Where Do the Poor Go?

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Atlanta is blossoming. In-town neighborhoods that have been deteriorating for decades are springing back to life. Sprawling public housing projects are coming down and rising in their place are attractive mixed-income apartment communities. Real estate development inside the beltway is hot. The challenging issue for the mayoral candidates in this year's race is density rather than disinvestment. Atlanta, like many other major cities across the country, has a new lease on life. "But where do all the poor people go?" It is an honest question that troubles the minds of caring and thoughtful friends who are supportive of FCS's mixed-income community development strategy. When slum rental property is reclaimed by owner-occupants, renters have to go somewhere. When housing projects de-concentrate poverty by mixing the incomes, where do all the displaced residents go? And what happens to the seniors in reviving neighborhoods whose property tax jumps beyond their capacity to pay? Will the new growth in our city inevitably swell the ranks of the homeless and dispossessed?

Gentrification (the return of moneyed property-owners) triggers a life-struggle in the city, dramatically different from the death-struggle of our recent past that was precipitated by white flight and bright flight out of the city. Return flight is essentially positive. An expanding tax base will enable us to rebuild our aging bridges, upgrade our polluting sewer system and re-energize our city-center. But change is at best disruptive. Ask any merchant whose business fronts a street being excavated for infrastructure improvements. Change is certainly more tolerable when those affected have input in the process and have a share in the eventual benefits. But change that uproots and scatters, imposed by external forces beyond the control of the dispersed, can hardly be viewed as beneficial to them. Necessary, some would argue, but hurtful none-the-less. Ask a single mother, recently displaced, who is frantically searching for an affordable apartment that is safe for her children while she is at work. Strategies for change, if they are to be just, must take into account the needs of the vulnerable.

In the historic South Atlanta neighborhood, rebirth is about to begin. FCS has been invited by residents to partner in creating and implementing a comprehensive redevelopment plan to restore wholeness and vitality to the community. Some 400 vacant lots must be cleared of trash and debris, a near-equal number of dilapidated houses must be rehabilitated, and 300+ new homes must be built. The elders, who represent most of the remaining homeowners, want to see educated neighbors return - the kind of neighbors that made it a great place to live when Clark College and Gammon Seminary anchored the community. But this means gentrification. In order for the neighborhood to be strong and healthy once again, the 80% rental housing must be inverted to 80% owner-occupied housing. This could spell wholesale displacement for existing low-income renters were it not for an intentional strategy to retain them. Charis - our non-profit housing ministry - is joint-venturing with Habitat to build 120 new homes in South Atlanta to preserve a 30% mix of affordable housing. For-profit developers have agreed to partner with us to build 200+ market rate homes to attract residents with disposable incomes - essential to restore economic viability to the community. On adjacent land the Atlanta Housing Authority is constructing several hundred units of attractive new mixed-income rental housing modeled after the nationally acclaimed Villages of East Lake. Our Adopt-A-Grandparent ministry will insure that every qualified senior receives property tax abatement (soon to be enacted by city council) as well as receive affordable (and volunteer) home repair support. In historic South Atlanta, there will be gentrification with justice.

But South Atlanta is only one small neighborhood and FCS is only one small organization. What about all the other neighborhoods that are beginning to gentrify? One thing is sure: if market forces alone drive the process, there will be little consideration or compassion for those being displaced. This is an important moment of decision in our city's history. As people of faith who understand God's heart for the poor, we can have a redemptive influence in shaping a just future. We can insure that our mayoral candidates have well-conceived mixed-income housing strategies in their platforms. We can encourage our real estate friends and associates to consider affordable percentages in their developments. We can volunteer to build affordable homes for deserving, low-income families. We can even create faith-based partnerships to acquire and manage housing to provide a healthy, supportive environment for those in need.

"Without a vision, the people perish," declared the prophet of old. We might add: without moral imagination and leadership, the poor will be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. A decisive moment has arrived for our city. And a time of decision, too, for our well-resourced, well-equipped family of faith. Ours is the unique office, the distinct privilege, indeed the Biblical mandate to be agents of mercy and justice in our world. And housing - how people live together - is fundamental to a just society. As co-creators with Christ, we have an historic opportunity to venture back into territory we abdicated to the government decades ago. Our government now beckons us. The fullness of time has come to visibly demonstrate the values of an invisible Kingdom - a Kingdom our Lord introduced by declaring "I have come to bring good news to the poor."

Bob Lupton

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