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Exploring Atlanta's Community Development Landscape with Governor Lael Brainard
Atlanta is a city of contrasts, like many other southeastern cities. Despite its relatively strong growth, many underserved neighborhoods fell further behind as a result of the recent recession. As a proponent and facilitator of more equitable and inclusive communities, the Atlanta Fed’s community and economic development (CED) program works to activate financial, human, and social capital to foster economic growth and opportunity in low- and moderate-income communities in the Southeast.
On November 3, 2016, Atlanta Fed employees from CED and supervision and regulation welcomed Fed Governor Lael Brainard on one of several trips she has made around the country to speak with community members and organizations about local challenges and community development efforts. In Atlanta the discussions throughout the day highlighted the effects of disinvestment in the city’s most distressed communities and the opportunities around economic inclusion, workforce development, housing, and education. The tour demonstrated how community development organizations are stepping up to promote economic and social inclusion in the Atlanta Fed’s own backyard.
Governor Brainard heard an “in the weeds” perspective of community and economic development efforts in Atlanta by meeting with small groups of nonprofits, government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and community members. The tour was organized in three parts, starting with a tour and roundtable discussion on efforts to revitalize the Westside. It was followed by a roundtable with representatives of regional workforce development programs and partnerships designed to foster economic mobility. The last stop was a tour and roundtable on the East Lake community’s transformative revitalization strategy and its progress on housing stability and education. Details about each of these stops follows later in the article.
Throughout the day the organizations and community members highlighted the need for sustained, multigenerational, and vision-based efforts to solve issues of blighted neighborhoods, failing schools, and adults disengaged from the workforce. Funding sources and election cycles often put a focus on much shorter time frames, which can complicate or impede these efforts. This is where innovative and pioneering community organizations come into play, making sure the end goal is always in sight through the ups and downs of politics and capital.
A second important theme was that the economic downturn exposed a weakness in the Atlanta regional community development infrastructure. Many nonprofits such as community development corporations failed during the recession. For example, when unemployment peaked, the state of the workforce development system was revealed to be fragmented and largely ineffective. Similarly, when the housing crisis hit, the city lost many smaller, for-profit housing developers who had been a significant source of affordable housing.
First stop: Westside neighborhoods
Our day began with a tour of the Westside neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City. The Blank Foundation and a local resident provided a firsthand look at many of the challenges that these neighborhoods are facing, such as high levels of vacancy, blight, and substantial challenges to securing control of properties for redevelopment. Once a stable network of neighborhoods, today the Westside is a designated HUD Promise Zone due to blight, a 50 percent poverty rate, and 19 percent unemployment.1 With increasing pressures of gentrification and investment surrounding the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, many in the community are concerned about displacement and neighborhood change that does not benefit current residents.
Stakeholders at the roundtable addressed the revitalization of the Westside and the overall challenge of developing and initiating a comprehensive strategy. Participants—including representatives from Westside Future Fund, the Emerald Corridor Foundation, the Blank Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners Inc., Opportunity Hub, and Invest Atlanta—discussed community development strategies and how to balance the redevelopment of the Westside while preventing displacement and providing long-term support for the current population.
Another topic of importance was the resources necessary for transformative redevelopment. The Westside has been able to capitalize on significant amounts of private investment from the Blank Foundation’s Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund, which has committed $15 million toward transforming this area as part of the community benefits agreement attached to the new Falcons stadium. With an influx of resources and the arrival of new businesses and housing in a place where, historically, many promises have been broken, the ability to engage and empower the local community will determine the success of these initiatives.
Next stop: Mechanicsville
Following the Westside, our visit took us to the Mechanicsville neighborhood, the home of the Center for Working Families, an organization providing employment training, job development, and financial literacy. This roundtable focused on regional efforts to bolster and support workforce development and included individuals from the Center for Working Families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Atlanta CareerRise, and Georgia Power. Many topics were discussed, including the perceived limitations of workforce development and the “benefits cliff,” where marginal increases in work hours or pay actually lead to an employee’s loss of federal assistance and benefits. Three of the counselors at the Center for Working Families also shared their experiences addressing poverty with a two-generation approach, by intentionally providing services and opportunities that benefit parent and child in order to break the cycle of poverty.
Roundtable discussion at Center for Working Families (l–r): Cinda Herndon-King of Atlanta CareerRise, Alicia Philipp of Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Governor Brainard
Two regional strategies were highlighted: the Metro Atlanta eXchange for Workforce Solutions (MAX) and the Aerotropolis Atlanta project. Launched in 2014, MAX seeks to forge better connections and collaboration between employers and workforce development providers. Aerotropolis Atlanta is a targeted effort to connect the underserved South Atlanta community to employment opportunities associated with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Both programs serve as a catalyst to empower and align the workforce with employment opportunities. The discussion also addressed the inherent barriers to workforce development and how to address the pertinent issue of job eligibility for the jobs being created today. Finding ways to incorporate the marginalized and often alienated community of adults without a high school diploma or with a criminal record into the workforce will be difficult; however, it is a necessary next step in workforce and economic development efforts.
Last stop: East Lake
The day ended with a tour and roundtable discussion in the nationally renowned East Lake community, which is the prototype for the Purpose Built Communities model of redevelopment (see chapter in San Francisco Fed’s What Works publication). The Purpose Built Communities organization focuses on mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education, and community health efforts led by a community-based nonprofit, or “quarterback,” organization that makes sure all partners are working toward a common set of goals. In East Lake, redevelopment efforts began over 20 years ago and significant accomplishments have been achieved, especially in the area of education. A tour of the East Lake neighborhood and the Charles R. Drew Junior and Senior Academy Charter School naturally featured the Purpose Built Communities model and its rollout in 16 other neighborhoods throughout the country.
The tour ends at Drew Senior Academy Charter School (l–r): Ann Carpenter of Atlanta Fed’s CED team, Peter McKnight of Drew Charter School,
Renee Lewis Glover of Catalyst Group, Carol Naughton of Purpose Built Communities, Governor Brainard, Amanda Roberts of the Federal Reserve Board,
Michael Lucas of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation
The roundtable discussion also focused on education and housing stability. A sister organization, Purpose Built Schools, is based on the Drew Charter School’s successes. Purpose Built Schools is currently working to make the struggling Thomasville Heights Elementary a high-performing school despite pressing issues of substandard and instable housing (see recent Atlanta Fed paper on area evictions). A partnership with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation has been established to represent tenants faced with an involuntary move. The group also discussed challenges in affordable, single-family homeownership, including the Atlanta Fed’s work on negative equity and mortgage modifications, and the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership’s assistance to underwater homeowners after the foreclosure crisis. The participants at the final roundtable drove home the point that education and housing are inextricably linked and innovative partnerships can be effective in addressing the needs of communities with very great need.
The day provided Governor Brainard with three examples from Atlanta of ways southeastern communities are working to create more equitable communities. From the Westside to East Lake, the day’s progression underscored the idea that critical change can be achieved over time given substantial investments in the built environment, institutions, and financial, human, and social capital. According to Purpose Built Communities President Carol Naughton, “Long term, cross-sectoral partnerships and strong private sector leadership are more important than ever in this difficult work. The good news is that with strong leadership, authentic engagement with residents, and best-in-class partners, there really is a solution to the challenges caused by concentrated poverty that plague many urban areas in the United States.”
For metro Atlanta, a region that has been repeatedly ranked at or near the top in income inequality, we need to keep our eyes on the end goal of inclusive communities by empowering change from within. The day was a great opportunity to highlight the challenges communities struggle with today and celebrate the work of local organizations.
Thanks to everyone who made this day possible: Governor Lael Brainard, John Ahmann, Odessa Archibald, Keren Cadet, Ann Carpenter, Eytan Davidson, Jessica Dill, Debra Edelson, Sameera Fazili, Frank Fernandez, Greg Giornelli, Renee Lewis Glover, Rosario Hernandez, Cinda Herndon-King, Mary Hirt, Karen Leone de Nie, Michael Lucas, Odetta MacLeish-White, Peter McKnight and the Charles R. Drew Charter School InvenTeam, Ryan Moore, Carol Naughton, John O’Callaghan, Alicia Philipp, Elora Raymond, Michael Reeves, Amanda Roberts, Rodney Sampson, Juan Sanchez, Debbie Schumacher, Suganthi Simon, Kent Spencer, Nancy Varella, Che Watkins, Janelle Williams, Marion Williams, Constance Willis, and Chevelle Wilson.
By Mary Hirt, intern in the Atlanta Fed's community and economic development group