The Importance of Greenspace During a Global Pandemic
Since the shutdown of March 2020, the importance of parks and greenspace has skyrocketed.
We spoke with Dixon about his Atlanta roots, his pivot from tech startups to real estate, his mission to uplift some of Atlanta’s historically disinvested communities, and how he approaches life one day at a time.
From a young age, Joel Dixon learned the grass is greener where people water it.
The Atlanta native was raised in John Hope/University Homes, the first federally subsidized housing project for Black residents in the United States.
“Growing up there in the ‘80s, it was the time of historic challenges for urban America with drugs, violence and a lot of the negative things,” Dixon said. “At a time when the environment was at its worst, I remember H.J. Russell, the prominent African American builder and developer, actually built his headquarters right down the street from our project on Northside Drive.”
That building was Dixon’s first introduction to not only Russell, but also the power of real estate and the built environment to impact communities.
“Not only was it a new building, but it had green grass,” said Dixon. “You would think something like green grass would not be impactful, but in such negative environments we were in, a beautiful new brick building with beautiful green grass was literally an oasis in the middle of a lot of neglect.”
Over time, Dixon would learn more about Russell’s impact as one of the largest builders of affordable housing in the Southeast and his commitment to strengthening neighborhoods’ foundations through entrepreneurship, empowerment and excellence. Decades later, Dixon hasn’t forgotten what seeing that yard meant to him.
“Just having that nice building there amplified a certain amount of pride and encouragement,” he said. Now as Co-Principal of Urban Oasis Development, Dixon now lives a mile from Russell’s former projects — he is excited to see the legacy of H.J. Russell’s former headquarters continue through the launch of the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (RCIE) — and is dedicated to cultivating more community development and impact through creative solutions to affordable housing and commercial real estate across Atlanta.
Hacking the System
Dixon didn’t originally set out to pursue a career in land use and community development. After graduating from Stanford University in 2000 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Symbolic Systems and a concentration in human-computer interaction, he returned to his hometown and started working as a sales consultant for Hannon Hill — a company founded by David Cummings with deep ties to the burgeoning Tech Venture and Tech Startup community in Atlanta.
After his experiences at Stanford and the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, it was apparent to Dixon that Atlanta was well-positioned to grow as a tech hub based on great educational institutions, a strong Fortune 500 community, better quality of life and affordability. Atlanta was also a better environment to develop a more inclusive and diverse tech ecosystem, which the industry continues to struggle with today.
In the early 2000s, he also saw the transformation at the early stages of folks moving to Atlanta post-Olympics and more importantly, moving from suburban metropolitan Atlanta back into the urban center core, in communities like East Lake, Old Fourth Ward, Grant Park and eventually Midtown, Kirkwood and Edgewood.
“On one hand, those transitions were very beneficial because these were neighborhoods that had been historically neglected and now were receiving quite a bit of activity, development, capital and resources,” said Dixon. “On the other hand, I also saw the post-economic downtown after 2008 and how quickly those neighborhoods transitioned.”
“Today, we call that gentrification, and it’s become a four-letter word, but really it’s the way transformation happens that matters,” he added. “Basically, we excluded a lot of people and created the types of unaffordability that we talk about today in Atlanta.”
Dixon realized there must be a better model for affordable real estate and community development that hadn’t been explored. “The desire to both learn those models and also execute pilot projects of those models is what eventually got me directly into real estate and community development,” he said.
Coming from a tech startup background, Dixon understood the value of taking risks, testing business models/technologies and then scaling the most successful models for larger impact. “We were always hacking things and recreating things and innovating,” he said. “That’s just how you survive in the tech sector, but it’s also what creates a lot of great valuable technology — like the ones we’re using so much today through Zoom, streaming services and other virtual tools.”
In 2017, Dixon left the tech sector to launch Urban Oasis Development alongside his Co-Principal and friend from college, Wole Oyengua. A fully integrated developer and builder of residential and commercial real estate, Urban Oasis puts an emphasis on missing middle housing and workforce affordable luxury within intown Atlanta.
“For me, I look at it like Urban Oasis is a development company, but it’s really about people and community development,” Dixon said. “We use real estate and the built environment as a mechanism for positively transforming communities while being inclusive of the people — predominantly Black people — who make up these communities.”
Following the success of their work in Kirkwood and the City of Decatur, Urban Oasis is now focused on making all neighborhoods in south side and west side of Atlanta desirable, livable and equitable. “We felt like the rest of the city is going to continue to evolve, and if we could start in some of the areas that were being neglected, we could kind of get ahead of the curve,” Dixon said. “On the east side, we didn’t really have a context for how we were creating the environment for displacement and we didn’t have a bigger picture view.”
He recalls telling friends and family he was leaving the now-affluent east side to move to the west side, circa 2015. “They thought I was crazy, but we had a model that was going to start with living in the communities we develop and, as a Black person raised in Atlanta, it also meant moving back to where I grew up in order to be part of the transformation, not just oppose gentrification,” Dixon said. “We needed to move back to our communities again.”
Historic Adair Park, where Dixon and his business partner live, is a desirable neighborhood today – yet there are still challenges. “The Rayshard Brooks shooting took place at the Wendy’s restaurant down the street from my house,” he said. “I’m mindful of the impact our work plays both for communities and addressing racial gaps in the wider socio-economic aspects of society.”
One area where Urban Oasis is piloting new solutions is regarding how communities can create more permanently affordable, for-sale housing.
“Increases in home prices generally exclude and push folks out over time,” said Dixon. “So, how do you continue to evolve a neighborhood in a positive manner while also keeping some levels of affordability for homeownership?”
Through partnerships with the Atlanta Land Trust and Invest Atlanta in the English Avenue community, Urban Oasis is launching permanently affordable units, available at price points that are appropriate for the neighborhood, starting as low as the mid $100,000s and at 70% area median income (AMI).
“These prices are really unheard of in Atlanta for-sale components while still being sustainable from a profitability standpoint,” Dixon said. “We’re big proponents of this as a for-profit company. We have a missional focus and a community-centered DNA, but we believe to get more good things done, we have to create models to actually produce sustainable profits and keep building on this.”
Turns out, grass — land — really does make a difference.
By applying a Community Land Trust (CLT) model, the underlying land is held within the trust and separated from the house built on it during the sale. This allows the homebuyer to purchase a home without the cost of the land, which is the biggest driving force behind unaffordability and rising prices. It’s a model that has become more common on the West Coast, which has been facing issues with affordability for a longer period of time.
“The homebuyer can still benefit from an increase in valuation when they resell because the neighborhood has improved, but they split the increase with the CLT,” said Dixon. “This allows the rest to stay embedded in the property and for the next buyer to purchase the structure at a significant discount to the market. This allows for the house to be resold again and again while continuing to maintain a below-market price that can help preserve affordability.”
Dixon encourages those interested in learning more about CLTs to visit the Atlanta Land Trust’s website at atlantalandtrust.org. (ULI Atlanta also recently case studied the Atlanta Land Trust model in an ongoing effort to demystify affordable housing development and preservation. See the case study here.)
Meanwhile, another model Urban Oasis is championing relates to zoning. “There is a lot of exclusionary zoning that is honestly based on racist underpinnings from back decades ago that still exist today. As a result, a large majority of the zoning in Atlanta allows for single-family only. When you’re trying to address affordability issues, it becomes counterproductive when all you can do is build a single unit for a single household.”
A creative solution? Urban Oasis is interested in retrofitting basements in existing houses as rentals. Urban Oasis created a pilot of this in Westview, a neighborhood where homes are doubling in price point, and uses the example to demonstrate how the model could work in other areas as well.
“These are small projects, but the fact is that everything big comes from small beginnings and pilots of models that work and can be scaled up,” Dixon said. “We like to think of ourselves as being significant developers, but we also don’t mind getting into the weeds of a single unit or smaller project to provide the basis for much larger projects.”
Dixon is excited to see the most recent announcements by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to acknowledge and address zoning inequities. Both the One Atlanta Plan and Atlanta City Design efforts through the city are providing policies necessary for these changes. “Now they just need non-profit and for-profit real estate developers like Urban Oasis to provide the framework and execute the projects that prove the viability of these frameworks,” said Dixon. “I have a bias to action and we’re ready.”
Speaking of larger projects, Urban Oasis is also working on a variety of significant commercial, mixed-use development projects and adaptive reuse projects. In East Point, Urban Oasis is working on a conversion of a former church into affordable office spaces for historically excluded business owners who are primarily Black.
“The same affordability issues that exist on the housing side exist on the commercial side, so we’re relaunching units as office space,” Dixon said. “Yes, even in the middle of COVID, there are entrepreneurs who have been working out of their homes and have been looking for a legitimate office space that is attainable for them.”
There are also a couple of projects unfolding on the BeltLine — one on the Westside and one on the Southside Trails. “These are designed to be mixed-use, multifamily with commercial, retail and community hubs. Our idea is that we continue to provide housing, but also address the significant need for commercial and retail in these neighborhoods — even during COVID when people are running from these sectors. Unfortunately, these neighborhoods never had a first iteration of basic-level retail and there’s still incredible opportunity we’re very excited about.”
Into the Weeds
Through their grassroots approach to community development, Dixon and his team often have to roll up their sleeves and put in the work. “It’s looking people in the eyes, dealing with communities at eye level and communicating what development is, what projects are about and being able to translate that to neighbors who maybe don’t understand,” said Dixon. “Maybe they’ve only seen development happen on top of them, and they’ve never been part of development happening with them and alongside them.”
The challenges carry over to the capital market as well — something that COVID-19 has made even more difficult. “The areas we’re working in are always emerging markets,” Dixon said. “These aren’t areas where resources and capital have typically been allocated. As developers, we have to get into the weeds to bring capital to the ground level, making a business case of why a neighborhood has been overlooked and what the census data may not be showing.” He added that as a Black real estate developer, there’s still the access to capital challenges that affect Black people across all industries.
Dixon credits Urban Land Institute (ULI) as a key resource to help overcome these challenges and shorten the learning curve since he jumped headfirst into real estate and community development.
“I understood what I didn’t know since I didn’t come from a traditional, academic real estate background,” he said. “A lot of what I know now I had to learn, and I sought to align myself with others who had more experience and expertise. One of the first groups that stood out to me was ULI and Center for Leadership (CFL).”
Randy Gibbs, a real estate agent and neighbor that Dixon knew and worked within Historic Adair Park, put ULI and the application-based leadership program on Dixon’s radar. “Randy had completed CFL and mentioned there was an interest in having more diversity in the program,” Dixon said.
Dixon applied and was accepted into the 2017 cohort, which happened to have selected technology and innovation in the built environment as the year’s theme — a kismet fit.
“CFL was my full introduction to ULI, and it was just phenomenal,” he said. “In addition to the 9 months of programming, I was introduced to my other cohort members representing a wide spectrum of architectural, design, capital, development and all these other aspects of real estate coming together. I’ve made great connections who have become great friends and great partners today, which helped spring forward both my business and my ULI exposure.”
Since then, Dixon has served as a Day Chair for CFL, participates in the Creative Development Council, and most recently, was asked to join in the steering committee for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council on the local level. “One of the main issues that has come out of 2020 has been the need to increasingly look at ourselves and the real estate industry to see how we can be more inclusive, equitable and diverse,” said Dixon. “I’m very excited to continue my relationship with ULI and grow it.”
Beyond his roles with Urban Oasis and ULI, Dixon enjoys leading training with Incremental Development Alliance, a not-for-profit alliance of practitioners who help small developers and citizens across the county to strengthen their own neighborhoods and get the kind of development the community wants.
Closer to home, he’s also recently participated in a cohort called Community Builders Program led by Invest Atlanta to train several small developers to pursue their first projects — watering their own grass, so to speak — in the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods.
“As we teach and train more individuals about how to launch small sites, small buildings and small developments, we’ll get more hands in the process and that will lead to better projects, more projects and overall a better quality of life in Atlanta,” he said. This will allow a new model of what Dixon calls “gentle-fication” as opposed to gentrification.
Dixon’s voice sounds calm and confident, with a sense of optimism for the future. It’s the voice of someone who has faced difficulties before and kept going in spite of them.
“Many people are surprised to learn I had a brain aneurysm when I was young and was in a coma for several days,” Dixon said. “I say this because many times, we experience very traumatic things in our life, but that isn’t necessarily where the story ends. Especially in this time of Covid when there’s been so many challenges, it really is about coming through and overcoming.”
He also finds support and fellowship during this unusual year as an active member of a church small group, enjoys hiking outdoors with his wife, and dreaming about traveling near and far again. Dixon’s first international trip was to China during college — he even speaks Mandarin Chinese — and he hopes to return one day.
He also counts work as one of his interests, and his passion for the job carries over from the typical 9 to 5, too — something that runs in the family.
“I come from a family of community engagers,” said Dixon. “My mom is from Montgomery, Alabama and was later appointed by Andrew Young as the youngest field state representative in Alabama during the civil rights movement. My grandfather owned a taxicab company that ferried black people during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. My grandmother was one of the early Black people migrating to Atlanta and purchasing lots in Historic Collier Heights, a historically significant neighborhood that was home to H.J. Russell, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and many other civil rights and business leaders.”
“A lot of what I do is my mission and my purpose, and community development just so happens to be my day job,” said Dixon. “It’s just what I was put on this earth to do.”
Since the shutdown of March 2020, the importance of parks and greenspace has skyrocketed.