Atlanta’s easternmost neighborhood, East Lake, has a history worthy of an epic novel. It has gone from a country club community to one of the nation’s roughest urban areas to a national example of what can happen when neighbors, businesses, nonprofits, and local government work together to build a model neighborhood.
East Lake’s latest chapter was heralded at the March 29 groundbreaking for the Trust at East Lake, a 40-unit townhome complex on Fayetteville Road slated for completion in fall 2025.
According to the East Lake Foundation, The Trust at East Lake is one of three multiunit projects Atlanta Land Trust is undertaking “to mitigate gentrification utilizing a comprehensive, equity-driven approach that connects people, places, and quality of life.”
“Gentrification,” according to Microsoft Bing’s dictionary is “the process whereby the character of a poor urban neighborhood is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” What a coalition of partners, including Atlanta Land Trust (ALT), The East Lake Foundation, Invest Atlanta, the city of Atlanta, and DeKalb County, is seeking to do in East Lake is improve housing and attract new businesses without making the neighborhood unaffordable for those already living there, noted many of the speakers at the groundbreaking.
The land trust model used by ALT “provides for permanent affordability through a dual-ownership arrangement, in which low-income families purchase and own only the house, while leasing the underlying land from ALT,” states material provided by the nonprofit. “If and when the owner chooses to sell their home, resale restrictions ensure it will remain affordable for the next family, even as the seller benefits from the equity they created while in the home,” notes material from the East Lake Foundation. “The renewable, inheritable, ground lease means each home can provide affordable housing for approximately 16 families over the initial 99-year term, assuming an average tenure of six years.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, speaking at the groundbreaking said, “Atlanta in a way has been a victim of its own success. Each year, we have more and more people wanting to come here to live. We have to provide housing over and over. We want that housing to be decent and affordable for both newcomers and those already here. Our goal over the next few years is to build or preserve 20,000 housing units. We can’t do it all at once, but we can do it 40 units at a time, as we are doing with this project.”
Dickens added that projects such as Trust at East Lake help “the missing middle,” those whose income is too high to make them eligible for government-assisted housing, but too low to afford quality housing at market prices.
Larry Johnson, commissioner for DeKalb County’s 3rd district, in which East Lake is located, said, “This may seem like a new thing to some of you, but I worked with [Atlanta] Mayor Shirley Franklin on affordable housing some 20 years ago. We recognized the need to provide housing for families just starting out and others who don’t have the income to buy in most middle-class neighborhoods. I’ve continued to work with officials in Atlanta and DeKalb because I know what happens when elected officials don’t keep their promises.”
Shannon Heath-Longino, East Lake advocate and chair of the Drew Charter School Board of Directors, said, “We can’t talk about what’s going on in East Lake today without talking about its past.” Heath-Longino is the granddaughter of Eva Davis, one of the first residents of East Lake Meadows, a public housing development that drew national attention for its rundown condition chronicled in a PBS documentary. “I was with my grandmother when she was arrested protesting for improvements at East Lake Meadows,” she recalled.
Eventually, Heath-Longino said, real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins stepped in to found the East Lake Foundation and change the face of the neighborhood. Heath-Longino recalled former President Jimmy Carter going to the federal Housing and Urban Development secretary and securing a $33.3 million grant. “Our original goal was to get the money for repairs and renovations to make the units fit to live in,” she said. “We asked for a piece of pound cake and ended up getting a whole wedding cake.”
East Lake also is the home to the more-than-100-year-old East Lake Golf Club, which is on the PGA tour, and TOUR Championship is among the supporters helping Atlanta Land Trust provide affordable housing. TOUR Championship Executive Director Alex Urban at the groundbreaking announced a record $5.5 million charitable donation from the 2022 tournament, up for $3.7 million in 2021. Portions of the funds will support construction of The Trust at East Lake.