Jan 18, 2022 - News

Atlanta's East Lake experiment: 25-plus years later

Illustration of an upward pointing arrow made from the top of a house

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A new study of the effort that transformed East Lake from a pocket of poverty into a mixed-income success story says that the initiative improved home values, schools, and crime in the east Atlanta community.

But what's less clear is whether original residents saw the benefits.

Why it matters: The decades-long revitalization initiative has become a national model often praised by community development researchers and equity advocates for reducing crime, improving educational outcomes and uplifting communities.

  • The study raises an age-old question: When philanthropic leaders, government and neighborhood revitalization help change a place, who gets to experience the positive outcomes?

Details: Using a new model to analyze the initiative’s effects, Brett Theodos of the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, says East Lake’s Black population decreased by 22 percent, slightly more than its white population increased, from the 1970s to recent years.

  • “The share of residents holding bachelor’s degrees increased 21 percent, the share of households living below the federal poverty level decreased 18 percent, average annual incomes increased $36,000, and average home values increased $153,000,” Theodos writes.

Catch up quick: In 1995, real-estate developer Tom Cousins created the East Lake Foundation and teamed up with community developers and nonprofits to break up concentrated poverty in the community.

  • At the time, the crime rate at the 650-unit public housing complex called East Lake Meadows — nicknamed “Little Vietnam” by police and civic officials — was 18 times the national average.
  • Just under 15% of residents were employed, he writes. No new building permits were issued between 1980 and 1997 in the area.

The foundation has “directly invested or leveraged” $600 million since 1995 to replace East Lake Meadows with mixed-income housing, open Atlanta’s first charter school and attract a YMCA and Publix, the community’s first grocery store.

The takeaway: “The changes in racial composition and educational attainment suggest that much of the changes in income, home values and poverty rates are the result of changes of people, not changes for people,” Theodos writes.

Big picture: Done well, place-based initiatives like East Lake aim to connect residents to jobs, improve schools, and foster a safe community — and keep legacy residents in place.

If the efforts miss the mark, run out of resources or fail to gain traction, they can erode residents’ trust and fuel cynicism in government and nonprofits, Theodos writes. But they can also spur gentrification and displacement.

  • Groups like the East Lake Foundation are more likely to hit the bull’s eye with more resources, clearer long-term policies, shared goals with communities and local governments, and longer timelines, he says.

What they’re saying: Carol Naughton, who led the East Lake Foundation from 2001 to 2008 and now serves as CEO of Purpose Built Communities, the nonprofit Tom Cousins created to help other cities try to copy East Lake’s model, tells Axios Atlanta Theodos' work adds to the difficult area of study.

Naughton says that the study does not address “the full dimension of educational, social, and health outcomes for residents” — one of several areas which, Theodos says, deserves more study.


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