Building The Guild
- Essential Common Future
A conversation about Atlanta’s first co-living community, supporting entrepreneurs, artists and community organizers amidst the rapid gentrification of a majority-Black city
The Guild began in 2015 as Atlanta’s first co-living community, supporting entrepreneurs, artists and community organizers amidst the rapid gentrification of a majority-Black city. Recognizing that change makers in the community were under threat of displacement, The Guild undertook a massive experiment to expand their mission: could they use development to not only foster community, but build community wealth instead of displacement? We talked to Guild founder and Chief Ecosystem Officer Nikishka Iyengar, a former fellow at Common Future, about the project’s growth and transformation, which are rooted in an ongoing relationship with experimentation.
Let’s begin with the basics. How did The Guild start?
In 2015 I was working as a management consultant helping Fortune 500 companies be more sustainable and socially responsible. I had recently moved to Atlanta and was looking for a house to buy, which I wanted to model on the student housing cooperatives where I’d lived in college. They’re such fertile ground for organizing. I was kind of starting to get disillusioned with the corporate job and wanted to get more into social entrepreneurship. I had the experience of big business consulting, and of the co-ops and wanted to marry those two experiences. I bought a house and created a co-living program for social entrepreneurs.
Were you thinking of it as an experiment at the time?
Yes, it started out as a huge experiment. I was trying to build and extend a community where I could also explore social entrepreneurship for myself. That program ran for two years out of my house, and one of the things we were doing in that time was incubating the next iteration of what this was going to be. Very quickly, it became a conversation about the acceleration of gentrification in Atlanta. Our residents rotated every ten months, and when they graduated from the program, they couldn’t find somewhere else affordable to live. And the program had also gotten way more traction than I expected — our waitlist was booked solid and we were outgrowing my house.
Around that time, I got introduced to a developer that had a social impact vision, which is really rare to find. They were starting a project that was a two-story, mixed-use building, with co-working and retail downstairs and co-living upstairs. We undertook that project as a partner and operator of the space starting in 2018.
So you started another experiment — working with a developer instead of just out of your own house, and at the same time expanding your own mission. How did that go?
Going through that process was a huge journey of learning about all the ways that real estate is so messed up, and at the heart of so many inequities that we see in an urban context, and also in the U.S. in general. Policing, affordable housing, the ways in which Black and other businesses of color are continually devalued — all of these things have their basis in real estate, and most people don’t realize it. We were working in partnership with this developer who had a social mission, but those were not the values of the capital that was in the project, the terms at which the capital was in the project, and who had ownership over the buildings.
Eventually, it came to the surface that no matter what your intentions are, if the capital going into the project has a certain expectation around the rate of return, and the equity investor who has final say around how the project is developed doesn’t even live in Atlanta, you’re going to see the same thing play out in terms of gentrification. It ended up being a two-year learning process to research and see what other models are out there to democratize ownership and democratize capital so that we start seeing different outcomes. How do we take power from developers and investors and put it into the hands of community? It was a difficult experience, but it was also a catalyst.
So what came next?
We’re now working on our flagship initiative and fund called Groundcover, and it’s an experiment to create a real alternative. It will be the first community-owned, community-controlled real estate project in the South. We acquired an abandoned building. It’s one story right now, but we’re building two stories of permanently affordable housing on top, and renovating the first story to house a grocery co-op, co-working space and a gathering space for community organizers, artists and healers. The entire building is going to be owned by the community, with investments starting at $10 a month. So instead of us as the developer extracting all that wealth out, which is typical of real estate, the community will get the financial benefit. This is still a majority-Black, relatively lower income census tract, and we’re shifting the returns of this project into the hands of the residents.
And as important as the small wealth-building component is that these community investors have voting rights. They get to decide what goes into the space, and who the future tenants are. Essentially, it’s a huge experiment. There’s not too many precedents for this sort of mixed-use, community-controlled, and community-owned project.
But there have been each of those elements individually before — it sounds like the experiment is in putting them all together.
Definitely. In Portland, there’s a strip mall that has a Community Investment Trust, and we initially partnered with them to build a lot of our model off of theirs. But that’s just commercial real estate, and while they have investment rights, they don’t have governance rights or control. For housing, we have the precedent of land trusts and housing cooperatives. So we’re combining those two concepts. And it’s just a huge experiment to see how this idea of community co-creation plays out at each step, from the capital that we’ve raised to the design and architecture of the space. It’s all been a series of experiments that we grow from and try to do better each time.
One thing Common Future has recognized as important in our work is differentiating, especially with investors, between experimentation and novelty. Is this a difference that you’ve also worked through with The Guild?
That deeply, deeply resonates. I wrote an article during Covid about how community ownership was the right model for thinking about recovery, so that we don’t have a repeat of the theft of Black wealth that happened in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. It went somewhat viral in the funding world and several investors approached us because they saw what we were doing as a shiny new thing. But they just wanted that newness, and I had to be honest with them that there’s gonna be another shiny new thing next year, but this kind of work takes decades to build.
In a lot of ways, I think the difference between experimentation and novelty is that experimentation is about deep problem solving. It’s trying different things, but with a goal of changing structural outcomes. Whereas novelty might hit some big output metrics, it’s not changing any structural outcomes, and at the end of the day funders move on to the next big shiny thing. They gravitate toward novelty and divest projects like ours don’t always get sustained funding. We talked about this in my Common Future fellowship cohort. Especially as people of color, we’re not given a lot of space to experiment, and even fail, in the short-term. There’s a lot of pressure to get everything right, because this might be our one and only chance of getting funded.
Speaking of failure, how do you relate to that concept?
We very actively try to push back against that term and instead think of everything as a data point that we can learn from and grow. The decision of what pace to move at, how to approach our work, and whether to pivot away from an experiment or go deeper has usually been in the hands of a few. So instead, we want to make those decisions collectively with our co-op members and residents. One example is that, because materials became more expensive during the pandemic, our project went up by $1 million in what felt like overnight. We had to figure out how to solve for that gap collectively, instead of seeing it as a failure to raise enough capital on the front end.
Another thing we want to push back on is how long an experiment like this actually takes, and at what point we decide whether something is a success or not. In the current dominant paradigm of capitalism and whiteness there is an expectation of quick success, quick growth and scale. But the inequities we are working on have existed for over 400 years. We’re not going to solve that on a funder’s timeline of one-year reporting schedules. You might see some milestones, but we’re not going to see structural change that quickly. And for the most part, the dominant paradigm’s pursuit of speed and “efficiency” is also what has led to these issues in the first place.
Getting out of that pacing is overall really crucial. If our work causes inadvertent harm in the community, or jeopardizes the wellbeing of our team for example, that’s a failure. As an example, I was just having this conversation with one of my team members who’s dealing with some personal issues and was worried about what that might mean for our project timeline. I had to ask them to take a step back and say, if we file our building permit on time and get this building built “on time” but their personal life is falling apart in the process because of our workload? I consider that a failure. If we rack up additional interest because the project isn’t built on time? That’s not a failure to me, that’s learning. If the pace of the experiment is harming people’s well-being, that’s the failure.
Our work requires a complete rewiring of all of the parameters in which we hold these ‘experiments’. One of those parameters is how we treat each other in this work, how quickly or slowly we move, and how we fund and sustain this work. We need to question what that means for funding timelines, to ensure we don’t repeat patterns of concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few. Redefining those parameters of experimentation is how we pursue different outcomes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.