Housing Does Not a Community Make

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An apartment development is not the same as a community - not by a long shot. What is the defining difference? Architecture is certainly important but layout and design alone do not create community. Quality property management is essential but security, maintenance, amenities and programs are not in themselves sufficient to produce community. It is the quality of the relationships between and among neighbors that ultimately defines community. Compare last year's fall festivals at the Villages of East Lake and another new mixed-income apartment development in Atlanta (we'll call it The Other just to be sensitive). The two have many similarities - good design, quality management, excellent amenities and roughly the same resident mix. On the surface these two apartment developments seem very much alike. But their fall festivals revealed a very different story. Management staff at The Other staged a celebration complete with food, entertainment, banners and music. Less than 25% of the households showed up. At the Villages, a similar event took place but residents here were involved in the planning. Committees of neighbors worked with the management staff to recruit sponsors, secure donations, organize fun events for children and adults, man BBQ grills and serve food. Because so many neighbors took part in the planning and execution, the energy and enthusiasm became contagious. Promotional fliers were hardly needed. 85% of the households turned out for the festivities.

Why the difference? Both management staffs were competent and professionally trained. Both events were adequately funded and similar in content. Both should have been equally appealing to residents. But there was one very significant difference: strategic neighbors! The Other, from the onset of its construction, had relied on traditional marketing and management practices to fill their units. The Villages, on the other hand, began with an intentional strategy of recruiting faith-motivated residents who had the fundamental belief that loving their neighbor is closely related to loving God. Marketing efforts were aimed at hospitals, seminaries, churches and people of compassion in the marketplace. A community chaplain was hired to live on site and facilitate the engagement of neighbors with each other - especially across racial and cultural lines. A core of active residents placed strategically throughout the development became the neighborly leaven that gave rise to a memorable community festival.

Community does not just happen - it must be created. It is rooted in the belief that there is redemptive value in daily involvement in the lives of those we live among. Nor does it require a majority of residents to make community grow. A leavening will do. Fourteen strategic neighbors in the Villages of East Lake have started after-school programs, weekly tea-time for seniors, sports teams, mentoring, a community newsletter and a host of other daily acts of neighborliness. They welcome and orient new residents and encourage them to become engaged in community life. Their positive presence spreads like a contagion of thoughtfulness and civility throughout the Villages. They are the ones who model and perpetuate "community with a purpose."

The Villages of East Lake has become a model of mixed-income housing that has influenced public policy nationally. It is creative in structure and pushes the limits of economic mix - a 50/50 ratio of public housing and market rate residents. And it is working! The replication of this model offers a hopeful opportunity for cities all across the nation that struggle with substandard housing and urban blight. The East Lake experience, though unique in some aspects, is certainly replicable. Community can be re-created in other places. However, if mixed-income housing rather than mixed-income community becomes the propelling vision, there is little likelihood that the outcome will be ultimately redemptive. Unfortunately, community vision, which derives from spiritual sources, can be tricky to market and quite easily the first thing to be lost.

East Lake's success lies largely in its commitment to community. It's strategic neighbors supported by a community chaplain keep the vision grounded within its culture. This, more than any other factor, distinguishes the Villages from other mixed-income housing efforts. Lose this and it will quickly degenerate into attractive residential veneer for could-be neighbors living together as anonymous strangers.

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