Among the rolling hills and dense pine canopies east of Atlanta’s I-285 bypass, down the street from a halal meat market, two Buddhist temples and Good Times Country Cookin’, sits the Willow Branch Apartment Homes. The complex is tucked behind a flapping “Welcome” flag, which is emblematic of Clarkston, a small but famously global suburb that has been coined “Ellis Island South” and “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Built in 1971, Willow Branch looks like any other aging metro-Atlanta apartment building and dozens around Clarkston, save for its unique mansard roofs. But after school one warm afternoon in February, what used to be the pool house transforms into another thing that sets Willow Branch apart: a banner-bedecked classroom where a circle of refugee children, representing more than 30 ethnicities, sit squirming and giggling. The kids, all of whom are residents, play a clapping game, each contributing another word to a growing sentence they pass around the room like a hot potato: “Valentine’s. Day. Is. About. Moms. And. Dogs.” The last word sparks hysterical laughter.
“A lot of them, their parents don’t speak English and can’t help with their [school] work,” says Allie Reeser, the program director of the nonprofit Star-C, which runs the afterschool program at Willow Branch. “Socially, it’s a great place for kids to go.” Nearby, 8-year-old Elizabeth Mawi, who emigrated with eight siblings from Burma, concurs in a mousey voice: “It’s good, because we can share, and we help people.”
Held for four hours each weekday afternoon, the Star-C afterschool program is one part of a dynamic model — piloted here at the 186-unit Willow Branch, where the residents’ average income of $18,750 is well below the U.S. poverty line — that’s showing how affordable housing can boost performance in local schools, increase resident health and even quell crime.
Alongside its fundraising arm, 3Star Communities, Star-C was founded by Marjy Stagmeier, 55, a successful manager of commercial and residential real estate around Atlanta. Her model, supporters say, is basically a three-way win for residents and investors in blighted apartment complexes in that it boosts social and environmental aspects for tenants and generates greater profits for landlords. Stagmeier’s research has uncovered no other program in the U.S. that combines wraparound services of housing, education, and medical care in the same way, though Yesler Terrace Apartments (operated by the Seattle Housing Authority) and Eden Housing (a California nonprofit housing developer and property manager) have similar components.
“If I had 10 more Marjy-run properties in Clarkston, there’s no doubt that our crime rate would drop even more, test scores would go up even more, and our community health and connections … would increase,” says Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. “She’s creating a long-term, sustainable paradigm in multifamily housing that will pay dividends to our community for years to come.”
And Willow Branch’s successes, Stagmeier says, could be only the beginning in metro Atlanta — where recent studies show a deficit of more than 80,000 affordable housing units — and beyond.
Philanthropy wasn’t always in Stagmeier’s heart — entrepreneurship was.
She grew up just two miles from Willow Branch in Stone Mountain, the middle of three daughters whose parents were serial entrepreneurs investing in everything from pig farms to electrical- and mechanical-supply companies (all three girls would eventually own businesses). After studying accounting at Georgia State University and passing the state’s CPA exam, she worked in banking and real estate for a decade, socking away her money and publishing a revered book in 1994, “Real Estate Asset Management: Executive Strategies in Profit Making.” Managing a portfolio of $500 million by the mid-1990s, she teamed with a German investor and started her own company to buy and manage workforce housing, including Willow Branch in 1996.
Complexes with early versions of the afterschool program and stable rents stayed roughly 95 percent occupied, eliminating costly turnover and transiency, which drags down student performance. (What’s more, parents who knew where their children were after the final school bell could work longer hours, earning more rent money). A blighted apartment community in the northwestern suburb of Marietta provided Stagmeier’s “a-ha!” moment, she says, as she began to see how a single complex can drastically impact the schools it feeds.
By 2014, Stagmeier had sold her other properties to focus on honing the Star-C model at Willow Branch. In order for the program to work, she says, the purchasing price of any new complex has to be less than $40,000 per unit, which allows rents to stay affordable and thus turnover low. (At Willow Branch, tenants pay an average of $615 a month.) She channels $3,000 monthly into the Star-C program, which employs three full-time people, with fundraising covering the rest of costs. Word has spread, and volunteers from throughout the region, primarily church groups and students, log nearly 8,000 hours at the complex each year.
Now, Star-C’s academic results are a particular source of pride, for both Stagmeier and the parents of the 300 kids under age 10 who call Willow Branch home.
As recently as 2013, neighboring Indian Creek Elementary School was the second worst-performing school in Georgia. Following a partnership with Star-C, the elementary has been named a “Platinum Performer” — the highest classification awarded by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement — three years running. Nearly 90 percent of students passed the Georgia Milestones assessment test last year and have average GPAs of 3.25.
“That’s impressive,” says Stagmeier, “considering English is new to most of these kids.”
In addition to the free education component, Star-C has partnered with a nearby health clinic to offer residents dentistry, primary care and OB-GYN services at $50 to $70 per visit. If residents are still unable to pay, the nonprofit will cover their visits out of its fundraising proceeds.
Another healthy facet of life at Willow Branch: a community gardening program, which costs residents just $20 a year (this covers the cost of deer-netting). In 40 tidy gardens that consume about an acre, Hispanic tenants grow peppers, Asian residents cultivate roselle hibiscus, and religiously significant marigolds are popular with just about everyone. Along with the recently erected fences that keep out the neighborhood’s gang members, the gardening initiative gives residents reason to be outside and has all but eliminated crime, Stagmeier says.
Statistics that paint an accurate picture of crime in the immediate area are tough to come by, as residents often don’t call police because of language barriers and mistrust. But hundreds of people — including what Stagmeier describes as “harsh gangs,” which twice attacked a security officer, periodically flashed guns on the property, and stole from residents — formerly cut through Willow Branch to access a commercial district. “That’s all gone away since we put up the fence and started the gardens,” says Stagmeier. “Grandma in her garden won’t put up with that type of behavior.”
Savings on food, healthcare and rent have had cumulative, positive effects. Of the 39 families who moved out of Willow Branch last year, 16 were able to buy their first homes.
“That’s going from poverty to mobility,” Stagmeier says. “That’s what we do here.”
As of this writing, Stagmeier was under contract with her second property for the Star-C model, a 244-unit community called Summerdale Commons just south of downtown Atlanta. It’s among the city’s top 10 worst complexes for crime, and it’s next door to another low-performing elementary school, she says.
Through the course of 170 meetings with everyone from homeless people to Atlanta’s mayor, Stagmeier has grown determined to work within Atlanta city limits, where government is supportive of her efforts and an inclusionary zoning ordinance was adopted in January to boost workforce housing. It’s also where Stagmeier lives in tony Ansley Park with her husband, John.
“We’re buying the roughest properties that have the highest crime that the neighbors are sick of,” she says. “Luckily, we’ve got the city behind us.”
Beyond Summerdale Commons, Stagmeier is eyeing three or four other properties. She’s also starting to recruit younger partners, in hopes of breathing more life into the nonprofits and, eventually, bringing her successes to a national level.
“I think her model will catch on the more that elected officials and compassionate investor groups learn about it,” says Terry, the Clarkston mayor.
Back at Willow Branch, a group of teens from the philanthropy club at Atlanta’s Benjamin Franklin Academy arrives one afternoon. They’ve collected four boxes of books representing a variety of cultures.
The high schoolers are eager to read to the kids. But first, Stagmeier has a question. “Do you know what’s going on here?”
“Do you want me to tell you what’s going on here?” she asks. “What the goal is?”
She launches into a primer, pointing to the community garden and the filled-in pool, which now serves as a mini soccer arena. And she mentions the part about families buying their own homes, essentially graduating toward their American dream.
“That’s incredible,” says sophomore Zach Arais. “I had no idea about the level of this project. I mean, it’s really impressive.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Yesler Apartments in Seattle is operated by Catholic Community Services, not the Seattle Housing Authority. We regret the error.