Transforming His City’s Worst Neighborhood (Atlanta)

  • Local Projects
  • 1993

After reading a newspaper report that just a few sections of New York City supplied 70 percent of the entire state’s criminals, Atlanta real-estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins asked Atlanta’s chief of police about his own city’s crime patterns. He learned that just two or three neighborhoods generated most of Atlanta’s offenses, the worst being East Lake, dominated by a government housing project in which 90 percent of the residents had been victims of a felony. “I decided right then,” Cousins told Philanthropy magazine, “East Lake was going to be our target.”

Cousins realized his years of quiet giving to anti-poverty causes must change to public engagement. We’d “given a lot of money,” he explained, “but we had not given ourselves.” Cousins and his family and friends started to work with local residents and a new city housing official on a plan to tear down the housing project and build mixed-income housing under the control of a new charity. It wasn’t easy to reach an agreement, but eventually the existing 650-unit project was replaced with a 542-apartment complex that leases half of its units at market rates and half for government housing vouchers. The new foundation in charge would have authority to change the dysfunctional culture of the old project—for instance, by requiring residents of working age to either work or enroll in a program that will help them find work, or else leave.

The foundation also took over the nearby East Lake Country Club, which had once been among the city’s finest but was nearly bankrupt by 1993. Cousins invested in the facility but required new members to donate $200,000 to the foundation overseeing the area housing upgrade. He also directed all future club profits to the foundation. Now the club hosts the PGA Tour Championship each year, buoying the neighborhood.

Cousins also built the Charles Drew Charter School to educate area children. It replaced the neighborhood’s disastrous elementary school.

A few numbers tell the story of East Lake’s transformation: violent crime dropped 95 percent. The fraction of adults on welfare tumbled from 59 percent to 5 percent. Where once only 5 percent of local fifth graders met state math standards, by 2007, 78 percent did, and 80 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded state reading standards. The median home value jumped from $46,000 in 1996 to $212,000 in 2004. One neighborhood activist says simply, “We tore down hell and built heaven.”

In 2009, the East Lake Foundation established a new nonprofit to spread the lessons of East Lake. Now known as Purpose Built Communities, it helps unfold similar efforts in other cities across the country.

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