Thinking Beyond Purpose-Built Communities: A Vision to Create Structural Change for Housing in the United States

By Kate S. Meyer, MPH



Meyer K. Thinking beyond purpose-built communities: a vision to create structural change for housing in the United States. HPHR. 2021; 28.


Thinking Beyond Purpose-Built Communities: A Vision to Create Structural Change for Housing in the United States


The United States has a long history of utilizing racist housing policies to segregate and devalue the neighborhoods in which Black people live. From redlining to neglect of public housing funds, federal, state, and local housing policies have contributed to inadequate public health outcomes for low-income Black families and individuals. The Purpose-Built Community project at East Lake Meadows in Atlanta, Georgia is an example of an effort to revitalize vulnerable neighborhoods through mix-income housing and improved community resources and supports. While Purpose-Built Communities improve neighborhoods, these projects are small in scale and do little to address racial and socioeconomic inequities throughout the country. Purpose-Built Communities can reduce the negative impacts of gentrifying low-income communities, but this model is not a solution for creating large-scale change to improve public health and dismantle racist housing policies.

History of Discriminatory Housing Policies

Structural racism has shaped housing policies and programs since the end of the Civil War. Starting with the denial of 40 acres of land that was promised to formerly enslaved people under General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, Black people have continuously been denied access to the same housing benefits afforded to whites.1 This historical stripping of formerly enslaved people’s rights sparked more than a century of discriminatory housing practices that have contributed to the racial wealth gap we witness today.

Through racial residential segregation, federal, state, and local governments have been able to intentionally ignore and disinvest in communities in which Black people live. In 1933, a federally-sanctioned program through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation instituted a system of “redlining”, where mortgage loans were deemed high-risk investments and denied for houses in predominately Black neighborhoods. The policy disincentivized white families from moving in, while simultaneously blocking Black families from purchasing homes. Thirty-five years of redlining resulted in highly segregated neighborhoods where Black families and their communities were devalued and denied homeownership, creating a significant racial wealth gap between Black and white families.2 While this is just one of the many racist housing policies in the history of the U.S., it is one that continues to impact the health and socioeconomic status of Black people today.3


Understanding the history of discriminatory housing policies and programs in the U.S. is important for understanding the current landscape. Through research on the impact of these housing programs and policies, it is now understood that access to high-quality housing that is affordable, stable, and situated in neighborhoods with social and economic opportunity determines one’s health and socioeconomic status.4

The Current Landscape

According to the Federal Reserve, white families have eight times the wealth of Black families in the U.S.5 For decades, this wealth gap has meant that housing options for Black families are more often limited to the rental market compared to the homeownership market. While there was significant variation throughout the U.S., just 44% of Black families owned their home compared to 74% of white families in 2020.6


As the U.S. faces an unprecedented housing crisis – which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – rent and home values are skyrocketing and disproportionately impacting people of color. The impact of the housing crisis on low-income, Black Americans is best understood using Swope and Hernandez’s conceptual model for housing as a determinant for health equity.7

Cost (Affordability)

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 20% of Black households are extremely low-income renters compared to just 6% of white, non-Hispanic households. However, there are only 36 affordable and available rental homes that exist for every 100 low-income households living below the federal poverty level.8


As low-income housing availability declines and gentrification rapidly sweeps U.S. cities, families are forced to choose between displacement or paying rents above their means. In 2019, the majority of households with $25,000 annual income or less reported using 50% or more of their income on rent.9 The cost burden of rent disproportionately impacts Black families.

Conditions (Quality)

Historically, public housing filled a large proportion of the gap in affordable housing. But, for decades, Congress has failed to adequately fund the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) public housing program, resulting in an estimated $56 billion in needed repairs.10 The lack of government investment in existing and new public housing for the lowest income Americans has contributed to the health disparities experienced by Black families.

Consistency (Stability)

While gentrification has dominated the public narrative, studies show that gentrification itself does not push people out of neighborhoods. Instead, rising rent and other economic costs tend to create instability for people living in low-income areas. This can lead to high rates of evictions, which are disproportionately experienced by Black families.11 Additionally, disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods create unsafe and uninhabitable living conditions that force families out of their homes. This instability results in low-income families moving more frequently – approximately 26% of households living below the poverty line move every year.12

Context (Opportunity)

Many historically segregated neighborhoods continue to be places where low-income families live, but a lack of disinvestment from the public and private sectors limit opportunities and the health of residents. This means that many low-income communities have inadequate resources and services, including underfunded schools, unaffordable child care, and limited access to grocery stores, banks, healthcare services, career support, and other social benefits.13

Purpose-Built Communities

The current landscape paints a clear picture for why the model for Purpose-Built Communities was developed. Purpose-Built Communities are joint ventures, usually funded by public and private dollars, that invest in low-income neighborhoods that have long been neglected by federal, state, and local policymakers. The primary concept of Purpose-Built Communities is to revitalize these neighborhoods by redeveloping them from the ground up and introducing a structure that promotes diversity. Below is an overview of the structure in which Purpose-Built Communities are developed:

  • Mixed-Income Housing: Newly developed/redeveloped housing with a mix of subsidized and market-rate apartment options.

  • Cradle-to-College Education Pipeline: High-quality education from local schools that provide learning supports and programs from early childhood through college.

  • Community Wellness: Programs, facilities, and services that promote wellness and create job opportunities.

  • Community Quarterback: An independent non-profit organization that coordinates with residents and community partners to ensure the sustainability and affordability of the neighborhood.14

This model is derived from the community development project of East Lake Meadows in Atlanta, Georgia. East Lake Meadows was a housing project, which primarily housed low-income Black individuals and families. In the early 1990’s, over 80% of adults were unemployed and the average annual income was approximately $5,000.15 Crime and violence also were pervasive in the area. But in 1992, resident activists and the Atlanta Housing Authority secured a $33.5 million grant from HUD to redevelop the neighborhood. In conjunction with wealthy investors, such as real estate developer Tom Cousins, the community development project totaled approximately $52 million and took a number of years to complete.

Today, the East Lake Meadows Foundation, which acts as the Community Quarterback, touts the success of the project. According to their most recent annual report, the community has seen inspiring progress since 1995:

  • Increased high school graduation rates from <30% to 97%; 

  • Increased employment rate from 13.5% to 100%;

  • Increased income by 5 times for residents in subsidized housing; and

  • Reduced violent crime by 99%16

Upon first glance, these statistics are impressive and seem to be a step towards reducing the socioeconomic and racial disparities created by discriminatory housing policies in the U.S. However, these statistics do not tell the full story, especially for the families of the East Lake Meadows housing project.

In the case of East Lake Meadows, just 16% of families returned to the redeveloped community (69 of 423 families) and 25% chose not to return. An outstanding 59% were not qualified to return to East Lake Meadows and were displaced from their homes and community.17,18  Although many displaced residents received Section 8 vouchers, discriminatory government policies and stigma meant that most residents were pushed to similarly disinvested neighborhoods with inadequate and unsafe housing options.19

The East Lake Foundation highlights the important role those community members played in developing the new East Lake Meadows neighborhood. However, residents were not homeowners, so they had little-to-no leverage in deciding which families were authorized to return or not. Ultimately, it was the Housing Authority and private funders that made the determination of who was qualified to return, which led to significant displacement and the destruction of established community ties.20

The displacement of nearly 60% of East Lake Meadows families was likely tied to prior convictions of crime and/or violence. But it can be argued that structural racism, institutional racism in law enforcement, and decades of discriminatory housing policies that led to the disinvestment of the community contributed to neighborhood crime and arrests. From that perspective, shouldn’t those families also be granted an opportunity to rebuild and benefit from a neighborhood that invests in them and their community?

When considering public health interventions, it’s critical that residents are meaningfully engaged and given decision-making power in the process. As the Purpose-Built Community model continues to gain traction throughout the U.S., federal, state, and local players should reevaluate this approach to be more inclusive and strive to minimize the amount of forced displacement of community members.

We Can Do Better

The case study of East Lake Meadows has garnered national media attention for its achievements and the Purpose-Built Community model is being adopted by local, state, and federal programs, including HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program.21 As these efforts continue transforming one community at a time, the U.S. needs to take a more structural approach to create healthier, more equitable communities.


This begins with a substantial investment in HUD under the Biden-Harris administration, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Providing HUD with needed funding to improve current public housing and develop more affordable units is essential. Increased funding should also support the Department in consolidating and modernizing its approach to housing programs to eliminate long-standing racist policies and housing discrimination.


Even more important, the federal government should begin valuing the lives of low-income, Black Americans by instituting a national minimum wage of at least $15 to help close the racial wealth gap. In a similar vein, the U.S. has a responsibility to develop programs (potentially in the form of reparations) to help more Black Americans build wealth and purchase a home, if they want to.


While Purpose-Built Communities help reduce neighborhood segregation, the model forcibly displaces families and contributes to the ongoing cycle of poverty and racial segregation. Ultimately, this model is not sufficient for achieving large-scale public health outcomes that create equity between (and within) our communities. We can, and we should, do better to address housing inequities by creating a nationwide system that invests in our country’s most vulnerable neighborhoods and families at once, not one community at a time.


  1. Lee, Trymaine. How America’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder. The New York Times. August 14, 2019, sec. Magazine.,

  2. Krieger, Nancy, Gretchen Van Wye, Mary Huynh, Pamela D. Waterman, Gil Maduro, Wenhui Li, R. Charon Gwynn, Oxiris Barbot, and Mary T. Bassett. Structural Racism, Historical Redlining, and Risk of Preterm Birth in New York City, 2013–2017. American Journal of Public Health 110, no. 7 (July 2020): 1046–53.

  3. Williams, D. R., and C. Collins. Racial Residential Segregation: A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health. Public Health Reports 116, no. 5 (2001): 404–16.

  4. Swope, Carolyn B., and Diana Hernández. Housing as a Determinant of Health Equity: A Conceptual Model. Social Science & Medicine (1982) 243 (December 2019): 112571.

  5. Bhutta, Neil, Andrew C. Chang, Lisa J. Dettling, and Joanne W. Hsu (2020). Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. FEDS Notes. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. September 28, 2020.

  6. Lerner, Michele. One Home, a Lifetime of Impact. The Washington Post. July 23, 2020.

  7. Swope, Carolyn B., and Diana Hernández. “Housing as a Determinant of Health Equity: A Conceptual Model.” Social Science & Medicine (1982) 243 (December 2019): 112571.

  8. Aurand, Andrew, Dan Emmanuel, and Daniel Threet (et al). The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. National Low Income Housing Coalition. 2020.

  9. The State of the Nation’s Housing 2020. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. 2020.

  10. Aurand, Andrew, Dan Emmanuel, and Daniel Threet (et al). The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. National Low Income Housing Coalition. 2020.

  11. Swope, Carolyn B., and Diana Hernández. Housing as a Determinant of Health Equity: A Conceptual Model. Social Science & Medicine (1982) 243 (December 2019): 112571.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. How We Work. Purpose Built Communities. Accessed: March 2021.

  15. Goldstein, Adam. A Purposely Built Community: Public Housing Redevelopment and Resident Replacement at East Lake Meadows. Atlanta Studies. March 14, 2017.

  16. East Lake Foundation Annual Report – 2019. East Lake Foundation. Accessed March 2021.

  17. Shoy, Daniel. Presentation: Creating Neighborhoods Where Everyone Can Thrive. East Lake Foundation. March 2, 2021.

  18. Goldstein, Adam. A Purposely Built Community: Public Housing Redevelopment and Resident Replacement at East Lake Meadows. Atlanta Studies. March 14, 2017.

  19. Hale, Mike. Review: When Atlanta Destroyed a Housing Project to Save It. The New York Times. March 23, 2020, sec. Arts.

  20. Goldstein, Adam. A Purposely Built Community: Public Housing Redevelopment and Resident Replacement at East Lake Meadows. Atlanta Studies. March 14, 2017.

  21. Choice Neighborhoods. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Accessed: March 2021.

About the Author

Kathryn S. Meyer, MPH

Kathryn S. Meyer is a public health leader with over a decade of experience driving strategic communications and advocacy campaigns for leading healthcare organizations in Washington, DC. She earned her B.A. from Occidental College and her MPH from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public  Health in 2021.