Before most people had even heard of tax breaks in Opportunity Zones, Lift Orlando was already breaking ground on a project designed to rebuild the dilapidated-but-beloved neighborhoods west of downtown Orlando, partnering with lifelong residents like Tangia Smikle.
Investing in the future of this community – located 15 miles from Disney World, a mile from downtown Orlando, and in the shadow of a newly refurbished stadium – didn’t start with an apartment complex (though that would come). It started with working cooperatively and gathering a team. And it meant, first, taking the time to learn about the area’s unique and rich history.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, when the homes in these neighborhoods west of Orlando were built, it was a place of incredible hope for black families, a community built by African Americans for African Americans. “It was full of college-educated families of color, highly accomplished families,” says Eddy Moratin, Lift Orlando’s President. But over time, “discriminatory policies, unjust business practices, and absentee slumlords” brought the neighborhood down. Some families remained committed to staying in the neighborhood; many others moved out.
Even as Orlando prospered, these neighborhoods did not experience the same, and the “unpleasant history of segregation and urban policy took its toll,” Eddy says. “Many decisions played a role in orchestrating to choke off these communities from opportunity.”
They began by partnering with the Polis Institute, an organization that specializes in research and training for revitalizing urban neighborhoods and by gathering a “street team” of residents who became their researchers and organizers. After 30,000 hours, they’d completed the largest urban neighborhood survey ever conducted in the city – with more than 1,500 door-to-door interviews and dozens of community gatherings. This unique approach to establishing channels of communication helped them begin to identify the needs and desires of the community, and it still guides their work now.
Key to their plan is the West Lakes Partnership, which represents the five neighborhoods of the community, each one with a liaison to the project. With the help of these leaders and the partnership, members of the community are not just recipients of donors’ and organizers’ good work. They are resident leaders, community organizers, leaders themselves, and volunteers.
“We just needed a big brother to give us a helping hand, but not a handout” says Tangia Smikle, liaison from the Lake Lorna Doone neighborhood and board member of West Lakes Partnership.
According to Lift Orlando, these lifelong residents are the real experts, those who have run mom and pop businesses, the families who have called the neighborhood home for generations. They know the heritage that turns a few city blocks into a home. They know the hopes and dreams harbored by their friends and neighbors. They know the true potential of a place and the people who call it home.
“Every neighborhood has its experts,” Eddy says, but “when it comes to building community, sometimes the people you think are the experts aren’t the actual experts.
Every neighborhood has its experts, but when it comes to building community, sometimes the people you think are the experts aren’t the actual experts.
The developers. The politicians. The engineers who come in from the outside. They may have the data, but that doesn’t mean they understand how to really make a difference.”
What outside experts did bring to the partnership, though, was that much-needed strategy and technical expertise. Leaders of Lift Orlando sought advice from Purpose Built Communities, an organization that had revitalized Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta. Their model is designed to break cycles of generational poverty and guide neighborhood revitalization by creating pathways out of poverty for the lowest-income residents, and building strong, economically diverse communities.
Continuous engagement with the community helped Lift Orlando recognize which of the needs they had identified were right on target. One of the firsts on everybody’s lists was replacing the distressed housing in the community with high-quality, mixed-income-housing .
“If you want to avoid just becoming a collection of programs and actually want to transform a community, your first priority needs to be real estate, real estate, real estate,” former CEO of Purpose Built Communities and of Founder of Purpose Built Schools, Greg Giornelli had told the Lift team. If you can’t change the bricks and mortar, you’ll never provide a reason for the families who might be upwardly mobile to want to stay in the neighborhood.
“Real estate is not a silver bullet,” Eddy says. Real-estate-only projects can lead to the worst kinds of gentrification. But a holistic approach makes housing “a very important cornerstone” in the building of a community that provides not just housing, but the wrap-around services and holistic community support necessary for families to thrive.
The neighbors named the apartment complex Pendana, which means “To love one another” in Swahili. And the community is built around this idea. Complete with playgrounds, parks, a swimming pool, walking paths, and courtyards, there is plenty of space to gather. But there were other needs.
“We wanted to rebuild the infrastructure,” Eddy says. When it was stronger, there were schools, doctors, and grocers in the neighborhood. Their holistic approach involved plans to bring in these community-strengthening institutions. The local elementary school is expanding to become a K-8. A state-of-the art, 30,000-square-foot medical facility is planned, with a first-floor fitness and community center to promote wellness and make seeking medical assistance less intimidating.
Among the highest priorities in a purpose-built community is a “cradle-to-career pipeline,” Eddie says. This meant they also needed a preschool. Lift partnered with Primrose Schools and Advent Health with $12.75 million of funding from the Bainum Family Foundation out of Baltimore to design a premium early learning center. It’s the only Primrose School in the nation with a private nutritionist preparing fresh meals daily and a physician’s assistant onsite for families to see if they’re worried about bringing a sick child to school or missing a day of work for the same reason. All this will be offered to families of all income levels on a sliding scale for payment.
Collaboration and strategy
Pendana Phase I has already won four distinguished housing industry awards, including the National Apartment Association’s Excellence Award for Affordable Housing. Construction of Pendana Phase II Senior Residences is already under way in an area with deep historical roots.
Washington Shores Village and Orange Manor Apartments were once reputed to be the worst apartments in Orlando. They had been in decline for decades. The shutdown of these apartments in 2014 displaced many who had lived there for years. In place of the old apartments Lift is building 320 units of high-quality, mixed-income housing, including 120 affordable residences designed especially for seniors 62 and older.
All of this work has been done through collaboration among residents and donors, businesses and the city. And it has required that kind of strategic thinking that Lift sought out. Eddy says he remembers hearing mentor and friend, Robert Lupton, founder of Focused Community Strategies, say, “The missionaries of the future will be real estate developers.” He means those Christians who, for maybe a long time, haven’t felt like their skill sets had anything to do with their faith. “But those are God-given skills,” Eddy says. “And when it comes to solving complex problems, those are the very skills we need.”
“You have to do good strategically and sustainably. It’s more the work of justice than mercy, because mercy can just leave people where they are.”
Besides real estate developers, bankers and downtown employers said they also needed a strategy to create long-term financial sustainability and to continue acquiring land in order to get ahead of the inevitable wave of gentrification their success would attract. So they started their own social impact investment fund for those with a heart for what they were doing who wanted to invest.
“The motivation behind that was to not avoid being squeezed out of community-serving opportunities by speculators and to gather people who really wanted to be involved in advancing the wellbeing of the community,” Eddy says. It was about mobilizing property for the benefit of the neighborhood.
The LIFT Orlando Impact Investment Fund aims to be a catalyst for socio-economic benefit with the potential for modest financial gain. The impact fund has allowed them to raise almost $10 million of private capital to accelerate projects in healthcare, education, and job creation.
The fund provides a two-fold benefit to its investors. Investment not only funnels capital into neighborhood revitalization with clearly defined performance metrics, it also offers an estimated two percent preferred return on investment and a planned return of capital. Someone with a donor-advised fund could make an impact investment and assuming the expected return is realized, later “recycle” the money for another charitable cause.
Many strategic thinkers have been involved in Lift’s planning, and it’s all flowed together, not effortlessly, but cohesively. Many individual goals are working together to build a strong and flourishing community.
Eddy says it’s not enough to do good. “You have to do good strategically and sustainably. It’s more the work of justice than mercy, because mercy can just leave people where they are.”
Leaving people where they are, in poverty, is one thing. Allowing them to stay in the place they can be proud to call home is another.
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Photos: Lift Orlando