Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

Nonprofit Steps Up Where BeltLine Project is Falling Short

Along the BeltLine in Atlanta. (Credit: Oscar Perry Abello)

The family of Edward Johnson, a longtime Atlanta resident who became the first black licensed master electrician in the city, had three properties to sell and plenty of would-be buyers approaching them. All three — a 1,300-square-foot bungalow in Mozley Park, a 1,500-square-foot home in Washington Park, and an undeveloped property adjacent to the Washington Park house — are close to Atlanta’s BeltLine.

In the end, the Johnson family realized they were in position to do something about the alarming situation around housing affordability along the BeltLine’s 22-mile circular route around Atlanta. Instead of selling them to a developer for the highest possible price, they sold them to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the country’s largest statewide non-profit preservation organizations.

In the wake of a 2017 investigation that found the Atlanta BeltLine hasn’t kept its affordable housing promises, the Georgia Trust is stepping in where the Atlanta BeltLine and its partners have failed so far. It’s a notable departure for the trust.

“We do work with affordable housing all the time, but houses in the rural part of Georgia have been mostly our focus,” says Mark C. McDonald, President and CEO of the trust. Across the state, Georgia Trust sells historic properties at affordable prices to residents as-is, or with minor improvements, then assists them in a preservation plan for the home. Sales are contingent on homeowners maintaining the historic nature of their property.

That dual focus — on affordability and preservation — brought them to the BeltLine. Georgia Trust Board Chair Bill Peard urged the organization to look to Atlanta. Alongside the city’s growing need for affordable housing, there have been a high number of teardowns of historic properties as neighborhoods gentrified.

“We were sitting back watching this happen. The changes to the historic districts of Atlanta and land speculation going on by wealthy Atlanta developers, and thinking it was a nightmare scenario of displacement and changing the character of neighborhoods,” McDonald says.

According to McDonald, when the trust sought organizations to partner with and provide financial support to bring their model to Atlanta, they came up empty handed. “There are a lot of organizations working to create the BeltLine, but very few working to provide affordable housing,” he says.

That issue was highlighted in last year’s investigation of Beltline leadership, which found that the organization was far from achieving its affordable housing goals and suggested the blame was at least partially internal. (The Beltline has just undergone a leadership change.)

McDonald says Georgia Trust met with the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., to discuss their plan and seek funding. The BeltLine was unable to provide funding to the project because it was outside their focus area.

According to a spokesperson with the BeltLine, legislation states that the organization can not direct its funding — which so far amounts to $12.5 million — outside a set tax increment financing district, where they have a legislatively-mandated goal of creating 5,600 affordable units. The Johnson Family’s properties, while close to the BeltLine, fall outside the district boundaries.

“While Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. is limited in the areas where we can expend funds for affordable housing, we are enthusiastic about Georgia Trust’s new program for homes near the Atlanta BeltLine,” Brian McGowan, the new President and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., said via email.

A recent story by the Reporters Newspaper notes that while another tax district is in the works to speed up BeltLine construction, the legislation will not mandate affordable housing. “Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and a BeltLine developer say enough affordable housing units will be built regardless and the tax district would not cause an increase in rent,” according to the report.

With no other funding sources coming through for the Georgia Trust, the group depended on their connection with the Johnsons for their purchase. A year prior to purchasing the family’s properties, one of the trust’s staff members had identified the family’s Washington Park property as a potential candidate for its affordable housing preservation program. In forging a relationship with the family, the trust explained how selling the properties to them would be different than selling to developers.

“[The Johnson Family] had similar goals to us and shared our vision,” McDonald says. “They had been approached by a lot of speculators and didn’t want to sell to them.”

In a city with rapidly rising housing costs, McDonald says that finding homeowners willing to sell at a lower rate is key. “You need to find sellers that share that value system [of preservation and affordability], because they could have sold these properties for much more,” he says. The Georgia Trust paid $100,000 for all three lots.

The trust will work with the Georgia Tech School of Architecture on rehabilitation plans that prioritize energy conservation for the two homes, and is in talks with Habitat for Humanity about potentially partnering to build a home on the empty lot. After construction wraps, each property will be made available as affordable housing through the trust’s Revolving Fund program, marketing to buyers who agree to preserve and maintain the structures, with protective covenants attached to the deeds. The trust’s goal is to offer each property for less than $200,000, while providing buyers down payment assistance through an organization such as Invest Atlanta.

Though the city is pushing affordability measures along the BeltLine like inclusionary zoning, providing opportunity for affordable homeownership remains a struggle.

“More resources are needed,” says George Burgan, Senior Director of Communications for Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc., a nonprofit that rehabs homes across the city for affordable homeownership. “Down payment resources are needed. Buying homes affordably to rehab is a challenge, then rehabbing can be very expensive,” he says.

Affordable housing advocates are hopeful, however, in Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign promise of investing $1 billion of public and private money in affordable housing and anti-displacement measures. So far, the mayor announced a $9 million initiative to offer forgivable loans to homeowners to make critical upgrades to their houses.

As for the Georgia Trust, they see promise in repeating their model across the BeltLine — and encouraging other nonprofits to do the same. “We plan to use these properties for weekend tours and seminars to show … that this is economically feasible, and a good preservation practice,” McDonald says. With these first projects, the trust hopes to financially break even, not including staff time.

“We want to use these houses as a living laboratory, and invite the public in, which we hope will result in others using the same business model,” McDonald adds.


D.C. Bridge Park Gets a Head Start on Equitable Development

A rendering of the original winning proposal for 11th Street Bridge Park, by OLA and Olin studios (Credit: OMA/Olin)

For passersby along Washington D.C.’s Anacostia River, it’d be easy to assume there hasn’t been much progress building the 11th Street Bridge Park, a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse designed to connect the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Anacostia with green spaces, cultural amenities, and gathering spots 30 feet above the river. The piers, on which the park will sit upon, remain untouched; the intensive construction required to build has yet to begin.

But there’s a frequent saying from the team coordinating the ambitious project, the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, and the many organizations they’ve teamed up with since plans were announced, in 2014.

“It’s so much more than a park,” says Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park Project.

The goal of connecting two neighborhoods separated by the river — one being known for gentrification and growing wealth, the other known for poverty — has never been taken lightly. From the outset Kratz envisioned the bridge as a way to bridge the divide between the neighborhoods of the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill on the west side, where the 2014 median household income was $91,000, and the neighborhoods of Anacostia and Congress Heights on the east side, where it was $32,000.

In that regard, the four-person team has plenty to show for itself. Building Bridges released an Equitable Development Plan in 2015, following a year-long community process that included hundreds of neighborhood meetings on both sides of the river. In Fall 2017, JPMorgan Chase announced $10 million in funding over the next three years to support the plan’s implementation, including $5 million dedicated to preserve existing affordable housing.

Gentrification has already creeped east across the river, “so we’re looking for ways to allow homeownership to be there now, so people can stay and not get pushed out or displaced,” says Vaughn Perry, equitable development manager at Building Bridges.

A major piece of that is the creation of a community land trust, which received an infusion of cash from JPMorgan. Though the land trust is not yet a standalone nonprofit, Building Bridges partnered with City First Homes so the organization can serve as an incubator as the trust purchases properties. “We want to purchase the properties now because if we wait one or two years down the line, it might not be financially sustainable,” Perry says.

The plan anticipates that the community land trust will be able to preserve affordability of homes for sale as well as for rent. Eighty percent of residents east of the river are renters, Perry says.

The goal with the community land trust is to establish an effective model, “to show what the investment is doing, and that this is working,” Perry says.

City First Homes helped set up the governance of the trust, currently led by an advisory committee made up of community members, other stakeholders and experienced housing professionals — the “tripartite” model that has become a standard among community land trusts around the country. After a community vote, the trust has been named the Douglass Community Land Trust, after Frederick Douglass.

“We’re taking a dual track, to set up a solid foundation of governance while alerting people on the opportunities coming up,” says Adam Maloon, assistant vice president of Affordable Housing at City First. Maloon’s team has also facilitated conversations with developers interested in developing housing on the trust’s properties after the land is assembled.

The project partners also established a homebuyer’s club, in February 2016, which offers classes in home ownership and financial literacy. Fifty-three households have purchased homes or are in the process of doing so, according to Perry.

Building Bridges also piloted down payment assistance, providing $10,000 to three different families so far as five-year forgivable loans. With nonprofits Manna and Capital Area Asset Builders (CAAB) they’re also offering individual development accounts, paired up with the homebuyers club, providing match dollars as an incentive for families to save up for closing costs and down payments.

For renters, there have been tenants rights workshops held regularly on each side of the river. D.C. has a unique law that has gives tenants an opportunity to purchase their building before their landlord can put it on the open market.

The JPMorgan funding also earmarked $1 million for the equitable development plan’s small business initiatives, including micro-loans (small business loans typically up to $5,000) and training and technical assistance for existing small businesses and other businesses that could benefit from the economic opportunities of the park. The Washington Area Community Investment Fund is administering these funds.

Another $500,000 from JPMorgan will go into workforce development; Building Bridges has teamed up Skyland Workforce Center and the Washington Area Community Investment Fund to kick off training sessions, many of which will train future contractors and construction workers for the bridge development — something residents east of the river have been demanding.

“We’re talking with developers bringing projects to Ward 8 specifically, so we know what skills and training they are looking to hire from the community. We can build that pipeline,” Perry says.

As for the park itself, Katz explains the estimated $55 million construction endeavor has been tweaked after engineering studies, slimmed down from 139 feet to 116 feet at its widest point. The group is finalizing a feasibility report, and phase two of pre-construction will kick off in the next few months, which Katz says will take the design all the way up to construction drawings, initiating the environmental assessment, and permitting.

“The question we’ve asked ourselves about the park is, ‘who is this for?’” Katz adds. “First and foremost, we’re building a park for the residents who helped design it.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.


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