Board Chair Spotlight: Chris Gray

by FCS on

Chris Gray, second from the right in the top row, took a group of neighborhood teens to visit the Air Force Academy in Colorado many years ago.

Chris Gray, second from the right in the top row, took a group of neighborhood teens to visit the Air Force Academy in Colorado many years ago.

“I think society often has it backwards when it looks at our days and decides what was the most important part, or when it evaluates the world and says who the most important people are,” Chris Gray, the new FCS Board Chair reflected. He paused thoughtfully. “It’s people that the world says are small, who have the guts to go into Carver High School and love on kids there or do work like FCS is doing, even if it’s not what the world calls prestigious -- I think in God’s economy, those actions matter.”

As a former community developer, Chris brings both wisdom and humility to the role, seasoned with a dose of humor from times when ministry did not go quite as planned. Chris Gray and his wife, Rebecca, moved to Atlanta as FCS staff members in 1998, while FCS was partnering with the East Lake neighborhood. As strategic neighbors, they aimed to integrate into the neighborhood through relationship as quietly as they could, but their introduction to the neighborhood started with a very different tone.

“Because the military transported us out here, since we were just leaving active duty, they packed us into a big van with other service members moving around the country. We were the last stop.” He laughed ruefully at the memory. “We wanted to move in quietly, make sure we didn’t look like these uppity folks, but our first day in East Lake had this giant military van that was bigger than the parking lot and beeping all over the place,” he chuckled. “There went the subtlety, It was just an embarrassing way to start.”

It’s moments like these, reminders of the teachability and tenacity community development requires, that motivate Chris to get the board to “roll up its sleeves” in supporting FCS. Chris joined the board in 2010, most recently serving on the development committee. He sees his role as the board chair as a chance to lean more deeply into FCS’ work in the neighborhood. “I want to understand everything at a deeper level. I want to understand the ins and outs of the housing work. I want to learn all of the staff’s names!” For Chris, building an equitable, mixed-income community includes some big and exciting moments (like the construction at the abandoned gas station), but is mostly comprised of small decisions. “It’s about being the right person day in and day out when you’re making ordinary choices,” he says.

With this idea of daily faithfulness in mind, Chris highlighted some of the work in FCS he feels most excited about. “I love what The Lupton Center is doing,” he said, “Donell, Shawn, and the team are rock stars. Teaching used to be one more thing on staff’s plate. We would want to do it, but finding the time was hard. Having a whole institute to do that teaching is a huge value-add that has emerged.” He also named the continued construction of affordable housing units and the prospect of a new restaurant in South Atlanta. He sees the restoration in the neighborhood as the fruition of what has been a long labor of love over the forty years of FCS, a labor molded by many hands. As the board’s new leader, Chris explained that he wanted to support those hands, and the leadership of FCS, however he can.

While FCS’ work constitutes difficult and strategic work, the role on the board has offered Chris a chance to fulfill a long-held dream, too. “I feel like I’ve always sort of wanted to be a real-estate developer,” he confided.

We’re grateful for Chris’ oncoming leadership for the board, and for the many ways the board is working towards a thriving community here in South Atlanta.

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The Ministry of Property Management

by Bob Lupton on

Affordable rental housing - rehabbed by FCS

Affordable rental housing - rehabbed by FCS

The tenements of 1865 London were the hidden scandal of a boisterous, industrializing England. The shadows of belching smoke stacks concealed the dumping ground of the dregs of English society. The foul stench of overflowing sewers and uncollected garbage permeated the air. The tenements - catch-basins of the disenfranchised, stalking ground of predators who fed on their misfortunes - were owned by unscrupulous slumlords who squeezed profits out of every square inch of putrid floor space.

Octavia Hill was an impressionable adolescent when she first encountered the tenements. The daughter of privilege, though not of great wealth, Octavia was invited to accompany certain Christian ladies of social standing who ventured into these dark streets with soup, clothing, and genteel smiles. It was the children that initially captured her attention, the unkempt urchins who snatched and hoarded bread crusts like starving animals. On subsequent visits, Octavia would learn the names of several of the children and would follow them through the squalor to the dark, unpainted rooms their families called home. She would meet mothers too weakened by tuberculosis to provide even minimal care for their children. She would meet unemployed fathers stupefying themselves with rotgut to numb the pain of uselessness. By the time Octavia had reached her twenties, she was seized by a burning passion to find a cure for these awful conditions.

In a bold move for a young woman of her day, Octavia made a business proposition to a wealthy capitalist who owned one of the tenements: entrust to her the office of property manager, reinvest all earnings back into the property for one year. In return, she would ensure a competitive rate of return and an improved property in subsequent years. The deal was struck. Octavia moved into the tenement as its resident manager and began mobilizing her tenants to unplug the sewers, cart away trash, patch leaking roofs, replace broken windows, and wash down walls. She collected rents in person, using these weekly visits as an opportunity to learn how each family fared. She instituted standards of appropriate conduct and enlisted the help of mothers and children to decorate the halls and plant flowers in the courtyard. She provided part-time maintenance work to the unemployed menfolk, taking care to offer this as temporary rent assistance rather than a substitute for permanent employment. Using her civic connections, she persuaded officials to increase police protection, street lighting, health care and other services. In one years’ time, Octavia Hill had transformed a dangerous slum into an attractive apartment building. And to the delight of the landowner, she turned a respectable profit in year two.

Modern-day Atlanta can hardly be compared to Dickens’ London. But there is at least one similarity. Slumlords. The cheapest housing where our impoverished citizens live is largely owned by absentee landlords who care little about residents’ quality of life. And like Octavia Hill’s tenements, doors get broken down, windows get shattered, drains get plugged, roofs spring leaks. There is little incentive to do maintenance so long as tenants keep up their rent payments (however erratic). Frequent evictions take care of the complainers. There are always more renters waiting to fill a vacancy. Decent housing for the poor seems to be a perennial challenge.

But in at least one inner-city Atlanta community, something is being done about the problem. FCS has been buying up dilapidated properties in South Atlanta, restoring them to top condition, and renting them to families who need an affordable, quality place to live. A team of well-qualified construction, maintenance and management professionals ensure that standards remain high. They are applying Octavia Hill’s operating principles, ones dramatically changed London’s rental housing landscape. If there is one distinguishing non-negotiable that Octavia held to, it was the requirement to become neighbors among those they served. It just so happens that this is one of FCS’s guiding principles as well.

Perhaps the time has come to inspire a fresh generation of capable, compassionate, business-minded visionaries to take on our city’s enormous challenge of providing quality, affordable housing for our most vulnerable citizens. If young Octavia Hill could do it, why not us?



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Start:ME 2019 Has Started!

by FCS on

President Jim Wehner talks through a business plan draft with his Start:ME mentee.

President Jim Wehner talks through a business plan draft with his Start:ME mentee.

“Being around a group of people that believe in your dream is important. At Start:ME they get it.” Musa Abdus-Saboor of Saboor Construction stopped by the 2019 South Atlanta cohort to share some encouragement in January (watch the full video here). Musa graduated from the Start:ME Atlanta program last year, and the budding business owners of South Atlanta listened with rapt attention. Start:ME had launched about a week earlier with an improv night, and in this second week the entrepreneurs were getting into the brass tacks of building a venture. “I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know about business,” Musa continued, “until I went through Start:ME.”

We love partnering with Start:ME in conjunction with Purpose Built Schools Atlanta. Establishing South Atlanta together means building up our neighbors as they pursue their dreams. Through Emory’s School of Business accelerator, we get to engage with our neighbors, support economic development, and facilitate training in our neighborhood. It’s a partnership that helps us pursue three of our four pillars at once! About 50 new businesses are emerging this year through Start:ME’s efforts. At the end of the 14-week course, Start:ME will award $500 to $5000 grants to ventures voted on by their peers.

Everyone in the group lives on the Southside of Atlanta, and many of the cohort members are South Atlanta locals. We believe their dreams help the neighborhood flourish. Local businesses create jobs and sustainability in our community. To show our support, South Atlanta is showing up at Start:ME from multiple angles, not just as cohort members. Our president, Jim Wehner, and board members, Lisa Haygood and John Chambliss, are all serving as mentors, lending their business experience and wisdom. We love seeing them get to share their knowledge and encouragement.

If you’re curious about the new businesses coming to town, or just want to see neighbors shine as they articulate their plans, don’t miss the neighborhood feedback night. Members of the Start:ME Southside cohort will present their plans and solicit feedback from the community. Attendees will have a chance to shape the products and services that could be coming to the neighborhood. The event will take place at our FCS offices on Thursday, February 14. Sign up here!  We, and Start:ME members, would love to see you.

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