When Michael Ray and Jay MacDowell, partners in Atlanta-based The Housing Group, built their first neighborhood in East Atlanta in 1999, they were banking on a vision of what the in-town community could be. They envisioned a vibrant village with funky boutiques and a hopping nightlife in place of the rows of boarded-up storefronts with burglar bars. It took more than a little faith to picture East Atlanta that way, and a lot of guts to build houses there.
“It was pretty rough then,” Ray recalls. “We had to buy the crack house across the street from the model.”
Those days are long gone, and the partners' foresight has proved accurate. East Atlanta is emerging as a desirable in-town community, well inside the I-285 loop that circles the Georgia capital and represents everything Atlantans hate about the region's traffic. The funky boutiques and hopping nightlife exist now, along with restaurants, grocery stores, major retailers, and banks.
“It's a cool place to live,” says Benita Carswell, CEO at Atlanta-based Bo Bridgeport Brokers, which handles sales for The Housing Group. “It's a village that comes to life at nighttime. It's a big mix of young, old, gay, straight—there's lots of diversity.”
Close to downtown jobs and cultural venues, the Atlanta Braves' Turner Field, Emory University, and Atlanta's international airport, East Atlanta appeals both to first-time move-up city dwellers who are ready to step up from a condo into a single-family home, and to the road-weary suburbanites who are fed up with the daily commuting gauntlet.
The Housing Group is pretty fed up with the suburbs too, Ray says. After years of slugging it out against national builders and taking a beating on margins, the builder has staked its future on the gentrification of the city's once-downtrodden neighborhoods.
“We're not a Buckhead-Midtown builder,” Ray says, referring to two of Atlanta's poshest areas. “I hate to say we're down in the 'hood, but here we are.”
That's not to imply that East Atlanta is in a ghetto, but it's definitely a neighborhood that's in transition. Even with the improvements that have already happened, it's still an area that's rough around the edges. Much like doing presales, builders here need to be able to appeal to their buyers' sense of being pioneers.
In selling the in-town and emerging market, sales agents have to sell the area, because people buy a neighborhood before they buy a home, Carswell says.
“Part of our slogan is ‘A neighborhood to suit your heart, a home to suit your lifestyle,' ” she says. “As you go through inner cities, there are different flavors [to different neighborhoods]. You have to paint the picture and tell the story of what's happening, because oftentimes you don't see it right there. There may be many improvements cities have passed that are in the works.