Special to the Daily World

The transformation of the Atlanta’s East Lake Neighborhood from blight to bliss is a model that brought national leaders here recently to learn how they can duplicate the outcomes in their cities.

More than 200 business, civic, education, housing, finance and other experts from 26 cities came to explore “Building Healthy Communities: One Neighborhood at a Time,” at the Third Annual Purpose Built Communities Network Member Conference.

“Purpose Built Communities is part of a growing national movement that provides solutions to overcoming poverty—solutions that work,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who now serves as chair and chief executive officer the Atlanta-based not-for-profit that provides consulting, coaching and technical assistance at no cost. “Ours is a neighborhood-based solution. It is built around a very specific framework, one that has proven effective first right here in Atlanta, and now in our expanding network. We have eight Network Members replicating this framework. And we are in exploratory talks with about 20 additional cities,” Franklin said.

The conference kicked off with a tour of East Lake, featuring the Charles R. Drew Charter School and connecting East Lake Family YMCA, including the new East Lake Early Learning Academy. Atlanta’s formerly poverty-and-crime-ridden East Lake Meadows housing project has morphed into a thriving, mixed-income community with one of the city’s best schools.

The change was sparked in 1993, when Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins, a key architect of Atlanta’s sophisticated skyline, was moved to action when he learned that the public housing community of 1,400 had a crime rate 18 times the national average, with 90 percent of residents victimized by felony crime each year. Driving through the community, he was struck by the fact that, “these kids that are born here have nothing to do with why they’re there. They got a bad deal.” Moved by the desire to make a difference, he reasoned that, “If that place could be fixed, any place could be fixed.”

Cousins—who admits he wasn’t certain that the project would succeed—gathered local leaders and created the not-for-profit East Lake Foundation to guide the process. Residents were engaged in all phases of the change, voting for changes and holding leadership roles in the planning process. Families had numerous options, and residents’ rights were established in binding agreements.

It took many years, but today a community that had 1,400 extremely low-income residents, more than half on welfare, now boasts 2,100 mixed-income residents, most of who are employed. Crime is down 73 percent—50 percent lower than the city overall—and violent crime reduced 90 percent. Middle-class and low-income residents are flocking to live in East Lake. And revitalization in the surrounding areas, including Kirkwood and Oakhurst, has spurred $144 million in new residential investment, $31 million in new commercial investment, and a 3.8x increase in home values relative to the city of Atlanta.

“They tore down hell, and they built heaven. Now we are living in paradise,” said Eva Davis, head of the East Lake Resident’s Association, who passed away in June. While Cousins called her “the toughest” negotiator for residents during the transformation and Davis initially viewed him with suspicion, she became a trusted ally and partner to Cousins and his wife, Ann.

As word of East Lake’s revitalization spread, leaders from around the country asked Cousins and the East Lake Foundation to guide them in transforming neighborhoods in their cities. Cousins partnered with former hedge fund manager Julian H. Robertson, Jr., and financier Warren Buffett to form Purpose Built Communities in 2009. The annual Purpose Built conference brings current and potential network members together with experts in related fields to share information and best practices, and support each other’s efforts. Franklin came on as chair and CEO because she had been involved in the revitalization of East Lake and believed it could work on a national level.

The annual Purpose Built conference brings current and potential network members together with experts in related fields to share information and best practices, and support each other’s efforts. The organization has partnered with other non-profits to lead comprehensive community revitalization initiatives in a growing number of cities.

“Purpose Built works where it is invited, and where the criteria for success are present,” said Carol R. Naughton, senior vice president at Purpose Built Communities.

To ensure success, Purpose Built provides expert consulting services and support to network members. Their staff expertise includes mixed-income housing, education reform and community redevelopment. With network members in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Birmingham, Spartanburg, Omaha and Rome and Clarkston, Georgia, the Purpose Built model is growing from coast to coast.

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