There hasn’t been a lot to rave about in recent decades concerning Atlanta’s local governments. Some City Hall administrations have crashed in corruption – epitomized by mayoral scalawags Bill Campbell and Kasim Reed. Atlanta Public Schools exploded in the nation’s largest education cheating scandal. Even when out-and-out criminality isn’t involved, Atlanta public officials have a record of ineptness. MARTA comes to mind.
But for about 15 years, beginning in the mid-1990’s, there was one continuing bright spot. A band of urban innovators – city and federal officials, as well as business executives who were prophet-driven as well as profit-seeking – grappled with the until-then insurmountable problem of concentrated poverty. They included then-U.S. Housing and urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros; one of Atlanta’s best-ever mayors, Shirley Franklin; Renee Glover, the CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA); and The Integral Group’s visionary chairman, Egbert Perry. Their gospel: Public housing destroyed the lives of its tenant, and the only solution was to raze the projects.
That band was maliciously ignored during Reed’s administration. He wanted to use AHA as his very own “pay-to-play” piggy-bank for his cronies, and during his tenure the housing agency languished in non-action (other than a failed and vindictive lawsuit Reed leveled against Perry).
But as Reed’s political fortunes have plummeted during a federal corruption probe, the long-ignored housing visionaries are back. They briefly took a deserved bow on October 18 when 450 people gathered at west Atlanta’s Fairmont to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Integral Group, the key business component that transformed Atlanta’s slums and created a model for affordable housing nationwide. It became known, in fact, as the Atlanta Model.
Many themes in that transformative model were on display at the celebration. Notably it was a benefit for the Centennial Academy, a public school that enshrined the driving motivation for the Atlanta Model: that education policy was, indeed, housing policy. Create good schools, and mixed-income, mixed-use communities will flourish. Centennial Place, the Integral community built on land that once housed one of the nation’s most notorious impoverished enclaves, Techwood Homes, now includes a harmonious mix of upper-middle-class, working class and rent-subsidized families. And the spark-plug of that success was the school.
Cisneros, HUD secretary during President Bill Clinton’s first term, told the Integral celebrants of the almost insurmountable problems to implement the federal HOPE VI policy of public housing renewal. It took Glover and Perry to advance the then-radical idea that renovating public housing had failed repeated across the nation. Razing the housing projects and building mixed-income communities was the solution, Glover and Perry urged. Since the mid-1990’s, more than 250 redevelopment projects across the nation have been patterned on the Atlanta Model, Cisneros told the crowd.
The spirit of the Atlanta Model continues in Perry’s Integral Group – and in a non-profit– Purpose Built Communities– which now oversees another from-slum-to-vibrant AHA community– East Lake. The latter’s success was also engineered by successful schools. Purpose Built, by the way, is now headed by former Mayor Franklin.
The author has held senior editorial and business positions at newspapers in Georgia and Florida. He is now CEO of Think Atlanta Consulting.