Church leaders saw real estate as the path to a divine mission. The battered streets that surrounded them needed redemption.
Vine City and English Avenue — once havens for the city’s black middle class — by the mid-1980s were succumbing to poverty and drugs. So powerful churches there created nonprofits, bought property and drew up plans to make the two square-mile area just west of downtown as safe and prosperous as it was a generation before.
The city and its redevelopment authority gave their blessing, bankrolling many of their projects.
More than two decades of work yielded some successes. But when the nonprofits’ grandest plans fell apart, hazardous conditions took hold. That’s left a legacy of blighted properties, unpaid taxes and code enforcement complaints as troubling as that created by the worst real estate profiteers.
The city enabled these failures by placating political factions instead of taking responsibility for helping to transform the shattered neighborhoods, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Officials granted funds to nonprofits they knew had histories of financial disarray and botched developments. Then they stood back while these nonprofits used the money on pet projects. By the time the city tried to fix nonprofits’ blunders, it was often too late.
An empty lot lies where the city spent at least $400,000 in federal funds for townhomes. Bare foundations and construction debris mark where the development authority allocated $1.3 million for more housing down the street. One building constructed with a city agency grant is only four years old, yet its windows are broken and graffiti scars its walls.
Projects also fell victim to ego clashes and bungled planning by leaders of the redevelopment efforts, the AJC found. Rivalries seemed to be more important than revitalization, said residents and neighborhood advocates.
“A lot of them were really indifferent to the plight of people in their community,” said University of Michigan urban planning expert Harley Etienne, who spent years working in English Avenue as a Georgia Tech professor
Pastors and nonprofit leaders who agreed to talk with the AJC said any venture in a deeply distressed neighborhood faces long odds. They took on projects in places that for-profit developers won’t touch, but what funding they received was never enough for a full transformation, they said.
“People ask, ‘They’ve been here so long. Why hasn’t the problem been solved?’ The problem is much deeper than that,” said Greg Hawthorne, executive director of Vine City Health and Housing Ministry. “We’re expected to address harder problems than others do.”
The Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church and founder of English Avenue CDC, has a more blunt assessment of the failures.
“We didn’t know what the crap we were doing,” Motley said.
Now that a new $1 billion Falcons stadium is rising from a nearby construction site, pastors worry the fate of these neighborhoods is slipping from their hands.
“It’s rich land, and the last opportunity for black folk to capitalize over the stuff we have in our history,” said Beulah Baptist Church’s Rev. W. L. Cottrell, a founder of Vine City Health and Housing Ministry. “English Avenue and Vine City are the only two we’ve got left.”
Pressure and potential
Few Atlanta neighborhoods have greater potential for redevelopment. English Avenue and Vine City are tantalizingly close to the Georgia Dome, Georgia World Congress Center, Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola’s headquarters. Upscale apartments and restaurants are opening less than a mile north on Marietta Street.
And few neighborhoods have faced more pressure to revitalize. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Vine City before his death, and pastors still hope to realize his vision of a just community, liberated from poverty. For their part, civic leaders worry that the city’s decision to help finance the new stadium next to such a needy place might prove an embarrassment.
Still, these neighborhoods remain among the city’s grimmest real estate markets. Dealers sell drugs openly. Runoff from the Dome and other venues floods its streets. Parking lots and crooked roads block the area from downtown, as does the stadium that city officials claimed would breathe in new life.
Major developers have built retail spaces and housing at the area’s fringes, and real estate speculators now count among Vine City and English Avenue’s biggest investors. But speculators have a record of letting their properties crumble as they wait for prices to rise.
Redevelopment is left to neighborhood community development corporations, many founded by churches. With scant budgets and little experience, these tiny nonprofits cobble together financing deals, competing against each other and much larger developers for funding.
“They’re called upon to do hard job with less resources and less pay, and typically don’t have the volume of experience that it takes to be a really effective developer,” said Georgia Tech planning professor Mike Dobbins. “They have all marks against them.”
Still, some succeed. In English Avenue and Vine City, nonprofits built single-family homes and apartments for veterans and recovering addicts. Experts credit such groups with setting the stage for booms in the east side neighborhoods of Old Fourth Ward and Reynoldstown.
Overall, though, the city’s approach of relying on small nonprofit developers to rebuild English Avenue and Vine City has failed. Some 31 percent of the buildings there are vacant, city data shows. As little as 10 percent of the affordable housing planned for funding through a neighborhood taxing district has been built.
Meanwhile, properties owned by nonprofits blight the neighborhood.
A former railway bed purchased in 2001 by political powerhouse Antioch Baptist Church North’s Bethursday Development Corp. for years has been covered in heaps of discarded tires and other debris. It is such a well-known hazard that members of another church prayed for the site’s restoration during a Holy Week event.
Long-derelict apartment buildings Bethursday acquired in 2004 line a street named after the Rev. Cameron Alexander, Antioch’s longtime pastor. Neighbors took to painting over their graffiti themselves, and the English Avenue Neighborhood Association singled out the property as one of the neighborhood’s “Dirty Dozen.”
Boarded-up apartments once owned by Lindsay Street Baptist Church’s English Avenue Community Development Corp. were supposed to be knocked down to make way for townhouses. They were never demolished. For a time, the driveway was home to a squatter who used tattered blankets and rope to wall off his makeshift home.
All told, Bethursday, English Avenue CDC and the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry have racked up hundreds of liens for unpaid taxes and city fees. Bethursday and English Avenue CDC properties were the target of more than 20 complaints in the past five years for trash, overgrowth and other hazards, according to an AJC analysis of code enforcement records.
Fed-up residents cleared away junk on their own. Members of English Avenue’s New Life Covenant Church trudged through muck at Bethursday’s rail bed and pulled out discarded tires, bicycles, appliances and clothes.
“Whoever it’s owned by, if they’re not taking care of the property, that leaves the neighborhood in a bad situation,” said New Life Covenant Pastor Tim Rodgers, who lives one block from the property.
Bethursday officials did not to respond to questions from the AJC.
Rise and fall of the “Super Block”
As redevelopment plans were launched, Bethursday and English Avenue CDC carved that neighborhood into what city records called “super blocks,” with an understanding that each would stick to its own turf. During the 1990s and 2000s, each drew up long-term plans for shops and housing near their churches and jockeyed for attention from large developers who could make their dreams come true.
Community meetings on neighborhood development plans and other issues erupted into shouting matches and grandstanding, recalled residents, local officials, and neighborhood advocates who attended these meetings. While some groups tried to smooth over divisions, rival leaders from others engaged in soap opera-style feuds that dragged on for years, they said.
“In many ways it wasn’t for the neighborhood. They were just for their side of things,” Etienne said.
That infighting scared off prospective donors and development partners, said Vine City Health and Housing Ministry’s Hawthorne. “It’s like crabs in a bucket.” he said. “We caused so much harm to ourselves by fighting ourselves and not going outside the community—and going together—to ask for what we needed.”
City officials pacified warring factions by funding their developments, said Councilman Michael Julian Bond, a Vine City resident.
“The baby was crying, so we just gave the baby a bottle,” Bond said.
City dollars kept flowing despite red flags.
In 2006, while Bethursday was a partner in a financially-struggling, city-backed project to build a mixed-use apartment complex in English Avenue, the development authority began awarding the nonprofit more than $1.3 million to build Elm Street Townhomes nearby.
The 28 luxury units would boast city skyline views, granite counter tops, gas fireplaces, and rooftop decks, Bethursday advertised at the time. Prices were to start in the $200,000’s.
Even during the boom, that was too high. “For $225,000, people move into a different neighborhood,” said Georgia Tech planning Professor Dan Immergluck.
When a church entity purchased land for the townhomes, the real estate agent was the wife of Antioch’s pastor, and her agency made $8,750 in commission, city records show. A church bulletin also advertised her agency as the townhomes’ listing agent.
When the real estate market collapsed, the first eight units failed to sell. Bethursday’s bank stopped loaning it money, development authority records state. Work on other units was abandoned. The project was converted to rentals, and in late 2013 it was sold to a New York company.
Children now play in the construction debris, tenant Marquise Hill said. Whoever was responsible for leaving the mess, he said, should have fixed it.
“At least come by and make sure the property’s clean,” he said.
Lindsay Street Baptist’s English Avenue CDC hovered on the brink of collapse as it received city funding in the 1990s and 2000s. Its employees quit amid complaints of unpaid salaries and financial disarray, and at one point, it had less than $400 in its bank account.
Yet it won a $570,000 loan from the city to build 35 townhomes and an additional $640,000 to build or rehab a minimum of 35 homes in three years. City awards totaled $1.6 million by 2005, records show.
Trouble followed. A 2004 city memo marked “confidential” disclosed that two rental properties English Avenue CDC had rehabbed were in foreclosure. The city had awarded the nonprofit federal dollars to build single-family homes on vacant lots, but it bought an apartment building instead, in violation of its contract.
“The EACDC is restructuring and needs immediate help!!!” the memo from a city planning office administrator warned the head of the department.
The city was in no shape to provide that support. Records show that in 2000, its housing fund managers had misplaced $52,000 that was supposed to go to English Avenue CDC. They may have also paid bills to other groups twice over. A federal audit released in 2005 complained planning department officials may have misspent about $1.3 million earmarked for affordable housing citywide.
Basic maintenance such as cutting grass and cleaning up trash ate up church resources, Motley said. City records show complaints of code violations, and unpaid taxes and solid waste bills piled up. An investor snapped up some of the nonprofit’s liens, forcing the city’s development agency to pay off back taxes.
Drained of money, English Avenue CDC in 2009 gave the sites of its two biggest projects to the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority. One is an apartment that remains boarded up and crumbling.
“We were unsuccessful, but we were not unsuccessful because we didn’t try. No developer wanted to build in English Avenue,” Motley said.
The city’s approach to revitalization was wrong, he added.
“You don’t bring in a group of community people and a pastor and say, ‘You little CDC, we expect you to rebuild a community’,” he said. “That’s insanity.”
City officials, philanthropists and the housing experts they consulted often had no clue how to help neighborhood nonprofits, said Councilman Ivory Young, who lives in a home he designed as an architect for a Vine City Health and Housing Ministry project. They, too, lacked experience in large-scale renewal.
“The failure has been a joint venture. And there’s a lot of failure go around,” Young said.
Officials from Invest Atlanta and the city said they no longer disburse money for projects without proof that developers have adequate financial backing.
“Right now, we’re saying you have to have the capacity to complete these projects and carry through,” said Mayor Kasim Reed’s deputy chief of staff Katrina Taylor-Parks. “Otherwise we’ll end up where we are today — that is, a community of blight and heartache and concern.”
As speculators buy up the neighborhood, what progress the nonprofits managed to make is at risk.
Vine City Health and Housing Ministry built a police mini-precinct on the neighborhood’s toughest corner in 1998 to take it back from drug dealers. Over the years, the nonprofit also pushed out a nearby liquor store, its leaders said. A park opened across the street.
Invest Atlanta had foreclosed on a $1 million redevelopment loan to the ministry in 2007, yet two years later, it provided a $500,000 grant to build a retail building.
Construction ended in 2011, but no businesses moved in. Funding to complete the interior fell through, Hawthorne said. The ministry’s unpaid tax bills piled up.
City Council tried to salvage the police station in December 2013 by paying the ministry $60,000 in back rent, breaking with a longstanding policy of using mini-precincts rent-free. Four months later, an investor purchased the property’s tax deeds, putting the ministry at risk of losing it.
Police moved out. Vandals have sprayed painted graffiti on the new retail building and smashed its windows.
Speculators driven by profit, not divine mission, are now taking control, Beulah Baptist’s Cottrell said.
“They’ll take anything in here, bring in all new people and build what they want,” he said.
In a series of stories in recent months, the AJC has revealed how inadequate city resources, bungled policies and unchecked speculation allowed blighted property conditions to take hold in Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods. Reporting on this latest installment began when reporter Willoughby Mariano discovered that some of the worst properties just west of downtown were owned by church-founded nonprofits. Using public records laws, she uncovered documents that showed that for more than a decade, the city gave money to these groups to redevelop some of these sites, even when it knew that they were struggling financially.