Spotlight Stories: DeKalb County, Georgia

The Spotlight Stories series features examples of how people across the country are working creatively and effectively to enhance well-being for themselves and to leave a legacy of well-being for generations to come. These are stories from communities creating lasting legacies identified through the Well Being Legacy initiative.  

THE BACKGROUND

Located in DeKalb County, the East Lake community is approximately 5 miles east of Downtown Atlanta. By the mid-1990’s, like so many other public housing projects in communities across the U.S., conditions in East Lake Meadows had become so unbearable that a small group of key stakeholders agreed that “tinkering around the edges wasn’t going to be enough,” according to Carol Naughton, then senior staff for the Atlanta Housing Authority.  

THE CHALLENGE 

In 1995, the East Lake Meadows Housing Project was plagued by:

  • A crime rate 18 times higher than the national average;
  • A $35M drug trade – annually
  • A 13% Employment Rate (87% Under-/Unemployment Rate)
  • 60% of residents were on public assistance
  • An average annual income of $4500 per household;
  • Only 1/3 the area high school students graduated from high school (students were more likely to be a victim of violent crime than graduate high school)

THE COLLABORATION

Leaders of the East Lake revitalization effort drew initial inspiration to make a change from two publications – a New York Times Op-Ed, which reported that 70 percent of prisoners in the NY State system came from eight neighborhoods in New York City; and the findings of a federal blue-ribbon commission that published the distressing state of the nation’s public housing projects. The partners at East Lake took action and over the course of the next several years uncovered a policy framework, strategic direction, and the political leverage to redirect local, state and federal resources toward the transformation of the most-deserving, and high-opportunity community.

It was Naughton’s boss at the Atlanta Housing Authority, then-Executive Director Renee Glover, who joined forces with a local philanthropist, Tom Cousins, and a very committed and effective civic leader and East Lake Meadows resident, Eva Davis, to form an unprecedented, powerful alliance. This core group was forged through countless meetings, strategy sessions, sub-committees, and years of visioning, trials, tests, missteps, and trust-building. The three leaders, along with other stakeholders, worked their way through early challenges, each playing instrumental roles in cultivating civic, social, political, and financial capital within their respective domains, as well as across key stakeholder groups.  Early leaders may not have had “a roadmap” to follow, but they did have a strong sense of direction, as well as an equally strong set of values, principles, and aims. Their aims were: 1) Reduce crime; 2) Improve the quality of affordable housing and create mixed-income housing; 3) Increase access to high quality education; and 4) Promote family economic success. They also had a new kind of organization to rely on, the East Lake Foundation, which became what is now known as the “community quarterback,” a newly-created nonprofit devoted exclusively to the immediate and long-term needs of the neighborhood and its residents. The East Lake Foundation was created through the CF Foundation (Tom Cousins’ philanthropic foundation) to guide and facilitate the work on the ground along with the Atlanta Housing Authority, resident leaders, and over time other private philanthropic partners and public partners, including Atlanta Public Schools.

THE BRIGHT SPOT

Today, the East Lake campus generates substantial, sustainable economic benefits, including: economic impacts of expenditures flowing from institutions that comprise the East Lake campus, new commercial developments, and the PGA TOURChampionship; higher household incomes for public housing supported residents; above-average appreciation of home values in the surrounding neighborhood; lifetime benefits of improved educational outcomes for children from birth to college; and avoided costs of reducing crime and saving high-risk youth. Through the work of numerous public, private, nonprofit and civic stakeholders, the broader East Lake community has seen a more than $400M return on investment over the first 20 years of the revitalization. This includes the opening of a full-service  grocery store; a full-service bank branch office; and a gas station – all of which remain open today (among other small businesses).

THE FUTURE

Because of the investments and coordinated approach by the partners at East Lake, everything has changed since the beginning of this effort nearly 25 years ago. One hundred percent of non-disabled working age adults are employed or in an educational training or job readiness program; the median household income has increased five-fold to $24,157 for working families receiving housing subsidy at The Villages of East Lake; and the neighborhood has experienced an 86% reduction in total crime and a 97% reduction in violent crime.  East Lake’s crime rate is consistently lower than the city-wide rate.

The Villages of East Lake, the mixed-income apartment homes that replaced the East Lake Meadows complex, has been fully leased for 20 years. The next phase of mixed-income housing at The Villages is slated to break ground in late 2018, adding more than 100 apartment homes, 70% of which will be for low- and moderate-income families.

The Charles R. Drew Charter School, which opened in 2000, has ranked amongst top 10 schools in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) district in each of the last eight years. The high school’s first graduating class (2017) achieved a 100% graduation rate along with a 100% College Acceptance Rate. This class also achieved an 82% College Enrollment Rate – the highest in APS.

For these families, children, and the entire East Lake Community, the future is certainly looking bright.  The East Lake Foundation’s success gave rise to Purpose Built Communities, a national nonprofit created in 2009, that has since created a network of 17 other East Lake Foundation-like nonprofit community quarterbacks in 16 cities across the country to transform their distressed communities.  East Lake Foundation and Drew Charter School continue to disseminate best practices and lessons learned to help other neighborhoods break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. The future for East Lake Foundation will be to sustain the healthy outcomes it has catalyzed since its inception.