Objective: This What Works for Cities case study examines how a motivated real estate developer galvanized a group of committed residents and partners to systematically invest in and transform the East Lake neighborhood, once one of Atlanta’s most disadvantaged.
Geography: Atlanta, Georgia
Major Participants: Tom Cousins, East Lake Foundation, Atlanta Housing Authority, East Lake Meadows Resident Association, Atlanta Public Schools, Charles R. Drew Charter School, various public and private stakeholders.
Background: By the early 1990s, the East Lake neighborhood was one of Atlanta’s poorest. The East Lake Meadows housing project faced high unemployment (with an adult employment rate of only 13%), concentrated poverty (with a median income below $4,500) and rampant crime (18 times higher than the national average). Residents lived in substandard housing – 40% of the project’s housing units were deemed “unlivable” – and the neighborhood elementary school ranked dead last in the entire Atlanta district. The average home value was only $46,000 in 1996; the East Lake drug trade brought $35 million into the area that same year. There had been no private investment in this area in four decades. As a result, East Lake Meadows – a public housing development nicknamed “Little Vietnam” – was a fertile breeding ground for inter-generational poverty.
How it Happened: In 1993, Atlanta real estate investor and philanthropist Tom Cousins first met with Renee Glover, CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, to discuss the ways they could transform East Lake Meadows. A working group, including Cousins and Glover, East Lake Meadows Resident Association president Eva Davis and local business leaders, formed to develop a holistic redevelopment strategy. This working group founded the East Lake Foundation in late 1995.
The Atlanta Housing Authority, on the leading edge of public housing reform nationally, already was spearheading the redevelopment of its housing developments into mixed-income communities, and the working group developed a plan to raze East Lake Meadows and replace it with the 542-unit “Villages of East Lake” apartment complex. Half of the units were reserved as affordable public housing and the other half were market-rate. All former residents had the legal right to return, but would be subject to a work requirement to live in a public housing unit.
While new housing was an important first step, it would be a tough sell to attract middle-income families given the area’s notoriously underperforming schools. Building a quality school was a critical component—not only to attract new residents to the area, but to ensure that current residents had access to opportunity. The Foundation spearheaded an effort to tear down East Lake’s old, window-less school and establish the city’s first public charter school: the Charles R. Drew Charter School, which started with 240 children in grades K-5th but has since grown to serve more than 1200 students in Pre-K through 9th grade. Drew uses a STEAM model: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. Special attention is paid to early learning and literacy, and the school offers a wide range of enrichment programs – everything from violin training to golf lessons. Students at Drew Charter benefit from a school day that is an hour and a half longer than those at Atlanta’s traditional public schools. Since its inception in 2000, school performance skyrocketed. Now, demand for Drew Charter is high; it has served as a catalyst to attract residents from across the city. Residents of the Villages are still given first priority preference for enrollment, followed by the broader surrounding neighborhoods of East Lake and Kirkwood, before children from any other Atlanta neighborhood.
To complement these efforts, Cousins, who was an avid golfer, purchased the East Lake Golf Club. This historic club is where legend Bobby Jones learned to play in the 1920s, but it had since fallen into a state of disrepair. Cousins committed to returning the course to its former glory, establishing the course as an anchor to the community. Revenues raised through the corporate member club go toward supporting revitalization efforts; the culminating event of the PGA TOUR is held there, and all of its net proceeds are reinvested back into the East Lake Foundation. Rather than acting as a dividing force, the golf club and the adjacent public Charlie Yates Golf Course actually bring residents of East Lake from diverse backgrounds together to engage in golf lessons and community wellness programs.
Results for Local Economy: These targeted investments have led to a dramatic East Lake turnaround: approximately 80% of adults are working; the rest are in educational or job training programs or are work-exempt (senior citizens and disabled residents). The median income of public housing households has gone from less than $5,000 to over $16,000. Crime is down by 73%, violent crime by 90%— 50% lower than the city overall. Drew Charter School has virtually eliminated the neighborhood’s achievement gap: over 98% of students meet or exceed state standards in Reading, Language Arts, Math and Social Studies, as do 93.3% in Science. Drew Charter is consistently one of the top five schools in the Atlanta Public School system. In 2014, the new $55 million, 206,000 square foot, LEED Certified Drew Charter middle and high school opened— providing Drew students with seamless transition from Pre-K through 12th grade.
An initial $123 million capital investment in the East Lake community in the late 90s has spurred an additional $200 million in private sector investment in and around East Lake. Home values alone have increased 3.8 times the Atlanta average.
Remaining Challenges: In the East Lake community, stakeholders have identified a three-pronged strategy for urban revitalization: quality mixed-income housing, cradle-to-college education, and community wellness programs, all guided by a lead organization – in this case, the East Lake Foundation. This model was formally adopted and incorporated by an organization, called Purpose Built Communities, formed in 2009 to implement the model in other low-income neighborhoods throughout the United States. But even with what is now a well-established model and an understanding of these three focus areas, questions remain—is there enough affordable housing? Is the housing stock the right type of mix? As revitalization efforts unfold, there are many moving targets; stakeholders must continually adjust to continue sustaining success over time.
Funding also remains a challenge, as is the case with many community-wide revitalization strategies. Given the multi-pronged approach, there are multiple buckets of funding to leverage. For instance, for affordable housing, federal programs like the former Hope VI or current Choice Neighborhoods might be one option. Funding for early childhood education would come from an entirely different source. Project managers must understand each of the different funding verticals, and how these verticals change over time based upon state and federal policy. Where there are funding gaps—especially common for early childhood education—the philanthropic community is often relied upon for support.
Lessons Learned: Early in the process, it became clear to the organizing group that building trust within East Lake Meadows was essential. Many residents were distrustful of government, and could not understand why the private sector would show such attention to their housing project. Building and maintaining relationships with established community groups was important; cross-facilitated conversations helped Cousins and the other partners understand residents’ values and their vision for East Lake moving forward.
It is also important to understand that wide-spread, systemic change in any one neighborhood takes time and is a difficult process. These efforts can take more than a decade before showing significant results. Election cycles and grant programs are typically much shorter in duration, requiring dedicated and committed leadership that will remain steadfast to goals and adaptive as the environment changes. To gain trust with the community, this champion should be one who has a track record of accomplishing difficult projects that include multiple agendas, partners and financing streams. Every city has these potential champions, but they are often already pulled in too many directions. Finding this leadership is critical to the project’s ultimate success.
For more information about East Lake or the Purpose Built Communities model, visit: Purpose Built Communities.