Speed Reads


This Georgia innovator is transforming dilapidated buildings into affordable housing

There's no building that can scare Marjy Stagmeier — show her a dilapidated apartment complex littered with trash, and she sees the opportunity to provide hundreds of families with affordable housing.

It started with the Madison Hills Apartments in Cobb County, Georgia. The 446-unit property was blighted, criminal activity was high, and the kids who lived there went to a failing elementary school. It was clear that the "toxic effect" of the complex was spilling over to the school, Stagmeier, an affordable housing innovator, told The Week. After Stagmeier and her partners bought Madison Hills, they renovated it and formed a partnership with the school. Stagmeier also started the nonprofit Star-C, which launched an after-school program to help young residents. Within five years, 90 kids were in the program and their school was a Title 1 School of Distinction.

Affordable housing provides stability and influences a person's finances, education, and health. In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in areas it examined, median rent increases of $100 a month were associated with a 9 percent increase in homelessness. Having to move multiple times a year because of rising rents also interferes with a child's education; research has shown that kids lose three months of reading and math learning every time they change schools.

"People need a place to live to raise their families in a conducive, reduced-stress environment," Stagmeier said. "Housing affordability allows families to stay in place and form the important community relationships and trust to thrive. Our tenants have consistency to meet their neighbors, network to find jobs, select careers, feel pride and happiness in their housing environment, no matter their income, rather than having to uproot and move every year and chase affordability."

In her new book, Blighted: A Story of People, Politics, and an American Housing Miracle, Stagmeier writes about using the success of Madison Hills as a blueprint for her team's next big purchase in 2018: the Summerdale Apartments in Atlanta. Dozens of informational meetings were held when the property was purchased, so the project began with buy-in from the community. Like Madison Hills, this complex was renovated because it is not as expensive as new construction; at Madison Hills, it cost $45,000 to renovate each unit, and would have cost more than $130,000 to completely rebuild. Renovating allowed her to keep the rent at $725 per month, rather than the $1,300 per month that would have been charged for a new build.

On top of the renovation, forming partnerships with the local school, health clinics, area foundations and nonprofits, and law enforcement, as well as introducing the Star-C after-school program, has given Summerdale the boost it needed. Crime rates plummeted, and there are plenty of activities for kids, who can often be found on a playground they designed. This affordable housing prototype can be replicated across the U.S., Stagmeier said, with landlords looking through a community lens rather than commodity.

"We are offering an example of a unique housing model with the tenant at the center," Stagmeier said. "Like any business, if you put your customer at the center, the profit comes."