A First Step Toward a Mixed-Income Community
Intro by John Ahmann, Westside Future Fund: Thanks to the Jaren Abedania, the Westside Future Fund’s (WFF) Vice President of Real Estate, for this week’s column. In my October 2, 2018 column, Two Years of Westside Future Fund, I spoke to our commitment to increase the supply of high-quality affordable rental housing and in this week’s column Jaren writes about 603 Brawley, the first multi-family WFF acquired and developed. We intend for this to be an example of more to come, helping to add to the supply of high quality affordable housing from other partners such as Atlanta Housing and Quest Communities. And in the spirit of “the more we, the more I can do,”, Jaren describes how the redevelopment of 603 Brawley has been a collaboration with partners, from the English Avenue Neighborhood Association, to Quest Communities, to Chris 180. We have to much more to do but we believe the redevelopment of this multi-family is another brick in our journey to help develop a community Dr. King would be proud to call home.
By Jaren Abedania, Westside Future Fund
In the Fall of 2005, I boarded a flight from San Francisco bound for Atlanta to pursue an architecture degree at Georgia Tech. Back then, I knew little about the city, aside from its civil rights legacy and Olympic fame. But after four years of living in Atlanta and investigating the city with a critical eye, I came to know the city well. Or so I thought. In hindsight, I only saw half of the picture. It wasn’t until June 2016—following several years away from the city—that I first discovered the historic Westside of Atlanta, when I met John Ahmann at his office at City of Refuge. Although he had only been on the job for a few weeks, he conveyed a compelling vision for the future of the Westside that appealed to my penchant for neighborhood revitalization, not only in terms of physical rebuilding but also social healing.
I had previous experience in neighborhood redevelopment, so naturally I was captivated by the mission and a year later I had the privilege to join Westside Future Fund to support its Mixed-Income Community objective, one of the four impact areas previously described in this column. Building on earlier work accomplished through strategic partnerships with The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Atlanta Police Foundation, Atlanta Public Schools, and others, Westside Future Fund has accelerated its efforts around this essential component of our work: housing. We believe expanding access to quality affordable housing is an important first step in the direction of a diverse mixed-income community. But while it is no mystery that a critical element of neighborhood stabilization is the rehabilitation of abandoned and blighted properties, our focus on housing is about people; specifically, retaining and stabilizing current residents as the community evolves.
Over the past year, I have only started to learn the rich and complex history of the Westside. The neighborhoods that comprise Westside Future Fund’s Target Area possess worldwide importance as the birthplace and home of countless civil rights luminaries, influential churches, and storied cultural institutions, including premier historically black colleges and universities. Reverence for this history obliges the protection of legacy residents who are essential to the restoration of the Westside. With the enthusiastic support of Atlanta’s corporate and philanthropic network, Westside Future Fund and our partners are acting on this obligation.
As noted previously in this column, in 2017 Westside Future Fund launched the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, which helps existing Westside homeowners cope with escalations in property taxes as neighborhoods revitalize. But the solution is far less straightforward for existing renter households. Research led by APD Urban Planning + Management suggests that nearly 50% of Westside households earn less than $20,000 annually and can afford no greater than $500 per month in total housing costs—rent plus utilities. But median rent across Westside Future Fund’s Target Area exceeds $1,000 per month and is rapidly rising. This is especially alarming given that over 70% of households rent from private owners (i.e. unsubsidized by Atlanta Housing) and are thus vulnerable to displacement as property values appreciate. Improving both the quality and quantity of the affordable housing stock requires tremendous creativity and coordination across a wide spectrum of resources.
At Westside Future Fund, we look to the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for guidance. Particularly, his efforts to eradicate institutionalized poverty and discriminatory housing practices. In 1966, Dr. King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Midwest in support of the Chicago Freedom Movement (or Chicago Open Housing Movement), a protest of the city’s unequal and unjust housing policies that disproportionately afflicted the city’s low-income and non-white residents. Addressing a crowd of over 30,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Dr. King decried the city’s deplorable housing conditions and inequitable practices, proclaiming that “We are here today because we are tired. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in …slums.” This message still resonates today, even here in his hometown.
Dr. King’s leadership ultimately resulted in the “Summit Agreement,” which promised fair access to adequate housing for all Chicago residents regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry. And while it was an important achievement that heralded the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Dr. King acknowledged that it is was only “the first step in 1,000-mile journey.”
Westside Future Fund is taking its own first step toward honoring Dr. King’s vision of fair and equitable housing with the renovation of a small apartment complex located at 603 James P. Brawley Drive in English Avenue—less than one mile from the King Family home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City. Beginning with this project, we aim to retain legacy residents and restore decency through high-quality, affordable housing.
The property consists of four, two-bedroom, one-bath apartments, which are approximately 750 square feet each. Although the units were relatively well-maintained at the time the property was purchased, Westside Future Fund leveraged the expertise of Southface Energy Institute to assess the existing building conditions, which resulted in several recommendations that are now part of the repairs program. The work currently underway, funded primarily by philanthropic support, will ensure the health and safety of the eventual tenants, including enhancements to increase air quality, energy and water efficiency, and durability.
As John stated it in a previous post, Westside Future Fund believes strongly in the power of “We.” To that end, Westside Future Fund engaged Quest Community Development Organization—the esteemed non-profit affordable housing developer and community services provider located in Vine City—to oversee the renovations. The project commenced in late-August and will be occupied in early November.
Furthermore, once complete, CHRIS180 has agreed to help Westside Future Fund identify and recruit tenants for the units. For example, through their involvement with the At-Promise Youth Center in English Avenue, CHRIS180 has met several single, working mothers whose children attend Hollis Innovation Academy but who are at high risk of displacement from the Westside as the area witnesses its resurgence. This is significant because there is a statistical correlation linking excessive student mobility (the number of times a student changes schools during a school year) and unrealized scholastic potential. To simplify, reducing transiency can increase student achievement. This is the type of positive outcome that better, more affordable housing can help produce. At 603 James P. Brawley Dr., CHRIS180 will deliver additional support to residents in the form of rental assistance and wraparound services to ensure long-term success for tenants.
Signifying Westside Future Fund’s commitment to legacy resident retention, “community preferences” for tenant selection will also be instituted at the property. These preferences include, among other criteria: current and longtime residents of Westside neighborhoods; households with children in the Booker T. Washington High School cluster; enrollment in job training and education programs; and households that are currently severely rent-burdened and living in substandard conditions. I have personally shared these criteria with residents at neighborhood association meetings with great confidence that Westside Future Fund stands firmly behind our vision and values.
Although 603 James P. Brawley Drive is relatively modest by Atlanta development standards, all four units will remain affordable to households earning no more than 50% of Area Median Income in perpetuity, thanks to generous philanthropic sponsorship. As Westside Future Fund and our partners continue to rigorously apply these principles across the Historic Westside, the abstract concept of a “mixed-income community” can quickly become a reality.
I am humbled to be Fifty years ago, Dr. King demanded in Chicago that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Westside Future Fund and our partners heed this call to action today as we march towards our collective vision of a community that Dr. King would be proud to call home.