Can Atlanta’s East Lake Experiment Work in Virginia?

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta's East Lake community.

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta’s East Lake community.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among social scientists that concentrating poor people in public housing projects accentuates the social pathologies that make poverty self-perpetuating and unbearable. The oft-touted solution is to create more mixed-income neighborhoods that de-concentrate poverty. Presumably, the presence of working- and middle-class households people would moderate the anti-social behavior of the poor. There’s just one problem: While the poor perceive mixed-income neighborhoods as beneficial, the non-poor do not. Typically, the non-poor flee poor neighborhoods associated with crime, poor schools and disorderly behavior.

How, then, does one develop mixed-use neighborhoods? The answer, according to Carol R. Naughton, president of the not-for-profit Purpose Built Communities: The developer needs to partner with allies who can provide amenities — grocery stores, recreational amenities, and above all else good schools — that make a neighborhood attractive to the non-poor.

“Poverty and place are tied together,” said Naughton Tuesday when addressing the Richmond chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are “swamps” that breed inter-generational poverty that children can’t escape from. Changing the “place” can change the dynamic of poverty.

Naughton came to the view that developers can make a difference when working with the Atlanta Housing Authority. Her aha moment came when meeting Tom Cousins, a mega-developer and philanthropist with grand designs for repairing East Lake Meadows, a community dominated by public housing projects where the crime rate was 18 times the national average and the employment (not unemployment) rate was 12%.

Working through the East Lake Foundation, Cousins targeted 175 acres in East Lake Meadows to build mixed-use housing. But his approach differed from that of other such projects in several regards.

First, East Lake found people to start a charter school. The Atlanta Board of Education was too broken to help, said Naughton, but the George legislature had just passed a charter school bill. Second, upon the advice of local residents, mixed-use housing was limited to people who worked. Third, the foundation developed key partnerships: with the YMCA to build a community facility, with Publix to build the first grocery store to serve the area in 40 years, and with two Atlanta banks to put branches in the neighborhood. Fourth, the foundation morphed into a “community quarterback” pushing a vision for community wellness and cradle-to-college education.

Each element of the plan was important but the charter school proved decisive, Naughton said. In its first year, the school was the worst-performing school in Atlanta. But it improved year after year, and 20 years later now stands as one of the top schools in the city. “Our kids can compete against anybody, against the wealthiest kids in the city,” she says. “We’re serving more low-income kids than any other school in the community.”

The result is transformational, she said. “Now East Lake is an education destination. People want to live there. It’s a great neighborhood for kids.” Middle-class families are moving into the neighborhood. Indeed, the lure of the charter schools is driving revitalization of neighborhoods beyond the original project.

Naughton is not a big fan of the department of Housing and Urban Development. “HUD confuses funding streams with programs,” she says. Programs take more than money. They require local leadership to put it to good use. She believes that the backing of an entity like the East Lake Foundation, with a high-powered and well-connected board, is a critical ingredient to success.

The East Lake redevelopment model has proven so successful that it is being replicated by the Bayou Foundation in New Orleans, and Naughton runs her own organization, Purpose Built Communities, to work with dozens of other initiatives around the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: Even allowing for the fact that Naughton is a cheerleader for the East Lake project, the concept sounds enviably successful — certainly successful enough that it’s worth a try in Virginia. Could the concept work here? The biggest obstacle likely would be the hostility of Virginia’s educational establishment to charter schools. On the other hand, here in the Richmond area at least, there are dozens of entities — Tricycle Gardens and its community farms, Bon Secours and its community hospital, and the vibrant Communities in Schools program — that would make natural partners.

I am amazed by the number of Richmonders who are actively engaged in trying to ameliorate the concentrated, inter-generational poverty in the city’s East End. There is much good will, and there are many great anecdotal stories, but I don’t see much traction in actually vanquishing poverty. Perhaps the missing elements are a purpose-driven real estate developer and community foundation dedicated to building a physical community and institutions to support it.

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4 responses to “Can Atlanta’s East Lake Experiment Work in Virginia?

  1. and the will of the people to get out of poverty. The issue is people have to be working.
    You can’t have a thug culture and that happen.

  2. In my experience in the nonprofit and social services sector for 13 years, in my opinion, what is missing in Richmond is willingness from partner nonprofits to be Indians, and not insisting on being the Chiefs, and willingness to embrace a true collaboration rather than saying they are collaborating and unwilling to be a percentage partner in programming and resources. Most importantly, though, change in the entrenched belief that five years is considered a “long range goal” is needed. Funding foundations also need to be fully engaged, be financial risk partners, not just write the check and sit back and wait for everyone else to do the work. (Or rather say they are partners but really only want regular reporting – not fully engaged partners except for the odd ‘pet project’.

    One essential point in your article about the East Lake project was “…(the school) improved year after year, and 20 years later now stands as one of the top schools in the city.”

    One of my biggest frustrations is that so many programs in Richmond start and stop because these foundations believe that transformational change can be made in a year to five years, putting unrealistic expectations on the nonprofits, who then in turn over-promise results. Ultimately everyone gets frustrated and consider the programs failures, scrap them, or just rename them and try yet again. There are many, many success stories all over the world of breaking cyclical generational poverty, but they all took 20 to 30 years.

    Once there is collective understanding of this, everyone is willing to be percentage partners in an investment in the vision (which implies long range), accept that the success isn’t dependent on any one person/organization, and accept that fruition might not come in our lifetime, we can begin to make that transformation happen.

    But egos, the need for immediate results, and resume-building credits have been getting in the way for too long. And I don’t see anything in the nonprofit sector to suggest that is going to change.

  3. Pingback: Purpose Built Communities - ULI Virginia

  4. the big advantage of the policy is that kids will not be condemned to attend failed schools in low income neighborhoods.

    “Rich Kid, Poor Kid: How Mixed Neighborhoods Could Save America’s Schools
    In a former Atlanta slum, low- and middle-income families now live side by side — and send their children to the same excellent school. Is this surprising model too good to be true?”

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