Change of heart? Owner of blighted homes pledges $15,000 for clean up

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A Buckhead investor who owns scores of dilapidated, trash-strewn properties in and around one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods pledged $15,000 to a nonprofit there, shortly after my front-page investigative story about how he impacts residents. He also promised to let one of his houses be used for an after-school program.

Irony alert: The money will fund a neighborhood cleanup program that will include the businessman’s own properties.

You may remember Rick Warren from “Betting on The Bluff,” the AJC’s Nov. 2 report about how he has snapped up some 10 percent of the property in and around English Avenue, which is just west of where the new Falcon’s stadium is being built. It’s an unprecedented share for any big-city neighborhood, experts told me, and gives Warren huge influence over its fate.

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This house is among at least 150 owned by companies tied to Buckhead real estate investor Rick Warren, the subject of a Nov. 2, 2014 AJC investigative story “Betting on the Bluff.”

When I visited some of his 150 or so houses, I found piles of tires, discarded mattresses, and other junk. Neighbors complained a dog died inside one of them this summer and no one would remove its carcass. One month later, you could still smell it from English Avenue’s only playground, which is next door.

The lucky nonprofit is Friends of English Avenue, which is co-chaired by businessman John Gordon and Rev. Anthony A.W. Motley of Lindsay Street Baptist Church. It’s best known for building a community garden across the street from the church and giving free rent to police officers who live in a house next door. According to the group’s annual IRS filing, it took in about $90,000 in grants and donations in 2012, the most recent year available.

The nonprofit was founded after the 2006 police shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a botched drug raid. Warren has since bought her house, and, about two years ago, Friends of English Avenue asked him for permission to make it into a memorial. Discussions didn’t go anywhere.

How times have changed. Gordon announced Warren’s pledges Thursday during a luncheon for the nonprofit. AJC City Hall reporter Katie Leslie happened to be there and got the scoop.

“I see myself as part of the community,” Warren told Leslie. He added that he feels passionate about kids getting involved in constructive work, and said he’s observed that children in this community have a lot of “idle time” during the summer.

“Anything I can to do to help them, I’m going to do. It’s the right thing to do,” Warren said.

Gordon decided to approach Warren after the AJC story ran, he told me, and said he understands that it’s challenging for anyone to run a business in English Avenue.

“I’m actually pleased for any investment being made in that desperate neighborhood,” Gordon said.

Gordon says he has no doubts Warren will follow up on his promises. The investor signed a written agreement to give over the funds.

“I have absolutely no qualms about his generosity,” Gordon said. “I don’t judge. I only am grateful he made a pledge.”

The cleanup program will pay neighborhood teens to haul debris for two summer months. Friends of English Avenue ran a similar program four years ago, Gordon said, which included visits by NFL players and provided lunch, beverages and snacks.

Warren’s properties will be targeted as part of the cleanup, but crews will also address right-of-ways and other locations.

“The focus of our work will not be cleaning up his properties. It will be cleaning up the neighborhood,” Gordon said.

Friends of English Avenue hopes to pen a written agreement with Warren on the Johnston house by the end of the year, and are selecting a group to run the after-school program.

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