Just two weeks after joining the then-broken Atlanta Housing Authority, Carol R. Naughton found herself in the passenger seat of her boss’s car, surrounded by “drug boys” trying to block their path and demanding they turn around. The two were on their way to a meeting in the East Lake Meadows housing project, dubbed “Little Vietnam” by local authorities for its notorious violence, rampant crime and deep-seated poverty.
At the time, East Lake boasted a crime rate 18 times the national average, only 13 percent employment, miserable high school graduation rates and devastating dysfunction, she said.
“It was scary,” Naughton said. “It was hopeless.”
Twenty years later, though, East Lake’s story has completely changed.
The neighborhood’s crime rate is down 70 percent, while violent crime is 90 percent lower than it was in 1995. All of East Lake’s capable residents work, and the average income is four to five times higher. The citizens enjoy a new YMCA, a grocery store and high-quality, mixed-income housing. Most notably, 1,700 young students attend the Charles R. Drew Charter School, one of the highest performing schools in the state.
On Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Naughton recounted East Lake’s story of revitalization and explained its suitability as a model for similar communities in her lecture titled “Place Matters: Creating Neighborhoods that Break the Cycle of Poverty.”
Naughton, who began her career in community revitalization as AHA’s general counsel and deputy executive director for legal and nonprofit affairs, contributed to the renewal of the East Lake community from the very beginning. However, she insists the process truly began through the dedicated efforts of one East Lake resident: Eva Davis.
Davis, who died in 2012, served as the president of East Lake Meadows Residents’ Association for 40 years and tirelessly advocated for a break in the cycle of poverty that plagued her community.
“She had a dream of a racially and economically integrated community since the 1970s, but she hadn’t known how to get there,” Naughton said.
Overwhelmed with frustration over systemic disparities in East Lake, Davis spent most of her first meetings with Naughton screaming her vexations. Still, she always ended their meetings with a hug and, “Love you, baby.”
Davis was instrumental in gathering support for the revitalization project within her community, Naughton said. In one of her shining moments, Davis stood up in front of 400 women and children and implored them to vote in favor of the project while the community’s drug leaders looked on disapprovingly.
“Ms. Davis does not get nearly the credit she deserves for her leadership and what she was able to accomplish for her community,” Naughton said.
The next hero in the story of East Lake arrived “out of the blue” in the form of business and philanthropic leader Tom Cousins. In partnership with AHA, Cousins formed the East Lake Foundation, which funneled all of his philanthropic efforts toward the rejuvenation of this community.
“I’m not sure if I even trusted Tom Cousins in the beginning because I had never seen that type of generosity before,” Naughton said. “He truly wanted to disrupt the systems that had been keeping people trapped in poverty.”
Cousins’ vision quickly won Naughton over, and she joined the East Lake Foundation as the executive director of this “community quarterback” that would lead the effort in the neighborhood’s revival.
From here, the real work began, Naughton said.
“We spent three years in really hard meetings just planning,” she said. “Really, what we were doing was building trust and building relationships within the community.”
From there, Naughton and her colleagues implemented her model of mixed-income housing, which combined subsidized and true market apartments, along with new services aimed at health and wellness, a revamped schooling system, and increased collaboration through the East Lake Foundation.
“Thus, the platform was created for families to live in a great place that would allow them to reach their full potential,” Naughton said.
Despite rough beginnings, East Lake’s process of revitalization made massive strides toward the betterment of the surrounding community and its residents, eventually making East Lake apartments some of the most sought after in the area. Naughton emphasized that the success and sustainability of this project was particularly tied to its stance on education.
“The quality of education sustains the neighborhood revitalization,” Naughton said. “Affordable housing is important, but it’s not enough. If you don’t find a way to improve education, all you’re really doing is putting a Band-Aid on a wound. We are confident that the kids who are growing up in East Lake are not going to need subsidized housing because they are rockin.’ ”
Due to the success of the East Lake Foundation’s initiative in this Atlanta neighborhood, multiple civic leaders in impoverished neighborhoods across the country contacted Naughton asking for help.
One such leader was Gerry Barousse, who came to Naughton for advice on how to rebuild neighborhoods in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
It was this experience that led to the culmination of Naughton’s skills and experience and the creation of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit consulting firm for which Naughton serves as president. PBC uses the East Lake Model and a three-pronged approach with mixed-income housing, a “cradle-through-college” education pipeline and services aimed at health and wellness to advise, visualize and organize revitalization efforts in impoverished neighborhoods across the country.
PBC is currently working on numerous initiatives in 30 different communities with plans for 25 large-scale community renewal projects in place for the next few years.
“We look for places where this model resonates with local leaders and where it make sense,” Naughton said. “Our model is disruptive. It disrupts systems. We want to provide support for local civic and business leaders to figure out how to break the cycle of poverty in really distressed neighborhoods. That’s what we care about doing.”