From living hell to living well: Atlanta discovers what works

September 15, 2007
By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Syndicated Columnist

ATLANTA -- Hell was a housing project.

East Lake Meadows was built of bricks and ringed by barbed wire and called Little Vietnam because it was a war zone."

Do you know where you are?" a horrified cop once demanded of a lost driver with out-of-state plates. An official of the Carter administration once accompanied the president on a visit and found himself terrified. And he had Secret Service protection.

"By every measure," says Carol Naughton, "the community was struggling." She has numbers to back her up. The crime rate: 18 times the national average. Per family income: $4,000 a year. Households on welfare: almost 60%. Dropout rate: nearly 75%. The average family could expect to be the victim of three felonies a year. The open-air drug market brought in $35 million per annum. Only 5% of kids could pass the state math test. The employment rate -- repeat, the "employment" rate -- was 14%.

That was then. Naughton, executive director of something called the East Lake Foundation, stands on the balcony of the leasing office and shows off East Lake now. It is a complex of spacious, airy apartments, rolling, grassy knolls, scrupulously clean public areas, a vast swimming pool ringed by dozens of chaise lounges, a playground. The numbers, too, have changed.

Seventy-four percent of the kids here now pass the state math test. Crime is down 87% since 1996. Violent crime is down 95%. Just 5% of the residents -- all of them elderly or disabled -- receive welfare.

This is a column about "What Works," as in my ongoing series about programs that are rescuing black kids. East Lake works around a simple model. As Naughton puts it, "We've seen that concentrating poverty doesn't work." So East Lake rents half its apartments at market rates to middle-income people. The other half is rented to low-income families; they are required to pay 30% of their income, however much that may be, in rent. The balance is government subsidized. Everyone over 16, regardless of income, must pass a criminal background check.

The new East Lake was the brainchild of Tom Cousins, a wealthy developer. By the 1990s, he was also a frustrated philanthropist who, as Naughton puts it, "had given away a lot of money, but wasn't ... seeing life-changing events."

In 1993, Cousins read a column in the New York Times that said 70% of the men in the state's prison system came from just eight neighborhoods in the city. Astonished and appalled, he asked Atlanta's police chief if the same was true here. As Naughton puts it, "The chief basically said, 'Well, duh.' "

For Cousins, it was the beginning of a mission to transform hell. He took over the neighboring East Lake Golf Club, a historic facility that had, itself, fallen on hard times. He rehabbed and restored the private course with the understanding that its profits would benefit the East Lake Foundation, which runs the apartment complex. He opened a pre-K learning center. He led a public-private partnership that tore down the windowless old school and replaced it with a modern charter school that offers tutoring and after-school services. On the nearby public golf course, the school's First Tee program uses the sport as a vehicle to teach such values as integrity and such skills as how to introduce oneself.

But for all that, I think the most revolutionary of the many ideas here is that the way to combat entrenched poverty is to integrate poor people into middle-income communities. For the record, the average income of East Lake's poorer residents has gone from $4,000 a year to $18,000 a year.

What are the lessons here? Assuming the news does not intervene, we'll talk about that and some other things in my next column.

Change the neighborhood, change the world

Developer follows his conscience and makes a difference for many

Sunday, September 16, 2007
By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Syndicated Columnist

ATLANTA — The consensus was that Tom Cousins was either crooked or crazy.

The former opinion was held by residents of the gritty East Lake Meadows housing project who didn't believe him when he said he wanted to tear down East Lake and erect a mixed-income apartment complex in its place. The latter opinion was held by observers who did.

The residents thought it was just a land grab. They thought Cousins, a wealthy developer and philanthropist, was lying when he said they would be able to move back into nice apartments at subsidized rates and that the drug gangs that had held East Lake in thrall would be banished.

The observers thought it was nuts, this idea that you could effect change by tearing down a crime factory and building an apartment complex where the poor and the middle class would be neighbors. Charles Knapp, then president of the University of Georgia, told Cousins it was a bad idea. "He looked at me and said, 'Professor' — which he always called me when he was trying to make a point — 'I have wasted a lot of money on other people's bad ideas, including some of yours. And now I'm going to waste some on one of mine.' "

Fifteen years later, Cousins' "bad idea" has produced miracles. As detailed in my last column, crime is way down, income is way up, children's test scores have exploded. Knapp is now board chairman of the East Lake Foundation.

This is a What Works column, my series on programs that are successfully attacking dysfunctions that plague black children. The success of East Lake suggests you can win that battle by not isolating poverty.

At East Lake, says Executive Director Carol Naughton, a child sees examples he might not see in places where poverty is concentrated. "You see people going to work. You see people going to school, working on whatever plan they have for their life."

"What did we do differently?" says Cousins. "We built in role models. Every other apartment is a middle-income family."

Also, middle-income communities tend to attract better services, says Naughton, pointing out the new grocery store and bank that recently opened nearby and the increased police patrols. You didn't see that when everyone here was poor. Nor, she says, is the benefit one-sided. East Lake, with its spacious apartments, pre-K learning center, excellent charter school and mentoring programs, is just a good, safe place to live, income notwithstanding.

Cousins has been seeking to solve poverty for years. He built low-income housing under the old urban-renewal program that razed the slums. That didn't work. "We go out three or four years later and they're slums again. We hadn't changed the environment."

Hence, this approach. Change the housing, change the schools, change the services, change the expectations, change everything.

Because Cousins was morally offended by East Lake. "A child has no control over where he or she is born," he says. Yet for children there, the "future was set and hopeless. To grow up in that environment, which was just drugs and crime and illiteracy and poverty ... I had two very strict parents and I still got in a little trouble. I can't imagine what I would have done had I been in that environment."

As Naughton sees it, "The unfairness of it all and the lack of a relatively even playing field just sat in his craw."

Cousins believed in his heart, she says, that "had he been born in East Lake Meadows, he wasn't special enough to have made it out. And shame on us for allowing a community to have developed and continued where the average guy or the average girl didn't have a shot."

There's a word for that. It's not crazy and it's not crooked. It is, rather, conscience.

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