Janis Ware is the consummate community housing guru. Her professional prowess has saved and changed the Mechanicsville community.
“I would use the term transforming to make it a community people would really love to live in and not a community of last resort,” she says. “That’s been hard work. Over the years we have done small projects, strategically placed so that you could drive through the community and see a change.”
For the past 25 years the polished publisher and entrepreneur as been executive director the SUMMECH Community Development Corporation, which some have called a godsend. Independently and in partnership with for-profit developers Ware has built more than 1300 homes. That includes among others City View, Ware Estates, Rosa Burney Manor and now the new Cityside development.
This new project offers newly-built or renovated homes with affordable rents for working families.
“This new program will offer housing stability for more than 70 families, and help make the dream of homeownership a reality,” says Mayor Kasim Reed.
The Mechanicsville Cityside development aims to provide homeownership opportunities for low-income families. The families will rent the units for the first fifteen years of occupancy, and will then have the opportunity to purchase the home. Scattered site developments distribute affordable housing units in income-diverse neighborhoods, promoting greater economic inclusion. The Cityside development is spread over one square mile of land in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood SUMMECH was started by Janis’ late father J. Lowell Ware, a compelling civil rights advocate and crusading publisher of the Atlanta Voice newspaper, now celebrating its 50th year as a prominent member of Atlanta’s Black press. He was joined by Rosa Burney, a Mechanicsville community activist. There were some 300 vacant homes and lots when they started.
“He was not necessarily a developer, so he kind of left that up to me,” Ware laughs. “Quite frankly when my father died the organization had only been around for two years at that point, so all of the redevelopment imitative really took place under me. For a community development corporation we have done great work.”
Ware calls Cityside an antidote to those concerned about the perils of gentrification.
“We focus on mixed income development,” Ware continues. “A community is not going to be sustainable if you have all low-income properties. We have done both. The highest property we have sold was almost $300 thousand, so we’ve done some higher end properties as well. These homes are really market-rate homes. There are just being leased to people who are 50 percent of the area media income. We didn’t cut any corners in the development of these properties at all.”
Rev. James Jackson calls Mechanicsville his “stomping ground.” He’s been living and pastoring a community church for the past 30 years. “It’s very encouraging what is being done here with affordable housing,” he says. “My concern is that they are going to be rentals for the first 15 years, and that doesn’t always provide for stability in the neighborhood.”
Noel Khalil, the Chairman/CEO of Columbia Residential, is arguably Atlanta’s most prominent and profitable Black developer. He and Janis Ware are partners in the Mechanicsville Cityside project. “The city leadership recognizes that we have a ‘Manhattan-ization’ process occurring in Atlanta, and they are very aggressively and assertively trying to find a way to make sure that we have as much affordable housing as possible I have to commend Mayor Kasim Reed. Most other cities just want higher income people.”
That’s Jane Ridley’s concern. She has lived in Mechanicsville for almost 40 years and fears she and others soon may be unable to afford to stay in the community. Mechanicsville sits in the shadow of downtown just west of Turner Field. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Atlanta.
“The problem is will these homes go people that already exist in the community, will it go to low-income people so that they can find the equity in homes that most of us share,” Ridley asks, “ or will it just bring more gentrification to our neighborhood and change the total complexion of our history and our culture?”
Mayor Kasim Reed vows that will not happen on his watch. “We are laser focused on making sure that the people who have been in Atlanta for years and decades and even generations have an opportunity to continue to enjoy the success that the city is having.”
He continues, “We are as focused on making sure that we have an inclusive economy and environment and we have a genuine affordability as any city in America. It is going to continue to be a focus of my administration until the last day of the last hour that I am in office, and that way it will be a priority of my successor.”