Health of Atlanta’s neighborhoods a marker of progress toward equity
By Guest Columnist DEBRA EDELSON, executive director of Grove Park Foundation
If our Atlanta region continues to grow as predicted, we will have tens of thousands of new residents move in town over the next 10 years. How will they decide what neighborhood to live in? Like many of us, they will look for a community that feels safe, is proximate to good schools, and is accessible to retail and community services. Sadly, across Atlanta, many neighborhoods don’t have these critical characteristics.
A few weeks ago, Doug Hooker reflected on the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LINK 2019 trip to Pittsburgh, where metro leaders learned how Pittsburgh was prioritizing equity in the face of rapid regional growth. Hooker, ARC’s executive director, observed: “It was striking to see how the value of equity permeates every regional discussion in Pittsburgh, and sobering to realize that we’re not quite there yet.” I was fortunate to be a part of the delegation of leaders from across Atlanta and, like Doug, I left Pittsburgh feeling that Atlanta has more work to do.
I believe that as Atlanta digs deeper into the equity issues exacerbated by our city’s rapid growth, our neighborhoods will serve as an indicator of our progress on equity.
In the Grove Park neighborhood, residents are grappling with many challenges. The neighborhood is 97 percent single-family homes with over 50 percent investor-owned, an average household income of $23,000, failing schools, a dearth of commerce and jobs, and a desert of basic services – fresh food, pharmacies, etc. Mostly aging African American homeowners are daily harassed and scared by vulture investors to shed their properties for minimal cash payments.
Atop these stressors, the increasing demand for intown living builds pressure as legacy owners and renters are struggling to pay increasing taxes and rents, and are facing increasing displacement as investors seek greater returns.
Now add to the mix major public amenities including our Atlanta BeltLine and new parks, all good amenities – but they come with the hard-edged reality of attracting loads of new investment in their wake. And we know the inequity equation: Residents experience this overwhelming set of pressures, and history predicts they will not experience the “upside” of the market due to lack of information, engagement, resource allocation, time, and the inertia of process which reinforces the status quo.
A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study articulated that residents in Grove Park live an average of 12 years fewer than people in communities located two to three miles to the north. It further defines that a healthy community should have all the “conditions that enable us to live the healthiest life possible, such as access to healthy food, quality schools, stable housing, good jobs with fair pay, and safe places to exercise and play” – that list of items that we enumerated for our own housing decisions. In the converse, the absence of these amenities defines unhealthy and inequitable neighborhoods with low economic mobility. In total, the collective arc of our many “unhealthy” neighborhoods serves as an accurate marker of our efforts to address historic patterns of equity.
At the Grove Park Foundation, our challenge and our work, at its core, is to reverse the equation and make an unhealthy neighborhood into a thriving and healthy one for the benefit of the current residents. This means creating the conditions that will attract and re-integrate those “healthy” amenities and services back into the fabric without rending it and becoming an engine of displacement. Central to this work is the idea that a truly healthy community is an equitable community.
As a Purpose Built Community, the mission of the Grove Park Foundation is to break the generational cycle of poverty. The “how” is the really hard part. We know that it starts with building trust, engaging community, nurturing and growing resident capacity, and empowering the voices of local residents in the process.
In our role as a “community quarterback,” we strive to honor the neighborhood’s rich history, embrace the strengths of our residents and engage partners and resources to build a durable pathway to a healthy, thriving community. The daily work is connecting legacy residents to needed programs and services including access to a better education and healthcare for their children, affordable housing, access to capital, financial literacy, legal representation, homeowner education, critical home repair, and more.
Pittsburgh’s equity mantra of, “If it’s not for all, it is not for us,” is a worthy challenge for us all – across all sectors and demographics – to move the equity needle. Let’s start with investing in our communities, our residents, celebrating their diversity and history, and priding ourselves on a vision of healthy neighborhoods.
Note to readers: Debra Edelson serves as executive director of the Grove Park Foundation, incorporated in 2017 to stabilize and revitalize Grove Park, once a thriving neighborhood in northwest Atlanta built in the 1920s and 1930s that fell into decline in the 1970s.