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Stabilization, Renewal, and Community: The Heart Behind Grove Park Renewal

Gentrification and displacement are coming to Grove Park.

In fact, they’re already here.

And Grove Park Renewal’s founders saw it coming almost a decade ago.

JoElyn and Chuck Johnston at their Grove Park house

When Chuck and JoElyn Johnston moved into their home in Grove Park in 2011, the neighborhood was more than a little rough around the edges. They had moved at the urging of their church, Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church (AWPC). AWPC had a stated heart for the inner city and mapped out its chosen community as an area that included Grove Park. In fact, Chuck and JoElyn’s children, Evelyn Anne and Jane, and their families were already living in Grove Park.

After moving in, it didn’t take long for Chuck and JoElyn to notice that things were changing. Long before Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened or work on the Westside Park began, investors began buying up properties in Grove Park, and just letting them sit. Their owners were betting that the gentrification beginning in closer-in neighborhoods would spread westward to Grove Park.

But for years, they waited. And the houses decayed. These uninhabited, unmaintained houses eventually became sites for drug use and prostitution.

In April 2013, Sam Dimon overheard JoElyn talking with a friend about gentrification, absentee landlords, and real estate investment in Grove Park. Sam was a successful attorney in New York with a heart for the inner city and social justice. He questioned Chuck about his experience in Grove Park, and the wheels started turning in both of their heads. In time, they were sharing ideas to help combat some of the problems in Grove Park — specifically the current decay and the coming gentrification.

What if Chuck used money invested by Sam to purchase abandoned properties in Grove Park? What if they renovated them — making them “comfortably habitable” — and made them available for purchase to people who would choose to be invested in the renewal of the neighborhood?

The seed of Grove Park Renewal was beginning to germinate.

Over the next few months, through a series of emails and meetings, a core advisory team started taking shape, including:

  • Terrell Gilbert, a local attorney, Grove Park resident, and member of AWPC

  • Mary Stuart Iverson, a realtor with Harry Norman, who also was part of AWPC

  • Herman Howard, an urban planner and adjunct professor in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture.

But more importantly, Chuck and Sam began to develop a clearer vision for Grove Park and GPR.

  • Grove Park could become a multicultural, socio-economically diverse neighborhood.

  • Current homeowners should be protected from rising taxes and predatory investors.

  • Community and social resources should be used to help legacy residents maintain their homes.

  • Renters should have a safe place to land if they lose their current homes because of sale or dramatic increase in rents.

  • Justice-minded people capable of wielding power and influence could move in and advocate for their neighbors and combat the negative effects of gentrification.

In short, the vision was one of Gentrification — with Justice, a theory learned from Bob Lupton and Focused Community Strategies in South Atlanta.

Sam Dimon on a visit to Grove Park

Sam agreed to contribute up to $2 million to GPR to help get it off the ground, start buying vacant lots, and renovate or tear down abandoned or blighted homes.

Several homes and empty lots were sold early-on to people who wanted to move to Grove Park and be a part of its stabilization and renewal. This includes current board member Donovan Potter and his wife Kierra, then attorneys with the City of Atlanta.

After spending two years at the helm, Chuck decided that GPR was in need of leadership with more real estate and community development experience. As fellow elders of AWPC, he felt that Hessel Baker, owner of Dwell Communities, a family of apartment complexes that are dedicated to quality, affordable housing, was the right person at the right time. Hessel agreed to take over the management of GPR, in addition to running Dwell. In 2015 — after acquiring 39 properties — Chuck stepped down from GPR.

Hessel Baker at one of Dwell's affordable complexes

It became increasingly clear to Hessel that, while advocate ownership was a necessary component of stabilizing the Grove Park community, the more critical need was affordable rental property. It also became clear that without the sale of homes to replenish the coffers, more capital was needed. Sam agreed to invest another $1.2 million in GPR, bringing his total investment to $3.2 million.

Hessel enlisted Justin Bleeker, the Director of Asset and Community Development at Dwell, to run GPR. He would take on the role of Executive Director and manage all day-to-day operations. Justin’s background in urban planning, administration, and non-profit leadership — coupled with his heart for social justice and people of all backgrounds — made him a perfect fit for Grove Park. Justin’s family immediately moved into a GPR rental home so that he could be the antithesis of an absentee landlord.

“We moved into Grove Park with Chuck’s vision of being a good neighbor. Proximity is necessary for work like we do in Grove Park. We felt that we needed to feel what our neighbors feel each day. We needed to know them, and we wanted them to know us. Street credibility is what makes Grove Park Renewal successful,” said Justin. “And I want to use what privilege and influence I have to advocate for my neighbors and my neighborhood.”

Justin advocates for affordable housing

As Justin transitioned into his new role, the number of home sales in Grove Park was skyrocketing, causing prices of even the most decayed properties to rise significantly. Signs with slogans such as “We Buy Houses for CA$H” and “Any Condition • Any Area” were seen on most telephone poles and stapled to the doors of abandoned houses.

Under Hessel and Justin’s leadership, the mission of Grove Park Renewal has focused on low-income housing and neighborhood stabilization. GPR is especially concerned with supporting Grove Park legacy residents who want to stay in the neighborhood and benefit from the gentrification and development that are coming.

GPR received its 501(c)3 status from the IRS in February 2020. As a part of that process, Sam gave up all ownership in the previous for-profit company and the properties it owned. His entire $3.2 million investment became a donation.

As a non-profit, GPR can now accept tax-deductible donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. It is led by a nine-member board of directors, seven of whom are Black and live and/or work in Grove Park. Sam continues to be heavily involved in Grove Park and GPR, holding a seat on the board of directors.

Today, GPR is at a crossroads. Home prices in the neighborhood continue to rise. Soon there will be no properties left that can be reasonably purchased and renovated while keeping the rent at a level that current residents can afford.

“In order to buy a house, renovate it, and still keep the rent affordable for our residents, we cannot over-spend at any step along the process,” says Justin. “It is critical for us to get as much additional capital as we can, as quickly as we can, especially in light of the impending economic downturn. Our opportunity to leverage resources for our neighbors is now!”

If you would like to help Grove Park Renewal advance its mission of Gentrification — with Justice, please click here to go to our Donations page where you can make a tax-exempt charitable contribution.

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