“It was like there was a moat of vacant, red clay around East Lake Meadows, where homes and businesses existed a generation ago,” recalls Carol Naughton.
Constructed in 1970, East Lake Meadows was a 650-unit public housing complex four miles east of downtown Atlanta. By the time Naughton first visited in 1995 — during her first months working as a commercial real estate lawyer for the Atlanta Housing Authority — she says it was “struggling in every measure.” The employment rate of residents was only 14 percent. The crime rate there was 18 times the national average. Only 5 percent of fifth-graders were meeting or exceeding the state math standards.
East Lake Meadows, before (Credit: East Lake Foundation)
East Lake Meadows, after (Credit: East Lake Foundation)
“There was really a dearth of services associated with the community and over time, families associated with East Lake Meadows were falling farther and farther down the food chain,” says Naughton.
That year, the City of Atlanta announced that it would be tearing down East Lake Meadows. Local civic and business leaders, including millionaire real estate developer/philanthropist Tom Cousins, helped to found the East Lake Foundation, which guided the public housing development’s demolition and the construction of The Villages at East Lake — the third mixed-income deal signed in the country.
The Villages at East Lake is photogenic and modern, and set among some of Atlanta’s most impressive amenities. Nearby you can find an attractive supermarket, a YMCA, two preschools, a renovated golf course, and an educational crown jewel: the celebrated Charles R. Drew charter school — Atlanta’s first — built in 2000. In 2013, 98 percent of third- through eighth-graders from East Lake met or exceeded state standards in math. The 2013 violent crime rate was 95 percent lower than 1995’s East Lake Meadows-era number.
The philosophy behind East Lake’s transformation — that you can create upward mobility through breaking up housing blocks of concentrated poverty and replacing them with mixed-income developments paired with services — is guiding affordable housing policies in cities around the country. The transformational work done by East Lake Foundation made the organization an early beacon for this idea, due to their stunning outcomes.
But not everyone who used to live in East Lake Meadows currently enjoys the amenities of the Villages at East Lake. According to Naughton, 400 families were spread throughout East Lake Meadows in 1995. Only 100 returned after construction was completed of the new village in 1998. (Those that did passed a screening test with work requirements; the process barred the formerly incarcerated.) At the time, former East Lake Meadows tenants, concerned about displacement, filed a lawsuit, which they subsequently lost. Today, 50 percent of the 542 units in the rebuilt Villages of East Lake are reserved for families on public assistance.
“There are mixed-income communities that do work, but not everyone gets invited back to experience the same level of services available at The Villages at East Lake,” says King Williams, director of The Atlanta Way, a forthcoming documentary about the dismantling of Atlanta’s public housing.
In 2009, Atlanta became the first major U.S. city to phase out all of its traditional, project-based public housing. Displaced residents were provided with housing vouchers they could take to mixed-income developments or elsewhere. In the documentary, Williams interviews former traditional public housing residents, compiles found footage from local TV news broadcasts, and places the relocation process within the context of Atlanta’s history of class- and race-based discrimination, namely the Atlanta Compromise Speech given by Booker T. Washington in 1895. The most famous speech by the leader laid out a de facto policy where southern blacks would relinquish their civil and political rights in a tradeoff for economic opportunities.
“It’s more or less [the idea that] if the white elites and the black elites can work together in business and commerce, things can be OK,” says Williams. “How this relates to our overall film and our overall telling of this particular story, is that this is the story of the haves — particularly those from the business community and those with a vested interest in Atlanta. [They] have now made decisions that essentially benefit them more so than the people themselves.”
Dierdre Oakley, a sociology professor at Georgia State University, has been tracking former public housing residents relocated through voucher programs around the country. In Atlanta, she’s observed that displaced voucher-holders have tended to move to areas with slightly less crime and poverty in the Southeast and Southwest parts of the city. Nonetheless, these areas are similar to the old public housing projects in that there is still segregation by race, and social networks are still stratified income. (There’s other evidence that race has an enduring significance in housing for low-income people that has transferred over to mixed-income housing.)
“If you look at it within what the goals of what poverty deconcentration were for these public housing transformation efforts, those goals really aren’t being met,” says Oakley. “If you look at the goals for self-sufficiency, these residents are still poor. There’s very little upward mobility going on.
“If you think about how many people were relocated because of [the demolition of Atlanta’s traditional public housing], a very small percentage are benefiting from redevelopment,” she adds. “When they give you all of these statistics about East Lake and how wonderful it’s doing, etc., I don’t think it’s not real, but I think it has to be looked at within the context of the broader outcomes and consequences of demolition.”
Naughton points out that the goal of the East Lake Foundation was a place-based intervention and that residents were given agency in the process, saying, “Sometimes people don’t qualify to come back, but lots of people don’t want to come back. I always want to create opportunities for people to have choice — and then try to earn them back.” The burden of how relocation was executed fell to the local housing authority.
East Lake’s success was so striking that the East Lake Foundation spun off an entirely new nonprofit consulting group, Purpose Built Communities, to work at replicating the Atlanta outcomes in other communities of concentrated poverty around the country. The 10 mixed-income communities they’ve advised so far include Columbia Parc at the Bayou District in New Orleans (which replaced the St. Bernard Housing project razed after Hurricane Katrina), Renaissance West in Charlotte, and Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis.
Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2008, is Purpose Built Communities’ CEO. (Naughton is senior vice president.)
“When I was mayor, I [was] supportive in small ways of the work that was going on in East Lake,” says Franklin. “After leaving office at the end of 2009, it became clear to me that this was the kind of work that I wanted to spend my time on before I retire. Why is that? Because the issues of intractable, persistent and generational poverty have plagued cities for decades and decades. I believe this is a model that is replicable and really opens the door of opportunity.”
For each community that Purpose Built Communities works in, they require the establishment of a lead organization to become a “community quarterback” that drives the creation of mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college educational pipeline and the improvement of community wellness.
“People in city governments have been excited about our model, because it gives them an exit strategy,” says Naughton. “They can help tee up an opportunity, help create some of the funding models and know it’s going to be well-executed, so they can take their time and move on to the next neighborhood that needs that focus and intervention.”
When Williams considers the larger shift from traditional public housing to mixed-income housing, he sees those who fall between the cracks and a “tale of two Atlantas.”
“The closing of the public housing projects in Atlanta signified the end of one particular era,” says Williams, “the era that we think of Atlanta as the Black Mecca, the [home of] black leadership and black political power.”
Franklin sees the current political climate as perfect for targeted, “spot clean” approaches like Purpose Built Communities’ because equity has become a national preoccupation.
“I’m a child of the ‘60s,” says Franklin. “The issues of poverty, discrimination and inequality were topics of the day when I was in high school and college. It’s almost like bell-bottomed pants. It’s come back as a topic of discussion. But clearly the United States’ many public leaders are looking for these kinds of answers.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.