Atlanta Business Chronicle: Atlanta Nonprofit Quietly Spends $5M to Preserve Westside Homes

The following article was originally published Oct. 4, 2019 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle (ABC) and authored by Douglas Sams – ABC Commercial Real Estate Editor

For the past year, a nonprofit funded by some of Atlanta’s largest companies has quietly spent close to $5 million in the city’s historic but economically disadvantaged Westside neighborhoods, amassing an inventory of 80 blighted homes and vacant lots.

The Westside Future Fund acquired the collection of dilapidated Victorian and Craftsman homes for an average of $75,000, and the empty lots for about $50,000. Most are in the English Avenue community, one of the poorer areas of the city still recovering from the foreclosure crisis years ago.

But, the homes also stand just minutes from the wealth and prosperity of Midtown. Many acquired by the fund will be renovated. Others will be demolished and rebuilt. The work could start by the end of the year.

None of the homes will be offered for more than $250,0000, adding critical inventory to the limited stock of affordable housing in the city.

The goal is to turn the neglected homes into opportunities for legacy Westside residents to buy or rent, depending on their income and financial situation.

The expansive array of property acquisitions now carried out by the Westside Future Fund, which is backed by Delta Airlines, Chick-fil-A Inc., The Home Depot Inc. and others, reflects one of the country’s largest urban renewal and anti-displacement programs.

And the fund is just getting started.

While it secured the 80 single-family housing properties and 200 apartment units, an important deadline is looming. In just over three years, the fund wants 800 workforce housing units under its control.

The amount of investment that has flowed into Atlanta’s urban core since the end of the Great Recession has rivaled or surpassed that of the 1996 Olympics. The Westside Future Fund is meant to offset downsides of that otherwise beneficial trend for the city — gentrification and displacement.

John Ahmann, president and CEO of Westside Future Fund, called it wonderful to see the population of the city and its historic Westside neighborhoods soaring once again — but not at the expense of current residents.

“What we are doing is preserving not just homes but cultural history,” he said. “A lot of the city’s African American leadership comes out of these neighborhoods.”

Those dozens of housing units now under the fund’s control will be pooled into a new program called Home on the Westside. It’s designed to make sure revitalization in Historic Westside neighborhoods such as English Avenue and Vine City benefits legacy residents, Ahmann said.

The biggest short-term challenge?

“Bringing all the units online and on budget,” he said.

How smoothly the process unfolds depends on construction costs and demand. Will buyers need financing? Will they have credit issues? There will be down payment assistance through funds from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm.

The Westside Future Fund will control the costs of renovations and construction by identifying the right development partners and working on the projects in clusters of up to 15 at once, rather than one at a time, said Lee Harrop, who led the acquisitions of dozens of homes since November of last year.

Joan Vernon, Westside Future Fund director of neighborhood engagement, said community meetings helped make sure legacy residents would be first in line for the newly acquired homes.

“There has been a lot of input, and a lot of lessons learned,” said Vernon, a 10 year resident of English Avenue.

The first of the newly renovated housing units could be ready for occupancy in the spring of 2020. The timeline will depend on the speed of permitting. For example, the city of Atlanta will have to rezone the properties.

In June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms released a $1 billion plan to produce and preserve 20,000 affordable housing units across the city over the next seven years.

The Westside Future Fund’s new housing program aligns with those goals.

“The fruits of this thoughtful and intentional planning, which brought together diverse stakeholders, will result in a city where all residents—regardless of their income, background or status—can thrive as Atlanta continues to attract development,” the mayor said in a prepared statement.