Through its Grants-For-Blocks Program, the city of Savannah gives grants of up to $500 to residents and community groups with ideas for neighborhood improvement projects. This small grant program has had a marked impact on organized community life and beautification in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Planning meetings are well-attended; neighborhood associations are flourishing; street plantings and gardens are initiated and tended by residents; and youth programs and social services are conceived of, built and run by local leaders.
Savannah’s Grants-For-Blocks program was initiated in 1993, after the city received $20,000 for being a Ford Foundation “Innovations in State and Local Government” award finalist. “We thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we asked the neighborhoods what we should do with the money,” said Henry Moore, assistant city manager and father of the Blocks-For-grants program. The new grant program, designed by residents from the poorest neighborhoods in Savannah, is unique because it makes the award money available to residents in grants of up to $500 each, for neighborhood improvement projects. Applicants must be sponsored by local neighborhood associations. In the first year, 89 applications were received, mostly dealing with small-scale clean-up and beautification projects. The city reported an 85% implementation rate.
Interest and enthusiasm grew. The following year, the city renewed Grants-For-Blocks, with $35,000 in CDBG funds matching money from the general fund. The city received 312 applications and awarded 198 grants.
To oversee the approval process and encourage the development of neighborhood associations, a residents’ review committee was created, made up of two representatives from each neighborhood association that applies for grants. “Backing off and letting the residents control the process was difficult,” noted Taffanye Young, Savannah’s Director of Community Services. “However, trusting the residents to review the grants has not only relieved the burden of responsibility from the city, but it has given the neighborhoods additional ownership over the process, because they are being judged by their peers.” Young notes that locally-run programs enjoy unheard of support. For example, attempts by the community services department to hold tutoring and literacy workshops often fail, but similar programs initiated by residents are extremely popular.
The city has additionally capitalized on the program by holding leadership workshops that introduce resident leaders to each other. Having identified over 350 new resident leaders through the grant process, the city has formed inter-neighborhood steering committees to address common issues, and develop better neighborhood marketing techniques that focus on positive aspects of community life, and map the assets of residents. “We’re trying to create a truly citizen-driven government,” said Henry Moore. “In overseeing this program, and spreading this movement through the city” he continued, “my main goal is just to keep the staff out of its way.”
The nature of the grant requests has also changed over the five years of the program, with many more applications coming from residents who want to create youth programs, such as skills workshops on how to fill out applications and interview for jobs. Programs providing services for the elderly, even oral history projects, are flourishing. And once one neighborhood hears of a good program being offered in a different neighborhood, they frequently apply for a grant to do the same thing with their own residents.
It’s impossible to quantify the myriad impacts that the program has had in these neighborhoods, but in addition to beautification projects (conversion of vacant lots into gardens, street plantings, murals, etc.) the city has undergone a dramatic democratization. Charlotte Caplan, the administrator of the city CDBG program, notes ironically that there is far more interest in the $35,000 she delegates to Grants-For-Blocks, than in the rest of the $3 million CDBG allocation that the city gets from the federal government. But Caplan goes further, noting that people who participate in the program, especially the members of the residents’ steering committee, understand that “the real benefit is not just in the projects themselves, it is in the collaboration they inspire. People get to know their neighbors, they get involved in their neighborhood associations and come to city meetings. They have been given a voice.”
Strengthening neighborhood associations is another direct impact of the program. Because all grants must be sponsored by the local association, they have become more organized to deal with the program. The Grants-For-Blocks program builds the associations directly as well, allowing them to apply for funds for software, letterhead, newsletters, and legal assistance. Caplan notes that one ultimate goal is to help neighborhood associations become fully-fledged neighborhood development corporations. Says Assistant City Manager Moore; “This program has stitched back together neighborhood associations that for years had either been dormant, or dead.”
As noted above, the social services department gave the reviewing process over to a residents council — however applications are submitted to the council for review with amounts, names and neighborhoods removed. These restrictions became necessary after the first year, when members exercised subjective determinations instead of assessing proposals on their merits. In addition, reviewers are not allowed to judge applications from their own neighborhoods. The practice of interviewing all potential grantees proved too time consuming and was also eliminated after the first year. Requiring grantees to find a match for their requests on their own didn’t work, because requests came to the same local institutions over and over.
To cut down on monitoring time, money is not given out to grantees until the city is presented with an invoice. The city has reduced its role to purely administrative functions. They now only distribute and collect the applications, transfer them to transparencies for the review meetings, log all the applications in a database, ensure eligibility under CDBG requirements, and write the checks. “I tell people to treat the neighborhood committees as if they were the city council,” said Moore. “We are their staff. We serve them”
Taffanye Young considers it a testimony to the success of the program that the $500 cap on grants may soon be raised. “People are thinking bigger now,” she said. Young also notes that the quality of an application has risen considerably as well, and grant implementation rates remain over 80%.
Taffanye Young, director of community services, 912-651-6948