Written by Amanda Maher
“America’s greatest untapped resource isn’t hidden in the ground but is sitting in plain sight: the human capital trapped in poor neighborhoods of concentrated poverty…Investing in their well-being can be a social and economic game-changer, but only if done in a way that produces results.” – Tom Cousins
In the early 1990s, the East Lake neighborhood was one of Atlanta’s poorest. The East Lake Meadows housing project was the neighborhood’s epicenter of poverty and rampant crime. In 1995, local real estate developer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Cousins first proposed the idea of redeveloping East Lake Meadows into a mixed-use housing development. The thought was that a mixed-income community would serve as a catalyst for additional investment.
Initially, people thought Cousins was crazy. Others, including community residents, were distrustful. “I wasn’t so sure about him,” said Eda Davis, then-President of the East Lake Meadows Resident Association. “We had heard so many promises before from other reach people who said they’d change things and never did. Why should we trust this one? He had to prove himself.”
Cousins brought together a tight-knit working group that included local business leaders and community organizations to develop a holistic redevelopment strategy. Mixed-income housing was an important component, but housing alone wouldn’t be enough to transform the neighborhood. The group also needed to attract investments in education and community wellness programs in order to correct the effects of deep-rooted poverty.
The approached worked. East Lake Meadows was transformed into the 542-unit “Villages of East Lake” apartment complex. The Drew Charter School opened in East Lake and is now among the highest performing in the City. An array of community wellness programs were implemented, including enrichment programs at the school and job training at the nearby East Lake Golf Club. In just over a decade, East Lake experienced a dramatic turnaround. Roughly 80% of adults are working—the rest are in educational/job training programs or are work-exempt; the median public household income has tripled and violent crime is down by 90%. The Drew Charter School has virtually eliminated the achievement gap with nearly all of its students meeting or exceeding state testing standards.
Could this approach be replicated elsewhere? After all, the challenges that East Lake faced in the 1990s are not so different than the challenges faced by inner city communities across the country.
Cousins spent years showing off East Lake to government officials, developers and foundations across the community. Everyone was impressed—but nobody was replicating this model.
Hurricane Katrina changed all that.
Gerry Barousse, Mike Rodrigue and Gary Soloman were three New Orleans businessmen who had weak connections to each other, but all had connections to Tom Cousins. These businessmen came together after Hurricane Katrina to explore using a similar strategy for redeveloping the New Orleans Bayou District. Like East Lake Meadows, the Bayou District was very low-income, plagued with crime and had poor educational outcomes. The goal was to create a neighborhood that was even better than pre-Katrina.
The Bayou District Foundation formed to spearhead redevelopment efforts. Their first accomplishment was rebuilding the former St. Bernard’s housing project – one that had been devastated by the storm – into a mixed-income housing complex. Next they recruited Educare, a national early education program with a track record of success with at-risk populations. Educare opened its first facility in the southern U.S. at the former St. Bernard site. A tuition-free K-8 charter school is up and running in temporary facilities, with permanent facilities about to break ground.
Already, felonies in the Bayou District have dropped by 99.7% and more than 100 jobs have been created. The 685 newly built rental apartments are 100% leased.
The Bayou District’s initial success indicates that indeed, the East Lake model could be replicated elsewhere. To be sure, New Orleans had the benefit of tremendous aid (federal and philanthropic) that poured in after Hurricane Katrina. For instance, the redevelopment of St. Bernard into mixed-income housing happened largely thanks to one of the largest federal New Market Tax Credit packages in program history. But with two major neighborhood transformations underway, there was growing cause to believe this model was replicable.
In 2009, through the support of private investors such as Warren Buffet and Julian Robertson, Cousins helped to launch Purpose Built Communities, a consulting nonprofit that helps other neighborhoods adapt the East Lake model: creating high-quality mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and community wellness programs to lift residents out of poverty and build strong, economically diverse neighborhoods.
Today, Purpose Built Communities is working in ten U.S. cities, including Columbus, Houston and Indianapolis. Purpose Built helps to facilitate conversations among stakeholders and break down institutional barriers that may exist at the local level. It also helps to identify policies, procedures and curriculum that have worked well elsewhere that can then be tailored for the community. Often, Purpose Built will help the lead organization draft contractual agreements, charter school documents and management policies.
The strength and success of these Purpose Built initiatives ultimately depends on the leadership of the local backbone organizations. The organizations, typically newly created – such as the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta or the Bayou District Foundation in New Orleans – must establish credibly within their communities. City government and funding sources change over time so a strong advocate must be willing to stay the course; revitalization efforts can take more than a decade to fully take root. The process includes implementing plans, evaluating progress and refining the process year after year, all while engaging key community stakeholders.
It’s certainly not an easy task, but with the right leadership in place, inner city neighborhoods throughout the U.S. may experience strong economic and social gains through the adoption of the Purpose Built model.
Read more about the Purpose Built model – What Works: Philanthropic Efforts Help Struggling District Thrive