Usually the desire to start a neighborhood association comes up when someone wants to socialize more with their neighbors or when there are problems that are beyond the capacity of one household or block to resolve. On this page, we'll refer to the initial problem or group of problems that cause you to think of starting a neighborhood organization as the "first issue."
Actually our friends from community organizing would say that we are using those terms incorrectly. Being more disciplined, we should say that a problem is a broad area of concern, while an issue is built around a solution or partial solution to a problem.
While you can sometimes bring together one great meeting around discussion of a problem, if you want to organize people on a more permanent basis by forming a neighborhood group, you need an issue.
If you've already held a neighborhood meeting or two, you're welcome to stay here and read about first steps, but we want you to know there is another page more suited to neighborhood associations that are already well into the formation process.
Make no mistake about it: we think your first issue should be tightly focused. Even if you live in a neighborhood that has been trashed by poverty, crime, drugs, abandonment, and disinvestment, wrap that into one issue name that represents part of the solution to your multi-faceted problem, and stay with it.
It takes plenty of energy to start a neighborhood association, so be sure you really need to do it. We suggest some key questions to determine whether neighborhood associations would be likely to succeed:
• How many people are affected by the first issue?
• Are these people resident property owners, renters, business owners, business customers, or institutional stakeholders such as non-profit or faith-based groups?
• How motivated are these different groups to help solve the immediate problem or problems to which your group is reacting?
• If many residents are transient, meaning people don't stay in your community very long (more than 20% turnover a year, for example, is significant), how much effort can you expect from those folks?
• If renters or even fast-turnover homeowners form a large component of the population, are there any special circumstances that would make them likely to help? (Examples might be that the first issue affects them more than it affects long-term residents, or perhaps the "transients" are college students at an institution with an appetite for activism.)
• How passionate about your first issue are those who are likely to help?
• Are you, or someone you know and can identify right now, able to give the new organization the time and leadership effort it will require?
• Are you certain that no existing organization can be redirected or revived to tackle your first problem? Even if you have your doubts about an existing organization's strength, understand that if you start a neighborhood association, the result is both work intensive and potentially divisive if there is an organization available that you might work within.
Estimating the time and effort that will be required is a key factor in whether your project to start a neighborhood association or another type of community organization will be time well spent. Factors to consider are:
• Are the people you are working with "joiners"? Do they readily belong to interest-based clubs, faith-based organizations, political groups, civic groups, sports leagues, fraternities, or organized social activities? If so, your job will be easier than if "people stay pretty much to themselves."
• Do neighbors have at least a passing acquaintance with each other already? If not, the first activity needs to include a getting acquainted component.
• Is there trust in the community, which will make your job will be easier, or is the community divided into factions or riddled with crimes that make people suspicious of one another?
• Is the "first issue" compelling? In other words, regular gunfire seems more important and feels more emotional than noise from boom boxes.
• Is the "first issue" something that people will be at least slightly optimistic about winning? People often feel totally helpless to stop regular gunfire if that activity is gang-related or drug-related, as seems likely. So they may be too cynical or too fearful of becoming involved to help you start a neighborhood association, even though the issue is enormously compelling.
• Is there a history of failed attempts to start a neighborhood association, whether temporary or permanent? If there have been four fizzles in the last five years, your chances of success are low. This does not mean you shouldn't try, but just be aware that you must begin every conversation with differentiating yourselves from previous efforts.
• Is there enough discontent to inspire loyalty to an organization? In suburban settings that are idyllic, except for one or two issues, people are simply too content and too busy to devote energy to resolving one or two problems that seem minor or too difficult to solve.
• Is there a natural, comfortable, and neutral meeting place? If so, it will be easier to convince people to attend meetings.
You can learn more about choosing an issue from this excellent Joint Religious Legislative Coalition blog on the topic.
What happens if you want to set up creates rival neighborhood associations? Perhaps the existing organization is stale and boring, and you long for action. Or previous neighborhood associations have burned its bridges with City Hall, and you feel it will never be effective.
Try not to start a neighborhood association with the same neighborhood boundaries as an existing organization simply because you are a personal or political foe of the leader of the other organization. Think of your community first. But a new organization is preferable to an ineffective one. If you try your best to work within the existing organization and cannot do so, then you may need to begin something new.
To continue with the rest of this three-part article, click the link for page 2 (inviting neighbors and planning the first couple of meetings) or 3 (officers and other important decisions when you are brand new) below. Also at some point be sure to look at the general page for neighborhood associations, which contains essential information for you when you decide to proceed.