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Spokane leaders inspired by model used for reviving city of Atlanta

Area church, college and community leaders recently learned how mixed-income housing in Atlanta has opened doors for rich and poor people to be enriched by living as neighbors.

Organizer Bob Lupton spoke at Whitworth College, Gonzaga University and the First Presbyterian City Forum about how Atlanta has revived inner city neighborhoods.

Bob Lupton
Bob Lupton

While counseling juvenile delinquents, he realized he could not make a difference in their lives one by one.  Their rundown neighborhoods left them hopeless.  So he left a budding career to put his expertise to work in urban redevelopment.

“I’m a psychologist and have no business in housing, but every talent and resource shared brings justice in the city and in the church,” he said. 

He and his wife, Peggy, were within five weeks of moving into their dream house in the suburbs—choosing light fixtures, carpet and colors—when he felt called to move into the city to serve the poor.  They risked on faith and built a house on a vacant lot where a burned-down apartment house once stood.

That was the beginning of their venture into what he calls “gentrification with justice.”

“These are good days in Atlanta.  Our mayor now worries about density, rather than displacement and disinvestment,” said Bob, at the February City Forum.

“Cities were endangered as the millennium closed.  City cores were deteriorating, with investments hemorrhaging out and with crime and drugs out of control,” he said.  “Candidates dropped urban issues as suburbs grew like wildfire.  Without the tax base to support them, bridges and sewer systems were deteriorating.

“This is a day of new life for cities,” Bob said.

Although recent studies show the crime rate is below the rate in 1973, he said, news coverage gives the impression there is more crime.

Even that has not prevented inner cities from rebounding with eateries, warehouse lofts, new businesses and mixed-income housing.

No longer do poor people have to pay higher prices in small neighborhood stores, because low-cost supermarkets are locating in inner cities.

Bob attributes the changes to new mixed-income housing policies of the Atlanta Public Housing Authority that spark economic growth and social life.

Suburban sprawl required commuting, which led to increased pollution, traffic congestion and wasted hours on the expressway.  So young professionals began to move into the city and develop new schools, including some charter schools run by corporations.

Bob observes that U.S. cities with the poor concentrated downtown differ from cities in other countries where wealth and power are concentrated in the core and the poor live on the periphery.

“Many U.S. cities are like donuts with a hole at the center from disinvestment and poverty,” he said.  “That is changing as wealth gravitates to the core, making real estate hot.”

In England in the 1500s, Bob said, the gentry were landowners, a powerful social group.  As industrialists replaced them, the word “gentry” disappeared.

“We use ‘gentrification’ to mean a return of landowners.  While it is good news for city governments, those in the social services and the poor fear gentrification will drive the poor out,” he said.

When landlords became more concerned about the bottom line than quality of life, inner city apartments became run down and thus more affordable. 
After the Luptons moved into Atlanta, others followed and began building housing, including some condos. 

Low-income members of the downtown Presbyterian church that the Luptons attend began to ask other members to pray for them because their rents had doubled.  Increased property values intensified their poverty.

One woman, Opal, came to a prayer group asking for prayers because she would be evicted.  The property owner had the choice of fixing the apartment house or boarding it up.

“I knew I was part of the problem,” Bob said.

So he did more than pray.  He called 20 people to tour her apartment house.  Wiring hung outside the walls.  A commode was tilting.  Floors were rotting.  The group decided to buy the building.

“We told Opal she would not need to move.  As slum landlords of a building with 60 code violations, we asked people to bring their tools and trades.  In the next five months, we corrected the violations,” he said.

When they completed the work, 150 people gathered at the church, sang songs and signed over the title to Opal for $24,000, leaving her with a house payment that was half the rent she previously paid.

“She was the first low-income landowner.  Now, as my property value rises, hers does, too.  That’s good news for the poor,” he said.

Aware there were other Opals, the volunteers did another house, and another. 

“They started a housing ministry with people of faith, hope and goodwill that has rebuilt hundreds of apartments and homes around us.  Gentrification is good if it’s done to create justice,” Bob said.

We need to harness gentrification in ways that share the benefits with the poor through new strategies for real estate, social justice and churches.  The greatest barrier to gentrification with justice is the seduction of profit.”

“Mixed-income housing at first seemed absurd to Atlanta banks until they were caught red-lining—not letting people of certain incomes move into certain neighborhoods.  To redeem themselves, they took on the absurd project of developing mixed-income neighborhoods, which then became innovative.”

Part of the equation for success was to change language from “affordable” housing to “fixing dilapidated housing.”

“My church offered an equity loan fund for young professionals relocating into the depressed area,” he said.

Atlanta’s City Hall developed “inclusive” zoning, so the city’s work force—secretaries, police officers, convention staff and others—had housing in the city.

Starting with a vision, people of faith figured out a way to do justice that was market-related.

“We still do acts of mercy—clothing, feeding and caring for broken people,” Bob said, “but new ways to do justice call for different talents to promote the process of transforming the city.  Our role is to be creative and visionary as the city grows.”

The redevelopment was made possible by a convergence of forces: low-cost property, the mixed-income living concept and young professionals willing to rent apartments in the city, a model Bob believes can work in other communities.

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By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © September 2004