A state authority got millions to reduce poverty in Pleasant Hill. Has it helped?

Stacy+Jones+lives+in+a+small+blue+house+at+the+dead+end+of+Roosevelt+Avenue+with+his+6-year-old+daughter+and+97-year-old+grandmother.+He+said+he+feels+like+Pleasant+Hill+is+being+gentrified.+

Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom

Stacy Jones lives in a small blue house at the dead end of Roosevelt Avenue with his 6-year-old daughter and 97-year-old grandmother. He said he feels like Pleasant Hill is being gentrified.

Nancy Jo Cleveland never had so much space of her own.

Apartment living was all the 34-year-old had ever known until last year, when she bought a bright pink house in Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

“I’ve never lived in a house,” Cleveland said, sitting on the couch in her living room beside Princess, her black Labrador. “So, I really didn’t understand the concept of having space.”

Cleveland said she saw the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Zillow listed for $75,000 and thought, “I can afford that.”

Last May, the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority sold the Third Avenue home to Cleveland for $85,000.

Cleveland’s path to homeownership is a success story she credits in part to the CEA – a state authority created a decade ago with the sole mission to reduce poverty in Bibb County census tracts like Pleasant Hill where poverty rates are 40% or more. Part of that mission includes creating affordable housing options and increasing homeownership.

But many longtime neighborhood residents say the success of new and first-time homeownership in Pleasant Hill is a feat that the CEA hasn’t achieved often enough.

What’s more, the CEA’s three-member board does not have a clear picture of how the money meant to create new homeowners is being spent. Records of meetings obtained by The Macon Newsroom show one of the three CEA board members has for months requested but not received a detailed financial report showing money going in and out of the authority.

Even so, the CEA recently hosted a black-tie gala to raise more money and celebrate its impact in the neighborhood.

A Deal to End Poverty

The CEA was created by Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, in 2012 during his first term in office.

Its efforts so far have centered on Pleasant Hill, a neighborhood divided 60 years ago by the construction of Interstate 75. More than 100 homes and two churches were demolished to make way for the highway, displacing residents and creating a foothold for crime and blight to proliferate in the intervening decades.

Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, applauds a speaker at the black-tie fundraising gala for the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority in the rotunda of the Tubman African American Museum on Oct. 29, 2022. (Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom)

At the fundraising gala, in the rotunda of the Tubman African American Museum, Beverly, who worked as the CEA’s executive director until two years ago, spoke to about 45 people seated at tables topped with fresh flowers.

“Poverty is the number one thing that kills Macon-Bibb County,” Beverly said.

“A community enhancement authority’s sole job really is to address (poverty), and not just to address it on paper but how do we move the system, the macro economic system? …  How do we deal this into the deal?”

Part of that deal was sealed back in 2016 when Beverly signed a $5.4 million contract with the Georgia Department of Transportation, which was preparing to break ground on a $495 million highway expansion that would once again encroach on Pleasant Hill.

The CEA agreed to move seven homes from the east side to the west side of Interstate 75 and build 17 new homes. The work, involving a total of 24 homes, is part of a project related to the highway expansion called the Pleasant Hill Mitigation Plan.

The authority must still build six more homes to fulfill its deal with the transportation department.

Promised Jobs

As part of its agreement with GDOT, CEA promised to create jobs and hire people from the neighborhood to do them.

Stacy Jones said he was put to work – but it didn’t last.

Jones had worked in restaurants, for FedEx and at a warehouse before hearing about Beverly’s plan. Jones said he wanted to be a part of it.

“A friend of mine told me they were building houses in the neighborhood and they wanted people from the neighborhood to help build the houses and that they would train them on the job,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, that sounds great.’ You know, ‘Let me try this out.’”

Stacy Jones lives in a small blue house at the dead end of Roosevelt Avenue with his 6-year-old daughter and 94-year-old grandmother. He said he feels like Pleasant Hill is being gentrified. (Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom)

Jones said he met Beverly and a construction manager, then went to work. Though he had no prior construction experience, Jones said he learned on the job.

“What really brought me on board was they were saying these houses are gonna be for the community, for this community. People of the community are gonna have a chance to get these houses first,” he said. “They showed us from day one, from the jump, like how to do everything. … It was a great experience, you know, it’s something that I learned and can’t nobody can ever take it from me.”

Jones said he was disheartened to learn the new homes he was helping to build would sell for $120,000 to $160,000.

Those prices “just blew the majority of people in the neighborhood …  out of their price range,” Jones said. “Fundamentally, they don’t have that type of money. These are family people, working people, everyday people.”

CEA has sold five of the homes for prices ranging from $85,000 to $170,000. Cleveland’s pink house is the most affordable and the only one of the seven rehabilitated homes to be sold. Of the five new homeowners, two are entities and not people.

Jones lives in a small blue house at the dead end of Roosevelt Avenue with his 6-year-old daughter and 94-year-old grandmother.

“I told (James) Beverly, I said, ‘Hey, look what I got to do to get a house? How many houses do I need to build to get a house … Can I build a little tiny house or y’all give me a house or something because, like, y’all know we can’t afford these prices,’ ” Jones said. “He laughed. You learn from your mistakes.”

Jones went back to work at the Texas Border Grill and Academy Sports warehouse in 2017. He said he feels like the neighborhood has been scammed.

“Basically, from my point of view, I feel like it’s just gentrification of the neighborhood,” Jones said. “They bringing people in, build up the houses and then they’re moving all the people out of their neighborhood because the price range is going to push everything up.”

Paths to Housing

The CEA has sole discretion whether to sell or rent each of the homes, according to its contract with GDOT.

It also has a rent-to-own program in which participants lease the home for a year while they work to build credit and attend quarterly homeownership seminars taught by Renasant Bank and Bank OZK, said CEA Executive Director Tedra Huston.

Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, attends a Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority board meeting Sept. 21, 2022. (Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom)

“In theory, that makes sense. It doesn’t always work,” said Huston, adding that the process is still being refined. “People still haven’t been ready at the end and so we make a decision whether they want to stay (or) whether they want to move out somewhere.”

Votes to approve property sales, rent-to-own agreements, and leases are not always reflected in notes from CEA meetings. On at least one occasion last year, meeting records show the board voted via email to spend $5,000 on a childhood home of Little Richard Penniman, who grew up in Pleasant Hill.

Huston said homes sold by the authority are listed online by a realtor and new availability is announced at monthly meetings of the recently-formed Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Organization. This organization is not to be confused with The Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group, which was born in 2004 from collective concern neighbors had about GDOT’s plan to widen the highway that divided the neighborhood 60 years earlier.

Huston said contractors Kunj Construction and Stafford Builders, who managed the new builds, were required in bidding documents to hire apprentices to work on the new houses. A dozen apprentices were hired, but it was unclear when they were hired or if they were still employed.

“The whole purpose of the mitigation is to make sure that people in the community are … getting a livable wage,” Huston said. “And that’s how you start alleviating poverty.”

Pleasant Hill’s census tract has about 1,700 residents and a poverty rate of 61.4%, more than double the rate of Bibb County, according to the U.S. Census, and up by about 20% from the year 2000, according to census data.

Finances Murky

CEA board members don’t have a clear picture of what money is coming in and going out of the authority. A detailed breakdown of profits and losses has not been provided to the board despite repeated requests to Huston.

It remains unclear how much is collected from house rentals or what percentage of that is kept by Mosaic Development, a recently formed nonprofit corporation that owns 28 properties in Pleasant Hill and also manages the CEA-owned rental properties.

The Mosaic Development Inc. was incorporated in 2019 by Beverly, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. The nonprofit’s registered agent is listed as MJM Consolidated Services Inc, a company Huston owns.

Since Mosaic is a newer nonprofit, it has not yet submitted financial reports to the Internal Revenue Service that would publicly disclose its organizers, revenue or assets.

Huston said she served on the board of directors for Mosaic until recently. She also said  her company, MJM, is not in any way related to the business of the CEA.

Another company registered to MJM also owns a half dozen properties in Pleasant Hill, but Huston said her company also is unrelated to the business of CEA.

Huston owns a newly built house on Third Avenue in Pleasant Hill that was deeded to her by a Spalding County woman in November 2020.

The Macon-Bibb County Land Bank sold an older house on Lincoln Avenue that is not part of the mitigation work to MJM, Huston’s company, in September for 2021. The home was sold for $10,000 but its value is $28,000, property records show.

All told, the CEA, Huston, MJM Consolidated and companies registered to MJM collectively own 55 properties in the half-square mile neighborhood.

Missed Opportunities

Betty Stokes, a 79-year-old lifelong resident of Pleasant Hill, said she had never heard of the CEA before a reporter asked her about it.

However, she knew Beverly and Huston from seeing them at community meetings.

Stokes regularly fields calls from neighbors and church members looking for help from the county on nuisances ranging from illegally dumped garbage to overgrown lots.

“We don’t get what we pay for over here,” Stokes said. “You know, and it’s a crying shame we don’t get it. And this is stuff that needs to be done, should be done – all the time.”

Upon learning about the homes for sale and rent, Stokes said she wished she would have known about them months ago. A family renting a house nearby had to move out over the summer because their landlord did not fix the air conditioner, she said.

“I probably could have told them about houses that’s available if I had known,” Stokes said. “So I’d just like to know where some of the houses are and if they’re still vacant because that would help.”

Margaret Lockett, 84, had noticed new homes built nearby but didn’t know who was building them.

“We don’t get any information,” Lockett said. “They just come over here and just do whatever they want to do. And the people who’s in charge, they just keep the information to themselves. And, you know, we don’t have any input.”

Lockett has witnessed a neighboring house on Culver Street falling into disrepair over the years.

She said she didn’t know who to contact about getting it demolished. She worries it will affect her property value.

“Nobody lived there for years and it’s all grown up,” Lockett said of the property at 192 Culver St. “It’s just a little small house that needs to be knocked down. … Nobody ever comes and cuts the yard and grass and stuff, and we had some snakes crawl across the street.”

Property records show the land bank transferred the house to CEA in December 2021.

The Rev. Johnnie Lewis Cook Jr., senior pastor at Greater Allen Chapel AME Church on Pursley Street, said he has not seen much benefit in the neighborhood that comes from CEA.

“There are too many people that missed out on the opportunity for a single family home living and they might need to build more,” Cook said.  “We still have a lot of homeless people in this place where we’re supposedly building all these homes – a lot of homeless people.”

County Owned, Authority Operated

Last year, the CEA reopened the long-shuttered Booker T. Washington Community Center on Monroe Street.

Bibb County spent more than $1 million on the land and building renovations and has an agreement with CEA for it to maintain, manage and operate it as a neighborhood resource center. The CEA sublets office spaces to nonprofits and other entities that offer counseling, after school programs, art therapy and more.

The center isn’t the only county property CEA manages.

Bibb County pays the CEA $96,000 annually for it to operate The Little Richard House as a neighborhood resource center for at least 40 hours each week.

The small yellow cottage was one of seven homes to be relocated across the interstate in 2017 and rehabilitated as part of the current highway expansion.

The Little Richard House features relics from the rock star and artwork of him throughout the house. Two computers, a printer and a fax machine are available for public use in what will eventually be the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood history room.

The CEA also manages two parks for Macon-Bibb for $47,300 annually. The parks, Jefferson Long and Linear, were constructed by GDOT as part of the mitigation plan. The annual payment to CEA includes charges for administration, maintenance and commercial liability.

County spokesperson Chris Floore said the county’s aim in having CEA manage county properties and neighborhood resource centers was “to help build a sense of community.”

The county does not oversee any of the CEA’s programming, Floore said. It also does not receive any regular updates on how the state authority is spending money from the county.

“We know there are events going on. We’ve visited events,” Floore said of the CEA. “We’ve seen the community stuff they put together, we’re in regular communication with its members. It’s ongoing.”

‘All About the Land’

Cleveland said she’s noticed a difference in the neighborhood in the year since she put down roots there.

“I see a lot of the changes that the CEA is doing, you know, they’re purchasing more homes, they’re renovating more homes and there are some programs that have moved into the neighborhood that I think are helping,” Cleveland said.

Even so, Cleveland almost missed the opportunity to buy in Pleasant Hill.

Cleveland said the CEA was considering selling the house to an out-of-town investor that would buy it as-is for $100k – about $40k more than the assessed value.

Faced with uncertainty, Cleveland asked a friend to write a letter on her behalf to the CEA to point out the authority’s stated commitment to helping increase owner-occupied home ownership in the neighborhood.

In the end, Cleveland bought the home for a little less than its market-appraised value of $88,000.

Cleveland was born in Macon but raised by her two aunts in New York City. She moved back to Macon eight years ago and said that decision has helped shape who she is and what she wants in life.

She is considering law school or a degree in urban and regional planning, “because I realized, like, it’s really all about the land, and like, the resources that they put in certain places and the resources that they don’t.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the street names of Third and Lincoln avenues. The story also was updated to reflect Cleveland’s home had  market appraisal of $88K.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email her at [email protected]