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Reclaiming Blighted Neighborhoods One Block At A Time

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Community partnership hopes to create a national model

By Chris Levister –

A 2003 article entitled ‘The Accidental Activist’ published by the UC Berkeley News starts off this way: “Imran Farooq doesn’t come off as your typical environmental activist, and that’s fine with him…”

Fast forward 8 years this soft spoken USC graduate student is turning a lot of heads as the driving force behind an innovative approach to restoring neighborhoods devastated by foreclosures.

For his doctoral dissertation in planning, policy and development Farooq has chosen the epicenter for the Inland foreclosure crisis – his birthplace.

“For me this is very personal. I grew up here in San Bernardino. I live here. When I saw the destruction of neighborhoods caused by the recession, I just felt like it was an opportunity to engage residents, community stakeholders and private investors in an effort to reclaim our communities,” he said. “Places of great need are also places of great opportunity.”

In 2009, Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter, whose district represents the communities of San Bernardino, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Bloomington and Muscoy, appointed Farooq as chairman of her Economic and Workforce Advisory Council.

The regional housing sustainability project is a collaboration of the City of San Bernardino, Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, the Neighborhood Housing Service of the Inland Empire and the Sustainable 62nd Assembly District Collaborative.

Farooq says it was Carter’s vision of making the district more sustainable that led to the plan for his project ‘SOS: Sustaining our Society’ featured recently on the news website, Huffington Post and the subject of an upcoming public television documentary.

“It’s one thing to revamp one house, but if you can actually pull together community members and private investment to create sustainable neighborhoods and a green footprint throughout the entire region, the impact is huge and long term,” said Carter.

Farooq uses private investment to acquire and rehabilitate an abandoned property, making it energy efficient before selling it to owner-occupied buyers. He then coordinates existing public funds to “green” the surrounding neighborhood block.

Recently, Carter, Farooq and members of the collaborative planted a garden at the centerpiece of his research, this home on Trenton Street in San Bernardino’s Sixth Ward. It is the newest bright spot in a poor neighborhood beset by eyesores, where drug dealers, prostitutes and gangsters “went to do their stuff under the cover of boarded-up windows,” said resident Earl Houser.

Vandals knocked out the streetlight in front of one home and then took advantage of the darkness to try to steal a van. Cars are parked four deep in the driveway across the street, and up and down this block of stucco homes built in the 50’s, are abandoned vehicles, padlocked doors, orange “no trespassing signs” and broken front windows.

The 1,400-square foot foreclosed property featured in the PBS documentary sat vacant for more than a year before being purchased by DCI Investments, a Rancho Cucamonga-based real estate investment company.

“Graffiti, illegal dumping, broken windows, rotted out bathrooms, leaking roof, no appliances. The house was in terrible condition,” said Robert Close who owns DCI Investments.

With the help of collaborative partners and local workers the property has been completely refurbished and made energy efficient. The once overgrown weed and trash filled yard is perfectly manicured.

The home sports a fresh coat of paint, newly installed double-pane windows, a planned solar system and weatherization thanks to the Community Action Partnership of San Bernardino (CAPSBC). “Our overall goal with these homes is to improve their energy efficiency.  This is a block weatherization project for which we plan to serve an estimated 24 homes in the area,” said CAPSB executive director Patricia Nickols.

When Farooq knocked on the front door of Houser’s sagging stucco house telling him he could obtain grants and low-interest loans to give his house a badly needed facelift, Houser thought it was a scam. He was aware of the con artists known to target the poor and elderly.

But Farooq told the skeptical homeowner about his vision of creating a place where poverty would not be an excuse for blight. This year Houser’s home will get those long awaited repairs. “I’ve been in a lot of these people’s homes and listened to their stories,” says Farooq. “The reality is there are a lot of complex economic and social issues at play here. What’s most shocking to me is there’s resources right here in this community to address these problems.”

City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson represents the Sixth Ward. “This is not a fix a few homes sell them and move on effort. These neighborhoods need our help and we are making sure that they have the resources they need to get out of this crisis.”

“The idea is to employ a more organized way of dealing with issues such as property upkeep, technology, and land use management,” said Walter Hawkins a retired Cal State researcher and policy analyst.

Hawkins a longtime community organizer who consulted on the Trenton Street garden project says, “We want to know why a person wants to live in the community. What are their values? Our goal is to create a proactive citizenry rather than one that settles for what the government will pay for.”

That process begins at home explains Rev. Bronica Martindale, co-chair NAACP Housing and Green Committee.

“A backyard ‘charity garden’ for example combines individual and community participation with eco-education thus raising awareness on how to live a more sustainable, healthier lifestyle while inspiring others and breathing life back into the neighborhood.”

To encourage others to follow the model, Farooq is identifying neighborhood block leaders through civic organizations. He’s teamed up with Telenoo, a technology company which is customizing a dynamic Web platform that will allow other households to interact with one another and connect to resources for transforming their own communities. He also launched the website SustainingOurSociety.com.

“We’re starting with one house in one block in one city, but the bigger vision is to change the way we approach urban disparity,” says Cheryl Brown, NAACP San Bernardino branch president. “This joint effort along with Imran Farooq’s innovative approach to housing sustainability is not just a win-win model for San Bernardino but for urban communities across the nation.”

“Of course everyone is looking for a quick fix to neighborhoods devastated by foreclosure,” says Farooq “But until building a sustainable future is embedded in our consciousnesses as a way of life, we’re only buying time until the next economic tragedy.”

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