Hard Lessons

by admin on

Katherine Grant was in the neighborhood less than a week when a rash of break-ins and rapes seized the community with terror. She had been very excited about moving into her new home, a restored Victorian located in Atlanta's historic Grant Park. But her enthusiasm was quickly overshadowed by grave concerns for her own safety. Instead of the creative joys of decorating and planting flowers, Katherine was consumed with urgency to install burglar bars, exterior lighting and an alarm system. She had expected to meet her neighbors at block parties and social events, not police-led crime watch meetings. Katherine (Kitty, some of us call her) is the new executive director of our Charis Community Housing ministry. She understands community development - she has lived much of her life in cross-cultural settings and has extensive urban real estate experience. And she is not one to sit passively by as a victim. She met immediately with the precinct captain to discuss strategies for community cooperation in apprehending the perpetrators. It was teenage gang activity, the police informed her. They knew who three of the young thugs were and even where they lived - a couple blocks from Katherine on Grant Terrace. Grant Terrace... that had a vaguely familiar ring to it. Back in the office she pulled the files on houses Charis had built in the immediate area and to her dismay, many of the homes on Grant Terrace had indeed been built by Charis. She immediately ordered police reports on all the addresses on Grant Terrace and adjacent streets where Charis had built homes. The data that came back was deeply distressing. Much of the criminal activity and police incidents in recent years had been tracked back to Charis addresses. And one of the accused rapists police were now hunting was a Charis family member!

This harsh reality could not be farther from the original vision that inspired many caring volunteers to partner with Charis to construct these homes fifteen or more years ago. During those early days of our housing ministry, compassion for families in need of decent, affordable housing was the driving motivation behind our efforts. Building rows of modest homes on abandoned, tax-delinquent land seemed to benefit everyone - the neighborhood, the city's tax roles, and especially the new homeowners. We simply did not know then what time and troubling experience has taught us: concentrating low-cost housing in a low-income area reinforces rather than relieves the pathology of poverty. Now Katherine and her neighbors are reaping the bitter fruits of our flawed strategy.

Decisive, corrective action must now be undertaken. Families who are in violation of the law (which automatically places them in violation of their mortgage or lease agreement) must be evicted. These homes must be upgraded and sold to middle-income residents who embrace the values of community improvement. Organizing efforts must be initiated to create block watches, streetscape improvements, and code enforcement. In short, we must re-create in the neighborhood around Grant Terrace a healthy, self-sustaining, mixed-income community that will support a positive quality of life and stimulate economic viability. Had we known two decades ago what we know now, this volatile and costly remediation work would never have been necessary.

Mixed-income community development is not some romantic notion dreamed up by soft-hearted liberals. It is pragmatic strategy grounded in hard economic and social reality. After four decades of failed social policies, our society has finally recognized that isolating people in poverty compounds is healthy neither for the poor nor for those who would avoid them. Thankfully, public housing policy has now shifted toward mixed-income development that affords the poor the quality-of-life standards and modeling benefits of upwardly mobile neighbors. Atlanta has emerged as HUD's flagship city, leading the way in successful public-private housing ventures. And under the leadership of our new mayor, we will doubtless soon enact "inclusionary zoning" ordinances to ensure that our workforce - our school teachers, secretaries, police and other essential workers - can live affordably in the city. Real estate developers on Atlanta's affluent north side will be challenged to squeeze a level of affordability into their high-end developments. To help make the numbers work the city is creating a toolkit of attractive incentives. However, the more difficult challenge may be in inducing market-rate development into the economically depressed areas on the south side of the city. The temptation, I am afraid, will be to build whole subdivisions of "affordable" (which is to say "low-income") housing on land that is still comparatively cheap, thus creating new pockets of poverty rather than wholesome mixed-income neighborhoods.

Take a lesson from Charis. Homeownership may be essential for healthy community life but it is not sufficient. It ensures neither pride nor upward mobility. Today's cluster of new, brightly painted, affordable bungalows may become tomorrow's crime infested ghetto. Isolating the affluent in posh neighborhoods may produce elitism but isolating the poor is a recipe for social disaster.

No Comments