this program has helped me stay sober for three years. I have been given not just a physical home, but also a state of mind home, and that is a great feeling.”

Replicating this success with other veterans in largely rural areas like Winooski requires regional cooperation between many stakeholders to overcome the unique challenges of long distances and sparsely populated areas.

From Service to Shelter, a report released this week by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) and The Home Depot Foundation, highlights the troubling prevalence of veteran homelessness in rural America, resources available to address the issue and models for successful implementation.

The report found that veterans are over-represented in the homeless population in rural areas, and the overall rural veteran population is getting older. Currently, 43 percent of veterans in rural America are aged 65 or older, and that number is expected to rise to 70 percent in the next 10 years.

vets-stats-1-f

In recognition of these challenges and facts, a collaborative effort between HUD, VA and the Department of Labor has been piloted in five communities near major military installations. The Veteran Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD) targeted two of its locations near Ft. Hood and Ft. Drum, both of which have significant rural areas nearby.

While the pilot program’s evaluation is not yet finalized, two primary concerns and possible solutions have already emerged. The first challenge is not surprising. The large geographic size of rural areas makes service delivery challenging. To ease this challenge, officials are looking at ways to co-locate services delivered by federal agencies. By having all assistance in one stop, people can avoid multiple and costly trips.

The second challenge is the increased levels of isolation and the stigma associated with getting “help.” In a small community, the sense that “everyone knows everyone” appears to have the effect of discouraging people from accessing services that could help bring them out of homelessness. Federal officials realize that changing the location and manner of how services are delivered will be necessary to overcome this barrier. The precise process for doing this will require the insights and help of local leaders who can assist their federal partners with a more nuanced understanding of their community.

Efforts such as VHPD are part of an unprecedented level of federal support for homeless veterans. In support of the federal goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the Administration has dramatically increased the availability of resources that serve veterans.

With the availability of resources at an all-time high, local coordination is the principal challenge. Having service providers identify homeless veterans, assess their needs in a coordinated manner and prioritize the delivery of services ensures that the right resources are delivered to the right person at the right time. Progress is being made and is reflected by the 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010.

vets-stats-2-f
Information compiled by:
NCH

To help ensure veterans in rural areas have a safe place to call home, The Home Depot Foundation is partnering with HAC as part of its Affordable Housing for Rural Veterans Initiative. Through the initiative, HAC and The Home Depot Foundation have awarded grants totaling more than $260,000 to nine local nonprofit housing associations to build or preserve housing for veterans in rural America.

In addition to the grants, HAC provides rural nonprofits serving veterans with training, research and other assistance to help increase their capacity and allow them to better serve their communities.

To date, organizations in Maine, Washington, Tennessee, Texas and Florida have received assistance allowing nearly 100 veterans and their families to have a new home.

In the next month, an additional $250,000 in grants will be announced. For more information about HAC’s work for veterans in rural areas, visit www.ruralhome.org/veterans or contact Janice Clark at Janice@ruralhome.org.

Elisha_blog
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

HUD Secretary Donovan: “Communities are assets to be built on”

Recently in Atlanta, federal, state, and local officials joined advocates and local practitioners to discuss solutions to housing issues facing communities across the country. During the event, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spoke about the Administration’s recognition that housing is one of the primary pillars needed to help grow the middle class. Secretary Donovan noted, “communities are not places with problems to be solved, but assets to be built on.”

In outlining the vision of a “new federalism,” the Secretary noted that the federal government needed to again become a strong partner with local stakeholders. Donovan outlined several examples of this partnership such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Rental Assistance Demonstration. In addition, a renewed relationship between federal agencies and local partners is shown in the growing progress being made toward ending chronic veteran homelessness.

In the coming months, either Salt Lake City or Phoenix will become the first city in the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness. This unprecedented accomplishment is on the cusp of reality because of a focused and sustained commitment by both federal and local government officials, as well as non-governmental stakeholders in these communities.

At the federal level, since 2008, over 48,000 housing vouchers specifically designated for veterans have been distributed to communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Unlike traditional Housing Choice Vouchers (aka Section 8), HUD-VASH vouchers have additional support from VA case workers. As a result, both veterans and landlords have a resource should issues arise.

Also in 2008, the VA was authorized to begin the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. SSVF’s goal is to promote housing stability among very low-income veterans and their families who reside in or are transitioning to permanent housing. In FY13, the SSVF program provided nearly $300 million to 319 organizations to serve approximately 120,000 veteran households.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released Opening Doors, a comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness, with the specific goal of ending chronic veteran homelessness by 2015. Ongoing support from Congress and the Administration for the HUD-VASH and SSVF programs, combined with improved implementation at the local level, has led to a 17% decline in veteran homelessness since the release of Opening Doors.

In Phoenix, these federal resources have been maximized by local stakeholders, including the city. To help reduce the amount of time between when a veteran is awarded a voucher and when they move in to a unit, the two city departments that are required to conduct housing inspections collaborated to allow for one inspection to occur that met both agencies’ requirements. In addition, the city has supported a locally developed innovation called a navigator with funds from their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Emergency Solutions Grant programs. The navigators provide peer support to chronically homeless veterans by walking them step-by-step through the process and providing assistance when necessary to make certain they obtain and sustain housing.

In Salt Lake City, stakeholders recognized they were starting their efforts to end veteran homelessness with imperfect data. To overcome this, partners began regular meetings to identify the veterans in need, come to agreement about what people should be prioritized, and determine what resources were available in the community to meet those needs.

In addition to these steps, city, county, and state officials worked to create a uniform reporting process for organizations using federal Emergency Shelter Grant resources. These resources were primarily being used to fund rapid re-housing efforts, and the uniform reporting reduced administrative time and costs associated with their use. As a result, since February 2013, Salt Lake City has been placing the homeless into housing at a rate that puts the city on a path to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the coming months.

Finally, in Tacoma, WA, community stakeholders have come together to form a Veterans Housing Options Group. The group consists of the WA State Department of Veterans Affairs, the two local agencies administering SSVF, and representatives from the regional VA office. The work to improve how services are delivered to homeless veterans is being complemented by the city, which has encouraged the WA State Housing Finance Commission to consider including a veteran preference when determining how federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits are distributed. In addition, the city is considering actions that would benefit homeless veterans, including inclusionary zoning requirements and voluntary housing development incentives, among others.

In an environment of limited fiscal resources, Secretary Donovan is correct when he acknowledges that cities are where innovations are born and progress is made. But these innovations cannot happen when there is persistent uncertainty about the level of federal resources and where those resources will be directed. Increasing partnerships between the federal government and municipal officials is a common sense notion that requires sustained support in order to see results. In their own ways, these cities are illustrating how progress on an issue can be made when local governments have focused and committed partners at the federal level.

Elisha_blog
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Senior Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

One Month After Memorial Day: What Has Happened In Your City to Support Veterans?

About a month ago, many of us were making final plans for the unofficial start of summer. Memorial Day is a day to reflect and honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Flags are hung, we bow our heads in remembrance, and in our own ways we say thank you. But our veterans deserve more than thanks. They deserve action.

At the National Press Club last week, former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) was joined on a panel by Dr. Jonathan Sherin of Volunteers of America, Kelly Caffarelli of The Home Depot Foundation, and Kobe Langley of the Corporation for National and Community Service for a forum titled: After the Uniform 2013: Facing the Invisible Wounds of War. Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the panel discussed the implications of wounds such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and sexual trauma on the stability and reintegration of veterans in communities.

The panel discussed the effect of having less than 1 percent of Americans serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. All of the panelists spoke about the varying impacts multiple deployments have had on these men, women, and their families. Their needs can be deep, complex, and have consequences that ripple through our communities in ways that we may not easily see.

Whether the needs relate to housing, employment, mental health, education, healthcare, or child care, the panel acknowledged that community-based solutions are the most effective way to address these needs. Top down solutions are unable to adapt to local conditions without local leadership. As a result, Senator Lugar pointed out, “Mayors and local leaders must be conveners in communities.”

Local level convenings can yield important insights about resources that are already in communities but may not be being used as effectively as possible. Regular meetings can identify gaps in service and help identify specific needs. Once specific needs are identified, the visibility of local leadership can help bring missing stakeholders to the table, who can help address these needs.

This is already happening in many cities both large and small. In a new case study published this week, we highlight work happening in Washington, D.C. Through the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs, city officials and the overall community is kept informed of veterans’ issues and the range of services available. By establishing partnerships with area stakeholders and committing to providing housing and supportive services, D.C. has seen a 29 percent decrease in veteran homelessness over the last four years.

One example of local coordination heightened as a result of regular stakeholder meetings is D.C.’s furniture give-away program. Starting in 2011, the city has partnered with various local government and community organizations to coordinate a volunteer-driven system to provide furnishings free of charge to veterans moving into new homes. The city offered a no-lease warehouse donated by the D.C. Department of General Services, and have worked with local military bases and private organizations to acquire excess furniture estimated to be worth more than $700,000. The local teamsters union provides volunteer drivers and a vehicle to transport the furnishings to veterans in need on a weekly basis. To date, over 160 veterans received furnishings from the program.

A similar effort is underway in central Texas. As a part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, the regional VA office is working with the Central Texas Council of Governments, area non-profits, local housing authorities, and local leaders. Like stakeholders in Washington, D.C., the central Texas team has identified that a storage space for donated furniture and transportation is one of their needs. The team has engaged with city officials from Belton, TX, who are currently in the process of seeing what resources either the city or private partners in the area may be able to offer to meet these needs.

We are only now beginning to understand the true impacts of invisible wounds. With an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide each day, deaths by suicide exceeding combat related deaths in 2012, and an on-going backlog of VA benefit claims, veterans issues are clearly a national emergency. But this national emergency is also a local opportunity.

The opportunity is the chance to improve service coordination in your community that will help not only veterans, but other special needs populations such as the elderly and disabled. In addition, as veterans are reintegrated into their communities, they will bring the financial benefits they have earned into the local economy. Furthermore, these men and women have characteristics that many employer are looking for, such as discipline and an ethic of team work and service.

As communities begin to understand what works, this knowledge can be syndicated nationally. There will not be a solution to every problem, but we cannot let the desire for perfection obstruct the path to improvement.

Learn from other examples of what cities are doing to serve veterans at www.nlc.org/veteranshousing and contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org to learn how NLC can support efforts in your community.

New Report on Homelessness: The Good, The Bad, and What You Can Do

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released their latest national estimate of the number of homeless across the country. While there are several points of good news, there are also sober realities that must be acknowledged.

The Good News

Broadly speaking, in January of this year 633,783 people were homeless. This is virtually unchanged since last year when 636,017 people were homeless. Given the soft economic climate, keeping homelessness from increasing is notable. Even more notable however is the continued decline among veterans and those defined as being chronically homeless. The decline in these two sub-populations of the homeless is a reflection of the ongoing focus on these categories by the federal government and communities since the unveiling of the Opening Doors plan from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2010.

In the last year, homelessness among veterans declined by 7.2% (4,876 people) and among the chronically homeless there was a 6.8% decline (7,254 people).

Focusing on the national disgrace of homeless veterans should need no explanation.

The focus on the chronic homeless is the result of time-tested and data-driven analysis, which shows the cost savings that result from moving the long-time homeless into housing. When people are stably housed, they are less likely to interact with the police, courts, and emergency responders. The resulting cost-savings to municipalities and states is a compelling fiscal rationale for focusing on eliminating homelessness, particularly during these times of tight budgets.

2010

2011

2012

Total Homeless

649,917

636,017

633,782

Homeless Veterans

76,329

67,495

62,619

Chronically Homeless

109,812

107,148

99,894

The Bad News

When the Opening Doors plan was released in 2010, it set the ambitious goals of ending veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015, and ending homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020. The Plan presented strategies building upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that despite the consistent declines, unless more communities focus on service coordination, we are unlikely to reach the 2015 goal.

What You Can Do

Ultimately, homelessness as we know it will end once individual communities take the necessary steps to end it among neighbors. So what should cities be doing?

While recognizing the solution to homelessness in a community can be apparent, implementing that solution can be another matter. To help cities overcome these challenges the 100,000 Homes Campaign was formed in an effort to place 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless into housing.

To help with the local implementation of recognized best practices, the Campaign has partnered with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the VA, and HUD to offer Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camps. These boot camps bring together community stakeholders such as HUD and VA staffers, outreach teams, service providers, landlords, and housing authority representatives from participating communities to brainstorm and develop local plans for enacting national best practices that will revamp local systems to quickly find housing for homeless individuals.

What are other things that your city can do?

  • Get to know who the homeless are in your city. Knowing someone’s name and how long they have been homeless not only personalizes that individual, but allows a trusting relationship to be built. Those relationships are central to people getting off and staying off the streets.
  • Prioritize the use of vouchers that turn over for veterans and chronically homeless individuals. When a person that has a voucher moves out of the program, what is done with that voucher can vary widely depending on the administrating agency. Working with voucher providers to have turned over vouchers prioritized for use by veterans and the chronically homeless can have a dramatic impact on the number of people living on the street.
  • Create prioritization based on the vulnerability index. When someone lives on the street, the likelihood of them dying is on par with some forms of cancer. Homelessness can cut a person’s lifespan by an average of 25 years. These are stunning facts. In Boston, Dr. Jim O’Connell with Healthcare for the Homeless developed the vulnerability index which uses eight key health indicators to determine which of a city’s homeless are most at risk for dying on the street. To better save lives and dollars, those with the greatest risk of death should be at the front of the line for housing.
  • Align your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. To guide your city’s overall work, it is important for your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness to be aligned with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. Prioritizing resources and ensuring they are well coordinated and focused on identified populations allows cities to take action in a deliberate manner that can be measured and refined to ensure progress is seen.

Read the report and see your area’s progress toward ending homeless. For more information about having a Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camp in your city and the 100,000 Homes Campaign, visit http://100khomes.org/.

Sequestration Doesn’t Hurt Veterans, Right? Well actually…

It wasn’t too long ago when the term sequestration was one that practically no one used. Lately though, it seems that a news cast doesn’t go by without the word being mentioned. It is commonly thought that Congress and the Administration made sure sequestration would not hurt any programs that help our veterans, but that notion is false.

While Veterans Affairs (VA) programs are exempt from the cuts, non-VA programs that benefit veterans are still in line to see reductions (or to use some new inside-the-beltway jargon, “spending savings.”) More information about sequestration can be found on the NLC website.

Last week, a congressional briefing was held to outline and illustrate specific examples of how sequestration would impact veterans. One area in particular that would be impacted are non-VA housing programs including HUD’s public housing, housing vouchers, and project-based programs. Doug Rice at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities drew attention to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study which notes that in fiscal year 2005, “HUD’s rental assistance programs reached an estimated 250,000 low-income veteran households, which constituted approximately 6 percent of all HUD-assisted households.”

The housing development NLC highlighted that serves homeless veterans in Port Angeles, WA is a perfect example of a project that could be impacted. Some of this project’s capital development revenue came from the Community Development Block Program (CDBG) and a portion of the ongoing operational revenue comes from project-based vouchers, both of which are subject to cuts.

This example illustrates that helping meet the needs of low-income veterans does not happen in a vacuum where only VA benefits are at work. Meeting the needs of our veterans relies on programs operated by the VA, HUD, the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, and other agencies. Federal programs don’t support our veterans alone. They are often coupled with local and state resources and used to leverage private funds as well.

As our men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan, they will need these programs to not only exist, but to be well-coordinated. A new NLC publication highlights several examples of how local officials are integral to ensuring services for veterans are successfully coordinated among stakeholders. But as the Port Angeles example shows, cities can be most effective when given the tools necessary to meet the need.

Gigabits Around the Country – Part 2

This is the second in a two-part blog exploring gigabit connections around the country.  The National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation partnered with Next American City to develop a case study, Gig City, U.S.A.: Bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, which looks at the developing partnership between Google and the Kansas Cities.  The first blog identified some of the benefits of locally created and managed fiber connections and reviewed Chattanooga, TN, which boasted the country’s first gigabit connection.  This week’s blog looks at other efforts around the country and the hallmarks of a successful municipal fiber network. 

Danville, VA

At a recent economic development conference in Danville, VA, stakeholders from both the public and private sectors came together to look at the challenges and opportunities that exist with municipal wireless networks.

Danville, VA once had the highest unemployment in the state.  Their low-skilled, poorly educated population created a digital divide that made it difficult to attract the types of industry that would sustain development in the region.  But today the city is able to attract and retain business to create jobs and improve the quality of life for their citizens.  This is not an insignificant feat for an isolated, industrial community an hour and a half away from any major metro area.

While general communications access (telephone, cable TV and internet) was adequate for the home consumer, it was not optimized for businesses.  Building a network that would help expand business opportunities was one of the key features of Danville’s approach to local economic development.  The best service would be a “fiber to the premise” model but this was costly and would require a critical mass of demand to be able to provide it affordably.  Additionally, this was a prime opportunity to be able to wire public anchor institutions such as schools, so figuring out how to do that successfully was also important.  Finally, understanding what role the city should have in this (to be an infrastructure or service provider) would be key to their success.  Some of the other hallmarks of their approach:

–       Learn from others: the benefit of local governments is that there is no proprietary interest on solutions.

–       Understand what they were working with: they had adequate telephone, cable tv and internet access but there was nothing readily available for robust business use.

–       Do the research: findings from a community study showed that they needed a shift from their manufacturing economy to something more forward and progressive;  this is what spurred the need for more robust broadband capabilities.

–       Understand the differences: Danville knew which different types of connectivity would be most appropriate for home and business uses.

These strategies helped create a system for Danville that relied solely on local funds (no federal or state grants) and kept the city debt free.  The result—nDanville—is an open access multiservice network, operated by private firms that allows the city to provide direct service to schools and other city buildings.  It is financially self-sufficient and has not created an unwanted burden on tax or utility payers.

Keys to the Success of Municipal Wireless Networks 

Danville, and Chattanooga, both worked to ensure that their fiber optic networks had staying power.  Much thought, planning, and stakeholder input went into the creation of a solid business plan which was the first step into determining if this was truly a viable option.  Click here for a business plan from Kirkland, Washington’s municipal broadband network.

Secondly, access isn’t enough to attract business; there are other components such as a strong workforce and an infrastructure to support that workforce.  Community involvement was a key part as well.  When Bristol, VA created their network with the Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority, they city made it a point to speak to community groups about the need for broadband access and how it would impact community development.  Chattanooga followed a similar process of engagement buy educating the community on what a fiber network could do for them and charging community leaders to help raise awareness about the network.

Municipal networks are not a one size fits all tool to increase local economic development and address other challenges cities face.  It involves substantial planning with input from key stakeholders, a business plan that can prove its sustainability, an engaged community that can harness the power of the network and a business community that will use the network to drive development.  While strategies to develop these components will vary from city to city, local leaders are in a position to take advantage of what has and has not worked and use those  lessons to create their own designs for increasing and enhancing access in their communities.