City of Refuge helps fulfill Atlanta’s quest of ‘viable housing with dignity’

By Maria Saporta

For the City of Atlanta, there’s nothing more important than affordable housing.

That’s what Richard Cox, the city’s chief operating officer, said at the ground-breaking of “The 1300” – a 47-unit apartment building across from the City of Refuge that will open next summer.

The city clearly is moving forward.

richard cox, mark toro dan cathy

Richard Cox, Mark Toro and Dan Cathy at the ground-breaking of the City of Refuge’s new apartment complex (Photo by Maria Saporta)

On Oct. 16, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that Terri Lee, deputy planning commissioner, was going to be her new chief housing officer. The mayor also said the city would work towards implementing the 23 recommendations of the HouseATL task force.

The goal is to help Atlanta do what few other cities have been able to do – find a way for the city to grow without displacing lower-income residents and making sure that Atlanta remains a “city for all” by have an abundant supply of affordable housing options.

One positive step in that quest is “The 1300.” It is being built by City of Refuge to provide affordable housing (in some cases free housing) to families, women and children.

The development is located on a site that used to have a raunchy apartment building not fit for human beings. The City of Refuge acquired the apartment building, and then spent $100,000 to help the 20 families living there to move to apartments in areas of town where they wanted to live. City of Refuge also is covering a balance of their rents for a year, and those families will have an opportunity to move back to the neighborhood in “The 1300” complex.

Bruce Deel, founder and CEO of City of Refuge, said it was their way of providing “viable housing with dignity.”

City of Refuge ground breaking

Bruce Deel, Richard Cox, Mark Toro and Dan Cathy break ground for new apartment complex for City of Refuge (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Of the 47 units, six of the apartments will be for people who are receiving vocational training across the street – facilitating their ability to receive training in auto repair, culinary skills or any number of vocational programs City of Refuge is now offering.

More than half of the apartments – 25 – will be primarily for mothers with children who have suffered from domestic violence or abuse. Most of those will be families who have been living at the City of Refuge and are now able to live in a more independent setting. The remaining apartments will be rented out at market rates as a way to help subsidize the other rents. City of Refuge also will arrange for full supportive services for the people living in the apartments.

Construction is expected to start in a couple of weeks, and it likely will take eight months to build and open it up to residents.

Another important aspect of the project is the involvement of the business and philanthropic community.

City of Refuge

A rendering of “The 1300” (Special: City of Refuge)

Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties Atlanta and a board member of City of Refuge, agreed to provide all development services of the project – a contribution that he estimated was worth about $500,000.

Toro also is chairing the $25.6 million campaign that is helping City of Refuge expand beyond its walls to improve its surroundings. It has purchased several properties in the community – hoping to transform one of the poorest and most crime-ridden sections of Atlanta.

“We are hovering around $24 million, and we have a number of significant asks out there,” said Toro, who got engaged with City of Refuge six years ago. “This captured my heart.”

One of the properties City of Refuge purchased was an old motel at 345 Chappell Road, which catered to black guests when they couldn’t stay in mainstream hotels.

“We are looking to see what we will do with the historic black motel – either tear it down or renovate that place,” Deel said.

Julia King Bruce Deel

Julia A. King, a resident of the community for 51 years, applauds the improvements made by City of Refuge (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

The goal is to change the community block by block, parcel by parcel – improving the quality of life for the existing residents and lifting the lives of those in need.

It’s working. Just ask Mrs. Julia A. King, who has lived in the community for 51 years in a home that’s diagonally across the street from City of Refuge.

“We have come a long way,” said King, who credited Deel (a pastor) for the improvements and who attends religious services at the City of Refuge on Sundays. “We are having some good times over here.”

This is the kind of story that needs to be replicated all over Atlanta. We desperately need to make sure that when we are investing in communities that we are not pricing out the existing residents and that we are making it possible for people of all income levels to live in the city.

“These kind of redevelopments start with a broken heart,” said Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, who has been a major backer of City of Refuge. “It’s out of a broken heart that we see the needs of others. This is all an act of love for everybody. To see this kind of transformation in our lifetime is quite remarkable.”

Note to readers:

This column is meant to celebrate the great work that’s underway at City of Refuge, which is commendable. But I have one complaint. The design of “The 1300” is not what it could be.

My father – I.E. Saporta – designed many low-income apartment complexes. But he insisted that they should have as many amenities that middle-class and upper-class residences would have. He almost always included balconies or porches as well as courtyards and other places where people could interact and create a sense of community.

One of my favorites was the University Plaza Apartments – two round apartment complexes that resembled doughnuts, which he designed in a joint venture with Herman Russell. The apartment buildings were designed so that every apartment had maximum light with windows on both sides. And the interior hole of one of them provided a courtyard for the residents.

It also had a nightclub called “The Birdcage.” Clark Atlanta University tore down the University Plaza Apartments (which should have been renovated), and all that remains is an empty lot.

During the campaign, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that was the building in Atlanta that she wished we had not torn down.

(If anyone has photographs of University Plaza Apartments or the Birdcage, please share them with me.)

As we reinvest in our communities and provide more options for housing affordability, let’s do it with grace, sensitivity to history with an emphasis on quality of life and quality urban design.

University Plaza Apartments

After this column was posted, Skip Mason of the Vanishing Black of Atlanta Facebook page sent me over this image of University Plaza Apartments. Brought back warm memories…

Bruce Deel

Bruce Deel talks to guests and future residents at the ground-breaking of “The 1300” (Photo by Maria Saporta)

City of Refuge

An interior shot of City of Refuge (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

City of Refuge

City of Refuge provides “light, hope, transformation” (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

City of Refuge

City of Refuge also provides “HOPE” and a home for the Westside Future Fund (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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