In Atlanta, golfing legend Bobby Jones is synonymous with the city’s rise to glory in the 1920s. As Atlanta was becoming an economic powerhouse, Jones emerged as a golfing great, the only man ever to win four major golf championships in the same year. He grew up in the prestigious East Lake community on the city’s eastern edge and learned to play the Ancient Game at East Lake Country Club.
In life, Jones’ rising star seemed to bring the city up with it. So it is fitting that his death in 1971 coincided with the start of East Lake’s long descent into destitution. The year before Jones died, the Atlanta Housing Authority opened the East Lake Meadows housing project on what had been the Number 2 course at the country club. By the early 1980s, the project would be better known as “Little Vietnam,” a nickname given for its over-the-top crime rates and drug trade. The housing project crippled not only the lives of those residing within it, but the surrounding community as well. Drug traffickers took over the bungalows lining the golf course and converted them to crack houses. The storied golf club that had nurtured Jones was brought to the brink of bankruptcy. The community that once represented the best of the New Atlanta was now a community without hope.
Today, the government project is gone, replaced by the Villages of East Lake—a privately run gated housing community for both the working poor and upwardly mobile young adults—in which many former East Lake Meadows residents now reside. Crime has dramatically declined. A new charter school has replaced the dilapidated elementary school that was more retaining building than learning center. And the once great golf course has been restored to its former glory. Nearby residents have seen their homes soar in value, and new businesses are flocking in to serve the needs of what was for more than a quarter-century Atlanta’s most dangerous community.
The story would make a good movie, and donors addressing the problems of inner-city poverty will find one aspect of it especially compelling: Tom Cousins combined his foundation, political savvy, and business experience to convince both the Atlanta Housing Authority and the East Lake Meadows tenant association that philanthropy and the free market, not government, were the keys to reviving this community and offering its low-income residents their best shot at moving themselves out of poverty.
The end result is the sort of neighborhood once common in America—a community where low-income families enjoy safe streets and a decent school and live side-by-side with the middle class. In replacing the old housing project with this new community, Cousins has not only reversed the fortunes of Atlanta’s worst neighborhood and provided its residents with real opportunities, but he may also have found the way to thaw what housing expert Howard Husock of Harvard calls America’s “Frozen Cities”—the government housing projects where private development and free enterprise are verboten and poverty is all that people ever know.
Seeds of Change
For most of his 30 years as a philanthropist, Cousins took a shotgun approach to fighting poverty by funding a variety of programs across the city. Some of these produced limited successes, while others accomplished little if anything. None of his work was producing the profound results he sought.
A New York Times op-ed in 1993 forced Cousins to rethink his approach. The author, then a Rutgers professor, wrote about his study showing that some 70 percent of prison inmates across all of New York State came from just eight New York City neighborhoods. Stunned, Cousins asked Atlanta’s chief of police if the same were true in their city. According to Cousins, Chief Eldrin A. Bell responded that not only was it true, but that Atlanta had just two or three such neighborhoods. The worst was East Lake, a community whose economic “hub” was the dilapidated East Lake Meadows housing project. So pervasive was crime there that some 90 percent of the residents reported having been the victim of a felony.
“I decided right then,” Cousins tells Philanthropy, “ East Lake was going to be our target.” If poverty and its accompanying pathologies were ever going to be defeated, he reasoned, it would be necessary to turn around the epicenters that produce the majority of society’s criminals.
But such a strategy carries enormous risk, not least of which is public controversy. Up until 1993, Cousins was able to stay fairly anonymous in his giving. We’d “given a lot of money to a lot of things,” Cousins says, “but we had not given ourselves.” Because a public housing project lay at the core of what was wrong with the community, there would be no way to do this project quietly. Any changes at East Lake would necessarily involve East Lake Meadows and the vast bureaucracy of housing officials and tenant leaders who controlled it.
So after decades of anonymity as a funder, Cousins went public.
Philanthropy, Business, or Both?
Even with seven decades of living behind him, Cousins strikes a fit pose. His muted drawl belies a Southern gentleman who is sure of himself, and his piercing eyes suggest a man who acts once committed. He had decided to target his philanthropy on East Lake, but how to act was less clear.
The housing project was a major problem. But so were these facts: The community had no successful nearby businesses, the elementary school was unsafe and literally out of control, residential households were predominantly single-parent, and the average income was well below the poverty level. The community offered few mechanisms whereby those who wanted to find their way out of poverty could do so.
The only answer Cousins could reach was to rebuild the community from the ground up. And that process, he reasoned, must begin with East Lake Meadows. He developed a plan to tear down the government housing project and replace it with more modern, desirable mixed-income facilities under the control of a public charity he had newly created, the East Lake Community Foundation. A mixed-income community would serve two purposes: First, it would inject people of means into the community, providing role models for the less affluent to imitate. Second, the necessity of removing residents during the demolition and construction would allow returning residents to be screened and the worst criminal offenders kept out. This was the quickest way to break the grip crime had on the community and give its honest low-income residents an opportunity to grow and achieve.
In addition, while low-income residents of the new community could receive some types of government support, they would not be allowed to use the old-style “Section 8” housing vouchers most had previously received, because under the system in place in the 1990s, Section 8 vouchers carried neither time limits nor work requirements. Instead, the foundation used Section 9 housing subsidies which allowed the foundation to impose work requirements on assisted residents. Adults aged 17 to 54 either have to work or be enrolled in a life skills program offered by the foundation that aims to help them find work. When residents fail to do either, the foundation has the right to require they leave—a rule it has enforced.
The idea of creating communities where the poor and middle class live side by side is not new, and Cousins harbored no illusions that simply placing people in clean housing alongside middle-class citizens was going to solve anyone’s problems. What was new was his idea to remove a housing project from government control and put it into private hands. To succeed, Cousins would have to negotiate with two historically intractable forces: the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) and Eva Davis, head of East Lake Meadows’ tenant association. Of the two, AHA’s leadership proved more amenable.
A Strong Business Model
Renée Lewis Glover took over the AHA in 1994. Her arrival would be critical to Cousins’ project. “Without her,” Cousins recalls, “the project wouldn’t have gone forward.” Prior to accepting the position at the request of then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, Glover had virtually no experience in government work. Instead, this Yale-trained attorney had worked as a corporate finance attorney in Atlanta and New York City.
Because she didn’t come up through government, she could recognize that the public housing system in America is dysfunctional. “I had no faith when I accepted the position that the public housing authority was working,” she tells Philanthropy. “I thought the thing needed a good business model.”
In the mid-1990s, as Cousins was completing his plans for East Lake, Glover was beginning to experiment with privatizing public housing. In 1996, she took advantage of a new program called HOPE VI, in which the federal government pays to demolish old housing projects and construct new buildings on the site. Glover used the program to tear down an aging project named Techwood and build on its footprint Centennial Place, a mixed-income community whose day-to-day activities would be overseen by a private management company.
Her positive experiences with Centennial Place convinced her that private involvement could work well for the families under her agency’s care. So when Cousins approached her for permission to go forward with his more radical plans at East Lake, he found a sympathetic ear.
What Cousins proposed for East Lake differed significantly from what had happened at Centennial Place. At East Lake, Cousins not only wanted to develop the community with mixed-income housing, but through the East Lake Community Foundation he wanted to develop the conditions by which residents could lift themselves out of poverty. The AHA would effectively be out of the picture. Now, Glover tells Philanthropy, “we only weigh in if an extraordinary circumstance would affect the families that live there.”
By the end of 1996, Glover and Cousins had reached a formal agreement. The housing authority would tear down the existing 650-unit housing project and help finance a new 542-apartment complex, the Villages of East Lake, which the foundation would control. In exchange, Cousins agreed to a 60-year land lease whereby the property and its buildings would revert to the housing authority in 2054. The costs to build the project were split between the housing authority—which paid for demolition, site work, half the housing units, and relocating East Lake Meadows’ residents during the work—and the nonprofits that Cousins set up. The foundation invested none of its own funds in the initial housing component, though it did provide the money and personnel needed to oversee the planning phase of the project, without which the Villages of East Lake could not have been built.
Cousins also raised the funds (some from his foundation) to tear down the old Drew Elementary School and build a charter school, the first in Atlanta, in its place. Drew Elementary was as unsafe as the community it served and about as appealing as Fulton County Jail, with no windows or landscaping. More importantly, it lacked books, strong leaders, and capable teachers. Knowing the city school system could not produce the caliber of school he wanted, Cousins decided to take advantage of the state’s newly adopted charter school laws. Georgia’s charter school laws were weak when it came to exempting charter schools from the burdensome controls of the existing public schools, and to that point no one had started a charter in Atlanta.
At a cost of $17.5 million, all but $1.5 million of it from private sources, Cousins built and opened the Charles L. Drew Charter School in 2000. “It’s the single most important self-sufficiency program we have,” says Carol Naughton, executive director of the East Lake Community Foundation. “Drew graduates will do more to break the cycle of poverty because they’ll be well-educated and able to succeed in school and life.”
The early indicators are promising. In just four years, the percentage of students passing the state reading exam has jumped from 31 percent to 73 percent. Cousins and Naughton believe that in two more years, when the first class of students that has come all the way through Drew prepares to leave for high school, the school’s scores will be among the best in the city of Atlanta. “We won’t rest,” Naughton continues, “until every child is fully prepared to be successful in high school and beyond.” Part of their confidence rests on the fact that Drew students attend classes 1.5 hours longer each day than other public school students, that the school concentrates heavily on improving children’s reading, and that it has hired a number of male teachers and administrators to substitute for missing fathers at home.
There is also a new East Lake Family YMCA center attached to the school, which community residents are encouraged to join and where many East Lake students take part in the Y’s youth development opportunities. Just down the street is the Sheltering Arms preschool, which the foundation brought in to begin preparing Villages of East Lake children who will soon enter the elementary school.
Keeping Kids on Course
Golf has played an important role in the East Lake story. In 1993 Cousins purchased the nearly bankrupt East Lake Golf Club as a purely commercial venture. But as he got underway rebuilding the East Lake community, he shifted his focus to incorporate the club, and golf in general, into the new community’s economics and character.
He did this by, first, deciding to keep East Lake Golf Club as a private, upscale club catering to the country’s corporate elite. The fees are steep—$75,000 to join, a suggested $200,000 donation to the East Lake Community Foundation, and $10,000 a year membership dues. But members, as the club’s motto says, “golf with a purpose.” The $200,000 donation and all funds over and above operating costs are given to the East Lake Community Foundation to further its work.
But Cousins expects the club to attract more than dollars—he also wants it to draw attention to the community and encourage others to duplicate his efforts. The first test of how successfully the club can do this will come this fall, when the PGA TOUR comes to East Lake Golf Club to play its season-ending PGA TOUR Championship. The game’s best golfers will tee it up for four days of tournament action the first week in November with ABC and ESPN covering the golf, as well as the story of East Lake.
The residents of the Villages of East Lake are not forced to sit and watch, however, while elites golf in their backyard. When Cousins built the Villages of East Lake, he also built the Charlie Yates golf course, whose fairways line the Villages of East Lake. The course is named for Atlantan Charlie Yates, “ Georgia’s Gentleman golfer” who won the 1938 British Amateur.
Most of the money that Cousins’ foundation put into the East Lake community went into building the Charlie Yates course and restoring the East Lake Golf Club. The Yates course is there for more than aesthetics, though its lush fairways and sparkling lake do create a pleasant environment. Borrowing an idea from golfing legend Chi Chi Rodriguez, Cousins also established a Junior Golf Academy at Yates. The academy is closely affiliated with Drew Charter School and serves as a key youth development program for East Lake kids. To date, the academy has exposed over 1,000 students to the game. To take advantage of the full range of academy activities, students must reach academic benchmarks. The best players who make grades are allowed to travel to golf tournaments. This year, in recognition of the ongoing East Lake relationship with the PGA TOUR Championship, the Junior Golf Academy will become a part of the First Tee Program—a PGA sponsored program to increase inner-city and minority children’s participation in golf.
Whereas Cousins found a willing partner in the Housing Authority’s Glover, he initially had much less luck with the people he meant to assist—the residents of the old East Lake Meadows. But in the end the residents contributed some significant ideas that make the Villages of East Lake distinctive.
Eva Davis moved into East Lake Meadows in 1970 and quickly established herself as the leading voice of the community. A life-long political activist, she worked for Martin Luther King Jr. as an organizer the year before his assassination in 1968. From her apartment in the new Villages of East Lake, Davis spoke with Philanthropy about working with Cousins. “The hardest thing to earn was my trust,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of people—preachers and all—come and make promises, only to leave.”
Throughout the process, from 1994 when Cousins first laid plans for the community until 1998 when the first group of former residents returned, Davis remained skeptical and occasionally combative. Most of her negotiations were not with Cousins directly, but with his son-in-law, Greg Giornelli, who logged over 200 different meetings with Davis.
For his part, Cousins knew Davis had reasons to be skeptical, though he admits that even today he doesn’t understand why she fought so hard. But he credits her for making the Villages of East Lake a better community. Just one of the ways she improved the project, Cousins says, was by persuading him to change the percentage of low-income residents who would be permitted to live there. Cousins’ original idea was to have 80 percent of the housing set aside for market-rate customers, and 20 percent for low-income residents. “But she was saying, ÔAbsolutely not,’” Cousins recalls, “it’s got to be 50-50.” To Cousins’ delight the mix has worked. He had feared a 50 percent low-income population would deter upwardly mobile people from moving in, but the market-rate units are routinely sold out.
Making the Turn
One may borrow a golfing expression and say that Cousins has “made the turn” at East Lake. On many levels, the experiment is succeeding. Certainly for the community at large, life is better. East Lake was the most dangerous neighborhood in Atlanta in 1993, and among the most dangerous in America. Today, it’s among the city’s safest. Private business is also moving in. In 2001 the upscale food store Publix moved across the street from the Villages of East Lake, bringing with it banking services and jobs, as well as a clean place for East Lake residents to shop. Property values around the Villages of East Lake have soared. In 1996, the average home in the East Lake community sold for around $46,000; today, that figure is $212,000.
As for the people Cousins wants most to help—the residents who initially inhabited East Lake Meadows and the low-income residents who are now moving into the community—a report by Georgia Tech economics professor Thomas Boston provides evidence that East Lake is succeeding.
Boston has followed all the residents who inhabited East Lake Meadows in 1995 and what has happened to them since they were moved out as the Villages of East Lake were built. His numbers leave little doubt that life has become substantially better for those who chose to return. In 1995, only 12 percent of East Lake Meadows residents were employed. By 2001, the employment rate was 52 percent among the individuals who originally lived in East Lake Meadows and moved to The Villages of East Lake. By contrast, the employment rate for those who moved to other low income public housing projects was only 17 percent. Figures for 2002 and 2003 are currently being calculated, though Boston says that the number of employed for those years will most likely be higher.
There are several lessons here for donors who would like to transform an inner-city neighborhood. First, recognize that government housing projects can’t likely be improved and almost certainly need replacing, which will require prolonged efforts to build support for change among housing authorities and tenants. Expect strong resistance. Plan ways that private businesses, not just uncertain streams of philanthropic and governmental funds, can be integrated into the neighborhood’s renewal in the areas of housing and employment. If there’s an existing but tarnished “jewel” in a community, like the old East Lake Country Club, make good use of it (for another example, see nearby sidebar). Aim to create mixed-income communities with low crime rates. Look at ways to dramatically improve local education.
The long-range goal is not a community that will always need government and philanthropists to subsidize it, but a neighborhood that is truly self-reliant—so well functioning that local citizens and businesses can flourish without assistance. East Lake shows that massive philanthropic funding isn’t necessary to “save” ailing neighborhoods. Powerful ideas and some wise planning can leverage large sums of money from business and government, which in turn can put poor neighborhoods and low-income residents on the path to self-reliance.
Kids with Hope
It’s been 11 years since Cousins first drove through Little Vietnam and caught a vision for improving the lives of the people living there. He takes great pride in the natural beauty his efforts have restored to the East Lake community, and in the golf course that is once again one of America’s finest. But all that pales compared to the children he sees at Drew school, in the parks, and around the neighborhood.
“I’ve built a lot of big buildings,” he says, leaning back and staring out the window of his office. His voice tails off slightly, “but nothing has given me more satisfaction than seeing these kids have hope.”
Somewhere, one suspects, Bobby Jones is tipping his hat to Cousins.
Martin A. Davis Jr. is managing editor of Philanthropy.