Alexander's Vacant Properties Project Goes National

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Frank S. Alexander

By April L. Bogle

Emory Law Professor Frank S. Alexander is taking his municipal and state-level affordable housing and community development work to the national stage as part of the Center for Community Progress, a new, not-for-profit organization charged with reforming vacant and abandoned property policies throughout the country.

Watch a short video of Alexander describing the work of the new organization.

Alexander is serving as general counsel and director of policy and research for the Center for Community Progress, which is based in Flint, Michigan and has an office in Washington, D.C. He will maintain his professional responsibilities with Emory Law and Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), where he serves as founding director.  Daniel T. Kildee, a long-term colleague of Alexander’s, has left his elected post as treasurer of Genesee County, Michigan, to serve as the new organization’s president.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation together have made more than $1 million in grants for the organization; both foundations anticipate providing additional support in the future. Flint has become an important “urban laboratory” for many of the concepts developed by Alexander, Kildee, and others involved in the new center. They will promote its efforts in part through a descriptive tagline: “Turning Vacant Spaces into Vibrant Places.”

“Our goal is to create a new model of holistic revitalization in the nation’s communities and reverse the abandonment that has escalated with the current economic crisis,” said Alexander, who has been working to revitalize local communities as part of his two decade-long CSLR project on “Affordable Housing and Community Development.”  The grant provides new opportunities for Alexander to expand his research and work in this area.

Says Emory Law Dean David F. Partlett, “Frank embodies the best in American higher education.  He’s an outstanding scholar and teacher, who, at the same time, is driven by a deep social commitment.  He gives tirelessly back to the community, at home and across the country.  I’m honored he offers these attributes to our school, and I applaud this new opportunity to be a champion on the national stage in the crucial task of stabilizing and restoring neighborhoods and communities throughout the United States.”

John Witte, Jr., CSLR director adds: “Frank’s community work over the years has been not only a critical bridge between the theory and practice of law and religion, but has also been a shining example of how to live out the divine command to love and care for the poor, the needy, and the sojourners within our midst.  Frank’s exemplary work is all the more critical in our day when politicians and pundits alike are working so hard to deny basic rights to housing, health care, and welfare for millions of American residents.”

National response needed

The current U.S. economic and mortgage foreclosure crisis has prompted the need for a nationally led, coordinated effort, according to Alexander.  “With mortgage foreclosures at record high levels throughout the country and vacant and abandoned properties proliferating, the cost to local communities is immense.  The challenge is to identify the systemic causes of abandonment, to develop new tools for the control and management of these properties, and to create new methods of returning these properties to productive uses,” he said.

Watch a short video of Alexander discussing land stewardship.

The Center for Community Progress will take a three-pronged approach to addressing the problem. First, it will usher into local, state, and federal land usage laws new systems of land revitalization, facilitated by the prevention, acquisition, and reuse of vacant and abandoned properties. The central feature of such work is the land bank, a governmental entity that acquires vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties and converts them into productive use. Second, it will provide technical assistance to communities as they undertake these efforts.  Third, the center will support and conduct research related to unlocking the value of vacant and abandoned properties. An emerging, additional opportunity is for the center to guide local communities on how to access and utilize the $6 billion provided by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Long-time affordable housing champion

Alexander has been a central figure in land revitalization policymaking since he founded CSLR’s Affordable Housing and Community Development Project in 1987. 

Watch a short of Alexander video describing his lifelong mission.

Under this project umbrella, he has served federal, state, and municipal lawmakers and institutions, advising, crafting, and developing new legislation. At the federal level, he’s been highly influential during the mortgage crisis, consulting with key members of Congress and providing testimony to several Congressional committees and subcommittees. At the state level, he’s most recently drafted improved mortgage legislation in Georgia and post-Katrina Louisiana, regularly provides state legislative testimony, and speaks frequently before housing authorities, conferences, and university-led symposiums. At the city level, his work has led to real estate reform in Baltimore, Maryland; Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Indianapolis, Indiana among others. In total, Alexander has delivered more than 75 public addresses across the country on housing issues in the past 25 years.

Alexander has written widely on the topic of real estate law, including the volume Georgia Real Estate Finance & Foreclosure Law 2009-2010 ( 5th ed., Thomson-West 2009), and numerous articles and books, including Renewing Public Assets for Community Development; Housing Trust Funds for Local Governments in Georgia;  A City for All: Report of the Gentrification Task Force of the Atlanta City Council; and Renewing Public Assets for Community Development. 

As a fellow of The Carter Center from 1993-1996, Alexander helped launch the Atlanta Land Bank, won two public service awards for his work, and then literally wrote the book on the subject (Land Bank Authorities: A Guide for the Creation and Operation of Local Land Banks, Fannie Mae Foundation/Local Initiatives Support Corporation, 2005).

Alexander’s land bank program work in Detroit caught the attention of Kildee in 1999, who was struggling with property abandonment in nearby Flint. With funding from the Mott Foundation, Kildee and Alexander combined forces and launched the nation’s first highly successful land bank program in the year 2002. They have worked together on local and state land reform issues ever since as part of the National Vacant Properties Campaign (NVPC) of Smart Growth America. The Center for Community Progress assumes and expands the work of NVPC.

Scholar of law and religion

Alexander also stays actively involved with the CSLR’s multi-year research projects, currently co-directing a project on Christian Jurisprudence with Witte that is generating some 35 new books. Witte and Alexander have teamed up on several volumes in the field of law and religion, including Christianity and the Law: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), a 2009 top-five seller for Cambridge; The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics and Human Nature (2 vols., Columbia University Press, 2005); and the forthcoming Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2010). He’s also written dozens of articles and book chapters on these themes.

Emory Law students respond with enthusiasm to Alexander’s teaching. In addition to traditional courses on property, real estate finance, and state and local government law, he offers highly popular classes on law and theology, federal housing policies and homelessness, and housing and community development. Students have honored him numerous times with teaching awards, including Emory’s esteemed Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, which he has won twice.

With law and divinity degrees from Harvard, Alexander has created his own ministry – providing critical legal expertise to populations largely overlooked and underserved. In addition to his role as policymaker, author, CSLR administrator, and multiple award-winning teacher, he regularly offers his time as a public servant – serving as commissioner of Georgia’s State Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless, member of the Georgia General Assembly’s Barriers to Affordable Housing Study Committee, member of the Atlanta City Council Task Force on Gentrification, to name a few. In 2006, Emory recognized Alexander’s contributions by bestowing the Thomas Jefferson Award, its highest award for service.

“For me, where law and religion lead is the call to respond in service to those who are facing really tough issues, and to do so with all of the resources of legal and religious traditions,” he said.

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