The tenements of 1865 London were the hidden scandal of a boisterous, industrializing England. Concealed in the shadows of belching smokestacks that generated a new prosperity in the land was the dumping ground of the dregs of English society. The tenements - catch-basins of the disenfranchised and the stalking ground of vultures who fed on their misfortunes - were owned by unscrupulous slumlords who squeezed profits out of every square inch of putrid floor space. The foul stench of overflowing sewers and uncollected garbage permeated the air. These overcrowded ghettos, like rancid swamps, were the breeding grounds of every sort of human pathology. Octavia Hill was an impressionable adolescent when she was first exposed to 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 and 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 encounter 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 move quite bold for a young woman of her day, Octavia made a business proposition to a wealthy capitalist who owned one of the tenements she had frequented. Entrust to her the office of property manager, reinvest all earnings back into the property for one year, and she would ensure him in subsequent years a competitive rate of return and an improved property that enhanced the quality of life for its residents. 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 was faring. She instituted standards of appropriate conduct and cleanliness, 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 required to improve the quality of life in the area. In one year 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.
Octavia's remarkable success inspired her to attempt other tenement buildings. Soon she was attracting other committed young women to follow her lead. And convincing other slumlords to make similar deals with them. A movement of faith-motivated property managers took root in London's most blighted areas, forming a network of powerful grass-roots ministries that had a transforming impact on the city and its poorest citizens. The ministry of property management became an instrument of God to correct the egregious mistreatment of the poor and to ignite far-reaching social reforms of the day.
1998 Atlanta, bustling with prosperity, has its hidden scandal, too. In the shadow of magnificent skyscrapers exist a people whose aspirations seldom rise above the survival level. In isolated modern-day tenements, some owned by the government but most by syndicated partnerships of faceless investors, tired young women become grandmothers by the time most young women are beginning their careers. Fatherless children learn early the wiles of a sinister drug trade that will enslave their minds and steal away their futures. Life is cheap here, often lost over a pair of Nike shoes. Sometimes less. Even with unparalleled opportunity abounding only a short walking distance away, few ever escape the isolation of this poverty.
As surely as the poor will always be with us, so in every age the God who hears their cries will seek out unique people of compassion to whom He can entrust a vision. Octavia Hill was such a person in industrial London. Sandy and Rob Hoskins are such people in post modern Atlanta. The Hoskins, like Octavia, envisioned a means to create for children of poverty a secure, stable family environment right in the midst of inner-city blight. Their idea was a simple one: make an apartment community such a wonderful place for children that working parents would line up to get in. The money saved in reduced turnover costs alone would pay for youth programs and family support. No subsidies. Just reasonable rents, diligent property management and sufficient reinvestment of profits back into the property.
Employing their considerable real estate experience and leveraging their good credit, Sandy and Rob bought a derelict 296 unit apartment complex in a high crime neighborhood and transformed it into a secure, attractive, well-appointed development. They built a swimming pool, basketball court, and converted three apartments into a youth clubhouse complete with library, computers, video theater, game room and tutoring areas. They recruited from churches a team of committed educators and youth ministry staff who developed a superb educational/recreational program. Every child, from the time they stepped off the school bus until they were picked up by their parents after work, would be engaged in fun-packed, character building, spiritually nurturing activities appropriate for their age level. In this attentive environment children could play in safety while their parents - especially working mothers - could enjoy peace of mind knowing that their children were at home in good hands.
Hoskins' idea worked. Their oasis of wholesomeness met with immediate success. The units filled quickly and the turnover rate dropped to less than 5%. A once dangerous, drug-infested tenement became an island of health where families could flourish and begin dreaming about a better future. (Most families that leave become homeowners!) Sandy and Rob have now taken over three additional sites and are currently housing more than 1000 families. They have discovered the strategic ministry of property management.
The Gospel of Community that impacts people in the places where they live has power to unshackle human bondage and set hope free like no other power I know. And the people of God are adequately equipped to carry this Good News into dark places that seem immune to religious words. The abilities to buy right, leverage assets, assemble deals, research best practices, select personnel, structure programs - these marketplace skills are the very talents needed to bring the Gospel of Community to the ghetto. Under the Lordship of Christ they are spiritual gifts. The ministry of property management, unlike the food baskets at Christmas, has the capacity to reform society while transforming human lives.