Rabbit out of A Hat: How a local nonprofit developer is working magic for missionFront Porch elevation image provided by Historic District Development Corporation
Christina Szczepanski, Managing Director, Southeast, Reinvestment Fund
For decades, historically excluded communities in neighborhoods across America have lived with the consequences of the development process happening to them and not with them. Oftentimes projects are developed based on market trends and expected returns with little attention to what the local community actually needs or wants.
Conversely, mission-driven real estate developers led by the community, often face significant financing challenges that create steep barriers for bringing these projects to completion. But community development financial institutions (CDFIs) like Reinvestment Fund have seen the positive outcomes that can happen when development is led by residents. One such example is the Historic District Development Corporation’s (HDDC) Front Porch project in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood in Atlanta. Reinvestment Fund connected with Cheneé Joseph, Executive Director of HDDC to explore what defines HDDC’s approach.
“A developer that is committed to a neighborhood has a sense of responsibility and accountability to the community they serve,” explained Cheneé Joseph. “They understand that in order for their work to be successful, the community must be a significant part of the development process.”
Since its inception, HDDC has been committed to fulfilling a long-term vision for the Old Fourth Ward, a historic neighborhood and the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The neighborhood is home to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Sweet Auburn Historic District. In the 1940s and 50s, it was the bustling epicenter for Black businesses and the burgeoning civil rights movement. It is home to the Butler Street YMCA, once touted as the “Black City Hall of Atlanta” where civic leadership thrived, and social networks were cemented.
In the decades that followed, redlining practices destroyed the vitality of the neighborhood as lack of investment robbed residents of the opportunity to build wealth and stymied business growth. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had been split by the construction of the I-75 expressway and residents and business leaders were overcome by the lack of opportunities for economic mobility. It was against that challenging backdrop that Coretta Scott King, Christine King Farris and John Cox founded HDDC in 1980 to restore the community to the proud, economically diverse and viable neighborhood it once was.
“As a community developer, HDDC is entrenched in the neighborhood and understands that the most successful projects are those that address the needs of local residents,” says Cheneé Joseph. “True neighborhood change occurs when funders, community-based organizations, residents and other local advocates rally around a comprehensive strategy and remain committed to achieving outcomes.”
Much of HDDC’s work has been dedicated to revitalizing the community using a block-by-block approach. The organization has restored and developed over 120 single family homes, constructed nearly 500 units of multifamily housing and added over 40,000 square feet of commercial space—catalyzing the resurgence of Old Fourth Ward and Sweet Auburn.
In the mid-2000s, the neighborhood experienced a rapid pace of in-migration as suburbanites and newcomers were attracted to these renovated older homes, infill subdivisions and a proliferation of mid-rise and high-rise multi-family developments, both newly constructed and in redeveloped vintage buildings. However, the Great Recession and the housing crisis halted redevelopment. The challenge now is to continue to revitalize while maintaining the community’s character and celebrating its history. A key part of that work is preventing the displacement of long-term residents and supporting them in reaping the greatest benefits from the community they helped build.
Even with close to half a billion dollars in development in its track record, HDDC’s success has been slow and painstaking. Resources like technical assistance and capital are often not afforded to community developers like HDDC. But that hasn’t stopped the organization from its bold vision to take on the first major revitalization project in the Sweet Auburn commercial corridor in 15 years.
This fall, HDDC will break ground on Front Porch, a foundational community project that will create a mix of retail and for sale and rental housing, a majority of which will be at affordable to households with 80% of the area median income or lower, with set asides for existing long-time residents. The name of the project, Front Porch, pays homage to the communal spirit of the corridor.
Front Porch is expected to be a catalytic project for Sweet Auburn because the community will see a reflection of itself in the finished product. HDDC conducted multiple surveys, workshops and listening sessions to gather feedback that has been incorporated in the design and programming. Many of the Sweet Auburn stakeholders that hope to develop their property are looking to HDDC as the leader in the revitalization efforts for the corridor. The completion of this project will confirm that the greatness of Sweet Auburn has returned.
When HDDC and Reinvestment Fund began working together on Front Porch, part of the challenge we faced in financing the project is that the underlying properties are significantly undervalued. The legacy of redlining, the subsequent lack of investment at a meaningful scale and systemic issues like appraisal bias have resulted in depressed real estate values, despite the very walkable neighborhood and its easy access to public transportation and downtown Atlanta.
However, the biggest challenges to developing in an underserved community are usually overcome by creating a network of partners who are committed to seeing change occur. As Cheneé Joseph puts it, “Community development requires strong relationships with government, businesses and nontraditional funding sources. A community developer must be courageous and willing to stand up to the social injustices that are preventing our communities from being revitalized and understand that people must be more important that making a profit.”
Several partners have been working closely with HDDC to support their vision for an equitable development in Sweet Auburn, including Reinvestment Fund, LISC and other CDFIs and Invest Atlanta. This support has and will continue to require innovative financing solutions that address the historical barriers that community-led developments face. These partners focused on responsive, flexible strategies to ensure that HDDC could acquire the final parcel needed to complete the project site and to more fully restore the historic corridor. Beyond just financing, Reinvestment Fund is providing technical assistance and strong support to help bridge gaps that could halt the project’s success.
Together, CDFIs and community developers like HDDC not only work to effectively invest capital but to enhance the fabric of communities, and to change the systems that create inequality of opportunity.