The neighborhood was tired.
Homes were aging. Families were leaving at an alarming rate. Many of the homes and apartment buildings belonged to absentee owners living out-of-state. Long-term residents of West Valley City — the second largest city in Utah — wanted to stay, but they despaired at the trajectory of neglect.
The complexity of the problems felt too large, too overwhelming for any one person or organization.
They weren’t unique — neighborhoods marred by slumlords, high turnover among residents and deterioration are common American issues — but a new solution is emerging that mobilizes residents and leverages the strengths of the city, local churches, volunteers and corporations.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Operation MyHometown has been successful enough in one neighborhood of 1,060 houses, apartments and mobile homes that West Valley City already is expanding it to several others, and one of the partners, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is hoping to replicate it in other parts of the country and perhaps other parts of the world.
Six days a week, the church is converting its meetinghouse in the neighborhood into a community center. Corporations are donating cash and goods. A new park is planned. The city is adding street lights. Funds are being raised to finance home ownership. And volunteers are streaming in from all over the Salt Lake Valley to work side by side with residents to deal with blight and city code violations. Together, they paint homes, pour new driveways, haul away dead trees and remake lawns.
“I’m so encouraged, so hopeful, so blessed,” said Bonnie Shaw, who has lived in West Valley City for 45 years and serves as a block captain for the project. “I can’t even believe this is happening.”
Nickolaus Orwin, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, said the story of Operation MyHometown is a balm for the wounds of 2020 in a mixed-race community struck hard by COVID-19.
“We live in a strange world these days,” he said. “We hear this ideology that if you don’t look like me, talk like me, act like me and vote like me, then we must be enemies, but throughout all of this social upheaval of 2020, this community has worked together and served one another in such a brilliant and beautiful way that it just defies the ideology that we’re different and we have to segregate ourselves out into groups.
“Even in the dark days of COVID, and we have lost dozens to the virus, this community service was such a bright, shiny star. Through all of that hard, we have this, this really beautiful and safe community service that was happening.”
Moving in, moving out
The Hillsdale neighborhood near Stansbury Elementary School has been hurting for years. The young people who move in move out again when they see some success, fleeing to the Utah communities of Taylorsville or Tooele. Orwin said that from the 5,000 homes in and surrounding Hillsdale, 700 families moved out in a single year.
“The optics of our community are poor,” he said. “You pull into these neighborhoods and they have no pedestrian-level lighting, so it’s really dark at night. The houses were all built in the 1960s, so they’re tired, they’re rundown and poorly maintained, and it’s dark.”
The area includes a high percentage of Section 8, low-income assisted housing. A lot of the homes are rentals with absentee owners, leading one resident to call it “slumlord heaven” because nobody holds the absentee owners accountable for rundown properties. Unsightly concrete is everywhere. In some places, a home with a sidewalk is flanked by homes without one.
There are other problems. Some 70% of the population has no post-high school education and many do not have high school diplomas, Orwin said, referencing census data. While West Valley City fights a reputation for drug trafficking and violent crime, crime rates in the pilot MyHometown neighborhood are close to the state average. The leading problem is domestic violence, Orwin said, an issue often fueled by mental illness, which is unusually prevalent in the area.
Some among the 70% Hispanic population are undocumented, and volunteers are helping them find immigration-related legal services.
Many residents, like Mark Rupp, have long advocated for the need for a community center in Hillsdale. Other than the elementary school and local churches, little brings the neighborhood together. There are few restaurants and no parks that draw large groups together.
Rupp was in a position to do something about the community center. He was the area’s Latter-day Saint stake president, overseeing multiple congregations in several buildings in the neighborhoods. He asked the church’s Utah Area president, Elder Craig C. Christensen, for help. They received permission from the church’s highest-ranking bodies to turn the meetinghouse into a community center and call service missionaries from across the valley to serve as volunteer helpers.
But first, both the city and the church sought to build trust.
West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle visited church headquarters in Salt Lake City twice in an effort to discuss the project and gauge the church’s resolve. Church leaders visited a former mayor who was a past church employee to seek similar assurances about the city’s commitment.
“We just wanted to do Christlike service without any other motive,” Elder Christensen said. “Service without condition — unconditional service, without motive, ulterior motive — cuts through everything. I think this is an example of how the church really can do best. Our people love to serve without conditions and to see the blessings to those they’re serving. I think it’s really what magnifies both sides of the equation.”
“I wasn’t sure just how this was going to happen with the church, and they have just been all in, they have been absolutely wonderful partners and totally willing to experiment and to pilot this,” said Nicole Cottle, a West Valley City assistant city manager.
Battling the pandemic
A launch event for Operation MyHometown drew 500 people in February 2020. Then the pandemic slowed plans. Despite the outbreak, across eight days of service the coalition completed 110 projects and made significant improvements to 55 homes in the Hillsdale neighborhood, said Cottle.
Full-time Latter-day Saint proselyting missionaries spend up to 10 hours a week in pure service. Some from the Salt Lake City West Mission dove into yard work and other projects on others days, responding to residents’ needs.
The project’s pilot area stretches from about 2600 North to 3100 South and from 3200 West to I-215. The church meetinghouse sits in the center, and the elementary school on the south boundary.
The real key to the operation are the 35 block captains who make it a true grassroots effort. They overcome barriers by creating a trusted friend and mentor network on their block and ensure that each person can request what they really need. Shaw is block captain for 13 homes, for example. The block captains then forward the true needs to a committee of service volunteers, many of them among more than 100 volunteers provided through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Some volunteers pitched in with unofficial acts of kindness. For example, one couple with a nursery provided every home in the pilot area with a tomato starter plant with directions how to plant it.
“Operation MyHometown is really a curator of services and a convener of those services with the people that need it,” Cottle said.
Elder Christensen said the church’s Priesthood and Family Department already had been considering ideas about community centers with a goal to build community spirit.
“The vision we have with the city long term is that people can actually buy their home and live in their own home,” he said, “so we’re working with programs to finance and to help some of these people that rent for long term find a way to become homeowners. The city’s working on a city park. We’ve got plans to do improvements to our chapel. We’re trying to work with the city to make this a place where people come and reside.”
Now the church is renovating the exterior of its meetinghouse in the pilot neighborhood at 2835 S. 2855 West, home of the Granger 15th Ward and the San Marcos Ward, a Spanish-language congregation.
Work on the inside is next. Plans call for a computer lab with Wi-Fi for students, employment and self-reliance resources, English classes, youth music and recreation opportunities and BYU-Pathway Worldwide classes. There also will be immigration support services.
Shaw, the 45-year resident, and her husband will be volunteers in the building.
“I’m on the Family Services Committee and we do family counseling, history, addiction recovery, financial counseling and help with resources for domestic abuse, retirement and aging services,” she said. “Then we have a health-and-wellness couple who provide resources and referrals for dental, mental, vision, medical, nutrition, and Medicare and Medicaid.”
For Orwin, the help is a boon.
“We’ve wanted more for this community so that we could hang on to these wonderful community members that we love that leave us when they want something better,” he said. “We want them to believe that the better is here, that they can make the better with us.”
Building a park
The city is raising money to convert the Rocky Mountain Power corridor that runs along the east side of the pilot neighborhood into a park with pickleball and dog runs and other features to help build additional community spirit.
The West Valley City Council is so happy with the virus-truncated pilot year of Operation MyHometown that it is now adopting the program and expanding it to four more neighborhoods this year.
The first day of service in 2021 is scheduled for April 17.
“As a city, we hope to use Operation MyHometown in about 15 of our 75 neighborhoods, when all is said and done,” Cottle said. “These neighborhoods all have a very strong sense of family and desire a strong sense of community. We found that some of the barriers that are naturally there in a few of our neighborhoods can really be brought down very quickly when a show of service or love without any expectation is given.”
The Hillsdale neighborhood was selected by West Valley City as the pilot for the program because it needed help but was about in the midrange of areas that needed intervention. The expansion will test Operation MyHometown in neighborhoods that need even more work.
Shaw lives in the middle of the pilot neighborhood and watched and pitched in as residents, city workers, volunteers from multiple churches and organizations and missionaries made improvements on service days.
Latter-day Saint leaders called more than 100 church members to be service missionaries assigned solely to Operation MyHometown.
“There are 30 couples that run the community center and some of the outreach,” Elder Christensen said. “And then, twice a month, volunteers from 10 stakes from Erda to Riverton to Parleys — from all over the valley — provide volunteers together with full-time missionaries and come by invitation of the landowners or the residents to help them with whatever project is needed.”
Shaw said the projects have removed a number of city code violations, which receive priority service, from paint to rain gutters and fences. Many homes have old, dead or unsightly trees. One overgrown yard needed two service days’ worth of work and a new watering system.
“Her front yard is gorgeous now,” Shaw said of the resident. “It’s simple. It’s clean. It’s beautiful.”
Cottle said she wasn’t sure how the partnership with the Latter-day Saints would work because it is a first-of-its-kind scenario for the church.
“They’ve been willing to take a leap of faith with us and to try something really, really new and out of the box,” she said.
Elder Christensen said the church mobilized volunteers and service missionaries from eight stakes in 2020. (A stake is a regional group of congregations.) This year, church leaders will deploy help from 20 stakes.
The church has had primary conversations with Salt Lake City about taking the program to inner-city Salt Lake next.
“This is what pure religion looks like,” Elder Christensen said, “and it’s not denominational. It’s Christlike service. From my own service in Utah, this is one of the most meaningful projects that I’ve been engaged with, because we have no proselyting motive. All we want to do is build a sense of community. That strengthens the church, but it strengthens the people and that’s the most important part.”