Atlanta-based nonprofit Purpose Built Community may come to Chattanooga

photo A pedestrian walks past a mostly unoccupied commercial district on Grove Street in the Westside community.

PARTICIPATING CITIES• Atlanta• New Orleans• Rome, Ga.• Jackson, Miss.• Indianapolis• Charlotte, N.C.• Birmingham, Ala.• Clarkston, Ga.WHAT'S NEXTThe next meeting regarding Purpose Built in Chattanooga is expected to take place in January.ABOUT PURPOSE BUILT• Location: Atlanta• CEO: Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta• Goals: "We support a network of communities that are building brighter futures, strengthening human and physical capital and helping families break the cycle of poverty," Purpose Built says on its website. The organization's purpose is to "transform struggling neighborhoods into vibrant and sustainable communities where everyone has the opportunity to thrive."• Quote: "They tore down hell, and they built heaven. Now we are living in paradise." - Eva Davis, a resident of the East Lake community in Atlanta, which has undergone a Purpose Built revitalization• On the Web:

Purpose Built Community, an Atlanta-based nonprofit co-founded by billionaire Warren Buffet to improve impoverished neighborhoods, may be coming to Chattanooga.

At the invitation of Mayor Ron Littlefield, Purpose Built Vice President Carol Naughton met with about 50 city officials, residents and business leaders at First Baptist Church this month to give a presentation about the organization.

Purpose Built Chattanooga is a concept for creating a planned community that includes new housing for residents of mixed incomes, a charter school, early learning programs and community services such as job training, senior services and supportive services, Naughton said.

Those, in turn, draw businesses, she said.

In Atlanta and the Bayou District in New Orleans, Purpose Built has created planned communities for low- to moderate-income families where the majority of residents depend on money from work instead of welfare and the children meet and exceed state academic standards, she said.

Purpose Built is also at work in six other cities, largely in the Southeast. They include Jackson, Miss.; Rome, Ga.; and Birmingham, Ala. It wants to work in 25, Naughton said.

The primary criteria are a community's level of commitment and ability to raise money to help pay for some of the project. The group's consulting services are free.

No decision has been made on where in Chattanooga such a community might be located, but the Harriet Tubman area is being considered. It's home to the city's second-largest public housing development, which is in line to be demolished or sold.

The group also is looking at the Westside neighborhood, which has eight low-income housing sites. The Westside includes College Hill Courts, the largest public housing site in the city.

Littlefield said he invited Purpose Built to Chattanooga after seeing what the organization has done in East Lake in Atlanta, also a former public housing site.

"I truly believe this is the real thing," said Littlefield.

But not all Chattanooga residents welcome the idea.

"I fear that the high-rise buildings will be turned into condos which will displace all the people in the building," said Roxann Larson, resident council president of Dogwood Manor. "They paint a rosy picture but, in reality, when the move people out, they can't afford to move back."


Naughton's presentation painted a different picture in the Atlanta-area community. Half of the housing at the Villages of East Lake is affordable and half is market rate, her figures showed.

Purpose Built supported a $150 million revitalization of East Lake, once one of the highest-crime areas in DeKalb County, and transformed it into a neighborhood with a crime rate below the city's average.

The group also helped the East Lake community open a charter school. In 1995, 5 percent of fifth-graders in East Lake met state math standards. Now, 98 percent of fifth-graders at the revitalized site meet the standards.

The Atlanta community also now has a grocery store, child care center, tennis court, even a YMCA, said Naughton. Formerly, no such businesses or services existed there. The area hadn't had new construction in over 20 years, Naughton said.

"If they put that out in Harriet Tubman, I'm going, too," College Hill Courts resident council President Tonya Rooks said in an interview after seeing Naughton's presentation. "I want to see what that feels like to live like that."

Jens Christensen, assistant director of Chattanooga Community Kitchen, which provides services and food for the homeless, asked how Purpose Built differs from Hope VI.

Hope VI was a federally funded plan to revitalize some of the nation's worst public housing projects. In Chattanooga, it resulted in a $35 million federal grant that helped get rid of Spencer J. McCallie Homes and build the Villages at Alton Park in its place. McCallie Homes had 596 units of public housing when it was torn down. The Villages is a mixed-income community with about 200 of its 400 units set aside for public housing.

Naughton responded that Hope VI focused mainly on housing. She said while housing is a necessary component, Purpose Built also plans for the educational improvement of students and the financial improvement of residents. With that comes more businesses and services, she said.

Littlefield has toured East Lake in Atlanta and described it as "very dramatic change and yet the people who depended on low-income housing were able to stay, were able to improve their lives significantly."


At the meeting, Naughton distributed information sheets, asking attendees to get involved in exploratory task forces to follow. The groups will help decide the location of a Purpose Built community, provide community support and facilities and develop a lead organization to establish a financial plan and organizational goals for the project.

photo Chattanooga Housing Authority Board Chairman Eddie Holmes

A financial plan specific to Chattanooga has not been determined.

"It's too preliminary to determine anything like that," said Richard Beeland, spokesman for the mayor. Beeland said the city would be remiss if it didn't look at all funding sources, federal, state and private.

He also emphasized that it "really is a grass-roots effort and it has to be driven by community stakeholders for it to work."

Littlefield said taxpayer money would be invested in a Purpose Built Community. However, taxpayer money also was invested in other public housing sites, he said.

City, business, school officials and residents will be included in the decision-making process, Littlefield said.

But the project must be resident-driven to be successful, said Chattanooga Housing Authority Board Chairman Eddie Holmes.

"Without resident support," Holmes said, "you just have people sitting around the table making plans."


Atlanta developer Tom Cousins conceived the idea and co-founder Buffett became his partner in creating Purpose Built Community in 2007, according to news reports.

Former hedge fund executive Julian Robertson is the third financial backer. The three investors completely underwrite the nonprofit.

Purpose Built officials said Buffett has told them that he will support them according to the success he sees in the communities. So far money hasn't been a problem, organizers said.

"They told us they would come to Chattanooga and work with us free of charge," Littlefield said.

Purpose Built doesn't charge for its consulting services, but it wants the community to raise money toward its revitalization.

Said Naughton, "We don't charge, but we're looking for a community with a similar commitment and ability to raise funds."

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