The barrier to growth in quaint Monroe, Ga., was plain for all to see.
Deteriorating homes and broken neighborhoods were everywhere, pessimism about the city’s future rampant.
The blight was heartbreaking for many of the residents who recalled happier times when the city was a thriving cotton mill town known for its historic homes and storefronts dating back to the late 1800s.
“It was almost like it was the thing we don’t talk about,” said Sadie Krawczyk, an economic development specialist for the city of 14,000 located about 40 minutes east of Atlanta.
Krawczyk and a team of nearly 20 concerned citizens began the slow, difficult task of repairing the damage wrought by years of neglect and greed.
Part of their mission included joining the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing (GICH) program, a three-year program housed in the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences designed to help communities like Monroe.
GICH, with the support of its founding sponsor, the Georgia Power Company, has facilitated progress toward housing stability in 71 communities during its first 14 years.
The program provides technical assistance, training, mentoring and networking opportunities that help communities improve their quality of life and economic vitality through housing and revitalization strategies.
Because of the depth of the decline, Krawczyk said a sense of shame had crept in among some of the town’s residents. Many were and still are reluctant to even discuss the problem, deeming it too overwhelming.
“We needed GICH,” Krawczyk said. “We needed this program to help us start this conversation about housing.”
Despite the reluctance, Monroe ultimately did join the program and just completed its second or “sophomore” year.
As a result of its participation in GICH, the city has conducted a housing assessment of more than half of its 4,100 units with the help of UGA students.
The house-to-house assessments provided city leaders with valuable – and unprecedented – data for future decision-making.
“We’ve never had that before,” Krawczyk said. “Our decision makers just had anecdotal stories, but now we have data on a map so we can have educated, informed conversations about housing decisions.”
Monroe also worked with a developer who applied for the federal government’s low-income housing tax credit program to construct a senior living infill development that matches the historic design of the downtown district.
The city also demolished several condemned units and has hosted three “spring clean-up” events and a city-sponsored housing expo that resulted in an “overwhelming” response from citizens, Krawczyk said.
The housing expo delivered tools and tips for home ownership and other resources into the hands of Monroe’s citizens.
“There was a hunger for it,” Krawczyk said. “The fair brought out citizens who wanted to be equipped, who wanted to be empowered and that’s who we want to serve. That was a huge win for us.”
While the official GICH team includes about 20 people, Krawczyk said hundreds are involved in the revitalization effort as volunteers.
The resurgence that started with a renewed attention to the downtown area has now expanded outward to various pockets of the city.
As a result, optimism for the city’s future is on the rise.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been in probably the last 20 years,” Krawczyk said. “Our whole city could feel like a neighborhood because of our size. That’s the shift we want to see: that Monroe is not just a great place to make money, but a great place to live and a place where people want to invest because they care about it.”
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