Atlanta real estate entrepreneur Marjy Stagmeier boosts school performance via affordable housing

Margaret “Marjy” Stagmeier, co-founder of Atlanta-based TriStar Real Estate Investment, knew she wanted to be a landlord in sixth grade. That’s when she discovered a knack for wisely purchasing tiny plastic houses and collecting the most rent from classmates to win the title of Monopoly champion.

Years later, Stagmeier went to Georgia State University, earned a degree in accounting, passed her CPA exam and started a career in commercial real estate. She worked for international and domestic companies, eventually managing over $1 billion in real estate funds. She wrote “Real Estate Asset Management: Executive Strategies in Profit Making,” the go-to book for industry experts on how to make money in real estate asset management.

Stagmeier, 59, was initially a “commodity landlord,” who focused only on a property’s bottom line and making money for investors. But she is now dedicated to more than return on investments. She wants to tackle Atlanta’s affordable housing crisis through “caring capitalism;” she now desires to preserve and build affordable housing to create stable communities.

The Atlanta Regional Commission reported that rents soared during 2021 in metro Atlanta, with Black households spending the largest portion of their income on rent in comparison to other races. The average rent is more than $1,800 a month, an increase of more than 20% from 2020. Black households in the Atlanta area are spending 31.4% of their income on rent. In comparison, Latino renters are paying 30%, whites are paying 27.2% and Asians are paying 23.1%. Households are considered cost-burdened when paying more than 30% percent of monthly income on housing and utilities.

TriStar, a for-profit commercial real estate company that owns and manages shopping centers and office buildings, also invests in older, “blighted” and affordable apartment communities located near low-performing schools.

Stagmeier then founded the nonprofit Star-C Program, to provide wrap-around services to residents and children, such as after-school study sessions, free summer camps, health clinics and gardens for fresh food. She also founded TI Asset Management Inc., a “mission-based” management company that specializes in dealing with blighted and low-income apartment communities.

But the shift from “commodity landlord” to “community landlord” would not have happened if Stagmeier wasn’t shouted at and called “slumlord” at a Cobb County zoning meeting about 15 years ago. Stagmeier was at the meeting to obtain permits for TriStar to renovate Madison Hills, a derelict, crime-ridden apartment complex in Marietta that the company had purchased. A former Cobb County commissioner, Bob Ott, told her the 466-unit complex, now known as Stratford Ridge, was the reason the nearby Brumby Elementary School was on a federal watch list for failing schools.

Bewildered that a multifamily building could impact a school’s performance, Stagmeier went to Brumby Elementary to find out more. She spoke to Amanda Richie, who now serves as the principal of the school. Richie explained how constant relocating by families due to unsafe, unaffordable housing was having a negative effect on students’ ability to learn. These conditions make it more difficult for students to learn.

“It never occurred to me that they [schools and housing] were related,” Stagmeier said. “I told Richie that, morally, I don’t work that way. And that I was going to take responsibility for my property and her school.”

That was the start of Stagmeier’s nonprofit Star-C Program, a program designed  to partner with apartment buildings as part of her “education model with a housing solution.” The program ultimately improves the quality of life for the residents and the neighborhood, she said. Brumby Elementary eventually became a Title I Distinguished School.

“I now consider myself a community landlord,” she said. “I don’t look at real estate as a commodity. I look at it as: ‘How can you create social value as a community?’

“And I don’t just measure the return from dollars and cents. I look at the school’s success. I look at the families. Are they going into homeownership?” she said. “I ask, ‘Is this a safe environment? Is it conducive for children to have a healthy upbringing?’ I look at it more holistically now.”

Stagmeier’s and TriStar’s model has been working successfully at the 186-unit Willow Branch Apartments in Clarkston for some 20 years. Rents run from $677 a month for a one-bedroom, to $919 for a two-and-a-half-bedroom townhome, she said.

In 2018, TI Asset Management started managing Springview and Summerdale Apartments, located in southeast Atlanta, near Cleveland Avenue Elementary. Drug dealers often operated in plain sight, Stagmeier said. Most of the apartments were boarded up for code violations. Now, the buildings are renovated, the crime rate has decreased significantly and people are living in nearly all the 144 apartments. One-bedroom units start at $725 a month, and three-bedroom units at $1,050 a month.

The story of how TriStar was able to turn Springview and Summerdale into a safer community, reduce student transiency and nurture a housing and education collaboration is told in the new book by Stagmeier, “Blighted.” The book is published by NewSouth Books and is set for release in June.

“It just fascinates me who would live there. What’s the impact on the school? Who are the criminals? Who are the police officers? Why aren’t they doing anything about it?” Stagmeier asks in her book.

“It’s a true story of a blighted apartment community, [obtained by] following the people who live there,” she said.

The book also serves as a guide to how her model of creating affordable housing near schools is a solid business and community plan for those searching for solutions.

“I can’t fix the affordable housing crisis. But I certainly can put the information out there so people will start thinking about it,” she said.

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