Not long ago, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.--the rapper, actor, and fashion impresario who's better known as T.I.--took a hard look at the once-vibrant neighborhood he grew up in. By the age of 14, he'd been arrested several times on drug charges. To flip the script for kids like him, in 2017 he founded Buy Back the Block, a real estate venture that reimagines his old neighborhood one building at a time. --As told to Sheila Marikar
I grew up in the 1980s and '90s in the Center Hill section of Atlanta, just off Bankhead Highway. Back then, that part of town was considered the lower end of the middle class. After the crack era, the community stalled, and from 1994 to 2012, it became an extremely desolate area for business. There's no major grocery store chain. There's no fresh produce. There's no CVS. There are liquor stores.
Now, with the BeltLine and Mercedes-Benz Stadium a stone's throw away, there's an incentive to redevelop. But I didn't want it to be one of those situations where luxury condos go up, and people who are native are pushed out to the fringes because they can't afford to live there. I wanted to provide development that would allow people from the area, who love the community, to be able to afford to stay.
I partnered with [Atlanta rapper] Killer Mike and other developers to purchase the Bankhead Seafood building. There is a corner where I have an assemblage of lots that I acquired with another partner. There's another, bigger lot that I am acquiring on my own. I've gone in on six buildings and spent more than $2 million. I don't have private equity financing or anything like that. It's my personal finances and sweat equity.
The cornerstone of wealth is home ownership. It does something for the psyche of a person to know that all of the work they do comes back to this. A lot of the buildings I've bought, we're turning into mixed-use housing. One of the smaller residential projects will hopefully be ready by the end of 2019. We're aiming to complete a larger development--more than 100 units--around the same time. I'm working with a seasoned real estate agent, Krystal Peterson, to ensure prices are within the range of what people who live in the neighborhood can pay. I'm constantly out there, on the ground, talking to people. They are very pleased to see that I'm involved, that I'm taking steps to have ownership within the community--they know I'm a product of it. But they also wonder what's going to happen.
Green spaces and gardens are incredibly important. We want a movie theater, bowling, laser tag--stuff I didn't have. I'm trying to build a community where the people within it can be proud. If they're proud, they'll have more of a sense of wanting to maintain it. I'd love to see children walk and play and live in green spaces. I want to see senior citizens excited about the next generation. The only way to do that is to invest. Why wait for someone else to come into a community where I went to elementary school, where I rode my bike and played?
So many times, our answer to fixing things is "I'm gonna make some money and leave all these people behind." There's rarely an intent to get rich and make where you came from better for generations to come. It's extremely ambitious, but I've worked myself to a place where I should be the one leading the charge. In my mind, that's what it means to be king.
Rebuilding the Block
Following successes in the arts and as co-founder of fashion brand AKOO, T.I. has spent about $2.7 million since 2017 to buy six properties and plots of land in Center Hill, where he grew up. (One is a former Kmart where he'd bought toys.) "What [Under Armour founder] Kevin Plank and his Sagamore Development Company are doing to revitalize Baltimore has been a nice example," T.I. says. He was also on Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms's transition team, working on job creation and economic development issues.