Mtamanika Youngblood – Historic District Development Corporation
Harold Simon: Thanks to a variety of forces and initiatives, Atlanta has made a very strong and conscious effort to attract thousands of skilled and professional workers from the suburbs and other parts of the region. With that effort, displacement was in the wind years ago. To “manage” the inevitable gentrification, the Historic District Development Corporation combined market rate development, historic preservation and subsidized development to create a comprehensive plan. How did you decide on the mix and what were the key elements needed to make it sustainable over time?
Mtamanika Youngblood: As part of a strategic planning process in the late 1980s the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) created guiding principles to insure that the development process that occurred was true to what the neighborhood had been. Included in those guiding principles was a strong statement regarding non-displacement of existing residents, the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character and redevelopment that would recreate the neighborhood as mixed income.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District is in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. It’s sandwiched between upper income Inman Park and downtown Atlanta. Knowing there would be market pressures based on its location, the resident-led board decided on a residential development mix of one third low income, one-third moderate income and one-third middle income.
When HDDC began concentrated development in earnest, it spent an entire year acquiring lots and vacant structures. Essentially, it land banked. This allowed for “planned development” so that HDDC could determine the mix of housing costs. Depending on land costs, the organization cross subsidizes, whereby the market rate housing is used to subsidize the affordable housing that is built.
Most of the initial residential development was geared to low and moderate income families and individuals. Since the early 1990s, HDDC has been using a block-by-block development strategy; building new homes on vacant lots on the same streets where it rehabbed existing dilapidated structures.
Part of this methodology was to improve the condition of many elderly residents who lived in poorly maintained rental housing. HDDC would acquire the rental property, temporarily relocate the resident to a newly rehabbed home — sometimes right next door or across the street. Once the resident’s original home was rehabbed, they would be given the option of moving back to it. HDDC would maintain the rent at its current level or assist the renter in becoming Section 8 eligible. This approach has contributed to long-term stability and created trust between existing residents (they feel secure in their “place” in the neighborhood as it improves) and the new residents. HDDC also worked with existing homeowners, by assisting them in finding resources to improve the condition of their homes.
HDDC maintains a stock of multifamily and single-family rental property to insure that affordability will always be available to low and moderate income renters.
Because of the increased value of the affordable housing it built, HDDC requires the repayment of whatever subsidy was included in a house to make it affordable whenever the house is sold. This was not an original policy, but it is becoming increasingly important to recycle subsidy dollars wherever possible.
A great deal of whatever success HDDC has had has been attributable to several factors:
- The organization’s board has always been led by residents and comprised of a majority of residents.
- HDDC has spent a great deal of time planning, both organizationally and with/for the entire community.
- When HDDC is venturing into unfamiliar development territory, it has not been afraid to partner or collaborate with other entities. New home construction and the ability to land bank was funded by a partnership with Nations Bank Community Development Corporation (now Bank of America) and the City of Atlanta using HOME funds. After functioning for 13 years as an all-volunteer, board-led organization, HDDC received its first operational funding from the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, which was also a development partner in Studioplex, HDDC’s mixed-use art complex. When faced with its first multifamily project, HDDC formed a partnership with Progressive Redevelopment, Inc. Equity for the project was provided by the Enterprise Foundation which continues to provide much needed operational support and project funding.
- The organization remains steadfastly committed to its mission and guiding principles.
HDDC is proud that it has been able to revitalize without displacement, maintain the neighborhood’s historic character and create an environment where a range of incomes are welcome. However, the organization’s greatest challenge, and where it spends the greatest amount of time, is its effort to sustain affordability over time.
Simon: You mention that HDDC looked ahead to when your efforts would be successful and began to “land bank” properties. Given the funding realities today, how can small organizations accomplish this? You mentioned strategic partnerships. Are there any other strategies used to guide the market and not be priced out of the market when your efforts are successful?
Youngblood: There are other ways to “land bank” that do not place the burden on the community organization. There are formal land-banking entities, usually established by cities or counties that can do the same on behalf of community organizations. HDDC was forced to land bank because the entity in Atlanta that was supposed to, did not. Additionally, city-owned land that is donated or sold at a reduced cost can be used by nonprofit developers for the purpose of building and maintaining affordability.
Nonprofits, in partnership with market-rate developers, can create a mix of housing whereby affordable and market-rate housing can be developed in collaboration. This has to be well planned and may need some instigation by the city’s planning or housing department.
Ultimately, some sort of public policy that protects land for affordable housing within revitalizing communities is the most effective. Nonprofits collaborating with other interested parties could advocate for such a policy.
Simon: A big part of HDDC’s success has been effective community organizing. Can you speak a little more about how you do this? How do you balance consensus with confrontation and how you get the maximum buy-in, especially from diverse interests?
Youngblood: Organizing requires constant communication and the building of trust. It’s important to have consensus and a community mechanism for achieving it has to be developed. That said, meaningful change and improvement needs to be accomplished in a way that provides for the greatest good. A community has to know when it has reached a point where a decision needs to be made and implementation needs to occur. If confrontation occurs after that point, it may not be possible to avoid it and achieve positive results.
Maximum buy-in comes when, given a fair and open process, diverse constituencies have a voice and can see benefit. It’s important that the benefit be mutual. For example, HDDC spent a great deal of time helping long-term residents see the value of bringing new residents into the community. Once existing residents were convinced that their “place in the community” was secure, they acted as ambassadors to the newcomers. Different aspects of HDDC’s revitalization strategy appealed to different residents. It was important that they be made to feel a part of that effort.
Mtamanika Youngblood is Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. She previously served as executive director of the Historic District Development Corporation in Atlanta. Ms. Youngblood is a James A. Johnson Fellow through the Fannie Mae Foundation.