THE CONSTELLATION PRIZE
reimagining what engineering is for
Winner of the 2021 Constellation Prize for Urban Rejuvenation
Photo credit: oaksATL
“Where the transformation happens in the community is not the end product. It’s not the shiny building, it’s not the shiny apartment that everybody’s like, 'Wow! That looks great.' It’s actually in the journey and process itself and how you treat people and how you engage in these issues.”
Matt Maxwell, a civil engineer and Executive Director of oaksATL, is recognized for his contributions to providing quality affordable housing spurring economic development, and empowering residents to become leaders in their community in the historic westside of Atlanta.
After working as a senior project manager in the commercial construction industry for 17 years, Matt found a calling to use his engineering and project management experience to combat community deterioration in distressed communities. He founded oaksATL, which aims to "provid[e] dignity through quality and affordable housing for residents in English Avenue and surrounding neighborhoods of Atlanta."
According to Eric Stribling, a PhD student at Arizona State University who nominated Matt, "The English Avenue neighborhood is an inner-city Black neighborhood that has been historically plagued by extreme poverty, predatory slumlords, drugs, and violence. Matt's non-profit attempts to address these issues by renovating abandoned houses, employing local residents, and renting the houses back to long-time residents, who are at risk of displacement due to gentrification."
Through oaksATL, Matt is able to employ the same techniques and practices that he learned in the construction industry: oaksATL is certified as a licensed contractor; however, he has adapted the professional practices of the construction industry to operate within different constraints, emphasizing community goals rather than profitability.
oaksATL relies on an innovative financing model, where partners are asked to lend money at below-market interest rates. These loans allow oaksATL to purchase and renovate dilapidated houses (that usually do not qualify for bank financing) for existing residents of English Avenue neighborhood. Rather than relying on skilled labor, oaksATL seeks to employ community members and train them in construction skills, which they can take with them wherever they go.
In speaking about how he views the impact of his work, Matt says, “When I come back in 25 years when the kids who started with us are now adults living in the community, that will be our metric [of success]...We’re envisioning the children looking at their community in a different way.”
Note: The words of Eric Stribling, who nominated Matt Maxwell for the Constellation Prize, have been integrated into this write-up.