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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The Limitations of Ministry Metaphors

by FCS on

FCSLovemercy.jpg

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” ~ Desmond Tutu

When I first ran into this quote, I laughed out loud. I didn’t laugh because the quote is funny, but rather because it is yet another beautiful metaphor about mercy and justice that involves people and water. And it’s one that I hadn’t heard before.

It’s hard to conceptualize the complexity of pursuing justice ethically; metaphors help us to grasp the nuance of it. Too often, when we try to make a statement about poverty or ministry, we’re tempted to turn it into a rule or a formula. When working with real people in real communities, though, another famous quote comes to mind: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” ~Mike Tyson

Unfortunately, sometimes we fall into the same habit with our tried-and-true metaphors. I notice that when they start to get stale, people usually add to them. Take the classic fish one. First it was, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Then, as we began to think more about systems and access to resources, we added “give him ownership of the pond, and his community will eat.”

As I look at our oath for compassionate helpers, I’m tempted to add to it some more. The oath reminds us to put the interests of the community above our own, even if it means sidelining our organization’s agenda. So perhaps the update would go like this: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Give him ownership of the pond, and his community will eat. But if the man says he hates fish, abandon the fishing program and see what his community gets excited about.

I’m mostly joking about the update, of course, but pointing to the reality that without continual evaluation, we can fall into bad habits. The original metaphor evokes a kernel of truth. People do need to learn skills. But sometimes that adage let’s us forget that we need to learn skills, too, especially those of us in ministry.

Unlike pithy quotes, stories - and particularly stories about relationships - continually evolve. They contain worlds. Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught in parables so much. Part of what makes stories powerful is that they never quite fit, they can always evolve in our minds, our imaginations. Here at the Lupton Center, we want to make sure we’re continually chewing on stories that have to do with people, with relationships. Only as we wrestle with them do they begin to give us guidance, and that guidance changes as organically as people do if we listen.

So instead of a fishing metaphor, let me offer this story about neighboring.

A man in a neighborhood got attacked while walking on a street near his home. A pastor saw him lying on the ground, disheveled, and passed on the other side of the street. A local politician came upon him, paused, and walked by. Finally, a man who had just been released from prison saw the man laying on the ground. He looked at him, and was moved with compassion. He picked him up and took him to his own house, where he and his family tended to the man’s wounds. When he left the house the next day, he left $20 at home with a note to take care of him. “Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return,” it said.

You’ll recognize this tale; Jesus offered it when, after he told those in earshot to love their neighbor as themselves, someone challenged him to define who their neighbor was. Here at the Lupton Center, we receive the same tale as a gift and a charge to continue to expand our vision of neighbor, and what it means to love them well.

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