Bringing New Life to Atlanta's Westside

Atlanta’s Westside, a long-blighted area with boarded-up homes and a shrinking population, is seeing new life as numerous benefactors work to revive the area. At the Atlanta CREW meeting in March, speakers Thomas M. Holder, founder and CEO of Holder Construction Company, and John Ahmann, executive director of the Westside Future Fund, described some of the efforts underway to help the Westside survive and thrive.

In 1960, the Westside had a population of 50,000; today, that number has shrunk to 15,000. Many of the remaining residents are impoverished and desperately in need of affordable housing, job training, and social services. Fortunately, that’s just what organizations Westside Works, Quest Community Development Organization, and the Westside Future Fund aim to provide, and they have some big players coming alongside them to make it happen.

Job Training

Holder Construction Company has successfully hired 120 graduates of Westside Works, the job training program started by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and plans to hire more. Westside Works has provided construction job training in the Westside for several years; now, investment by the Home Depot Foundation will take the program a step further. The foundation recently announced that it is committing $6.3 million to Westside communities. Part of that investment will go toward another training program targeting graduates of Westside Works. This new program, called “Construction Ready Plus,” will train graduates for higher-skilled jobs so that they can advance their careers and earn higher wages.

Fresh from its move from suburbia to the city, NCR is getting on the Westside bandwagon, too. At the Westside Future Fund’s Transform Westside Summit on March 16, NCR announced a $11 million gift to the Hollis Innovation Academy, a PK-8 public school with a STEM focus. NCR’s gift will support the Westside Future Fund’s $16.4 million commitment to Atlanta Public Schools and the Hollis Innovation Academy made last July, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. The NCR funds are meant to encourage students’ interest and achievement in STEM topics. By investing in this promising local school, NCR hopes to help break the cycle of poverty that has gripped Westside residents for generations.

Affordable Housing

Another portion of the Home Depot Foundation money—$3 million—will go toward much-needed home repairs and materials. Quest Community Development Organization (Quest CDO) knows how much these repairs and materials are needed, because the organization has spent 17 years buying up blighted and abandoned properties to develop into affordable housing in Westside communities, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reports. So far, Quest has developed 269 units, but its plans for the next three years are even more ambitious. Quest’s 2020 Vision Plan foresees investing $35.5 million to develop seven projects in three Westside communities: Vine City, English Avenue, and Grove Park. Quest has already developed and begun constructing two buildings that house Westside Works and other neighborhood services.

Now Quest is also developing Quest Commons West, a 53-unit development where only 10 percent of units will be leased at market rate. As with other Quest residences, this development will not only be affordable but will also include counseling and other support services for residents. Over the years, Quest has created a variety of residential options, ranging from short-term housing (90 days or less) to permanent housing for people with various needs.

The Westside Future Fund’s Vision

These efforts go hand in hand with the Westside Future Fund’s vision to improve education, promote community health and wellness, strengthen safety and security, and provide high-quality, mixed-income neighborhoods in the Westside.

To boost safety and security, the Westside Future Fund has helped to create the At-Promise Youth Center on English Avenue. When youths are arrested for a non-violent offense, rather than taking them to jail, local police take them to At-Promise, where they are provided with educational support, recreation time, social and emotional development assistance, therapeutic services, and workforce development services. In addition, Pulte Group, Inc.—whose CEO, Richard Dugas, is chairman of the Westside Future Fund—has built officer housing on the Westside, with plans for more. A security patrol and cameras have been installed as well.

The Westside Future Fund hopes that community health and wellness will improve when Westside residents have permanent homes. Currently only 8 percent of the Westside population owns a home. At one of the local high schools, Washington High School, 20 percent of students are homeless. Home values have risen by 12 percent in recent years (due in part to developments like the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Atlanta Beltline), making home ownership nearly impossible for many. More affordable housing will help to mitigate resident displacement and improve their low odds—estimated at 5 percent—of escaping from poverty someday.

The Westside Future Fund has reasons to hope. In addition to the efforts already described, Westside Works has plans to expand its current programs. Private funds are being raised to renovate existing, dilapidated units. City of Refuge, a non-profit Christian organization dedicated to helping the homeless, is offering a work training program, and the YMCA of Metro-Atlanta is moving its headquarters to the Westside, where it will provide early education services and job training. Much is happening in these historic neighborhoods, which deserve to be preserved and revived once again.