- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - A new program helps Atlanta police officers achieve the dream of home ownership while at the same time aiming to increase police visibility and improve engagement between officers and the community.

Officer Michael Costello, 28, is set to move this week into the first house renovated as part of the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Secure Neighborhoods initiative. The house, which was run-down and vacant and contributed to blight in the Edgewood neighborhood, has been completely redone and will now contribute to the area’s safety, said foundation vice president of programs Marlon Trone.

The foundation is working with partners, including homebuilders, banks, government agencies and nonprofit groups, to acquire and build homes in city neighborhoods. Officers who buy homes through the program are eligible for down payment and equity incentives, as well as monthly cash stipends they get for their active participation in the neighborhoods where they live.

The neighborhoods are selected using several criteria, including their need and probability for successful stabilization, the availability of vacant and foreclosed homes, and the presence of community members willing to work with the program.

Costello, who was hired in 2011 and became a sworn officer in May 2012, has moved from one rented apartment to another. Ready to put down some roots and stop moving, he beat out about 20 other officers who applied to live in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with dark hardwood floors and a big back deck.

“It’s really providing me a pathway to homeownership that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said.

The program requires an officer to stay in the home for at least three years, but Costello said he expects to stay put longer than that.

The foundation hopes helping officers buy a nice home in the city will help decrease the attrition that sometimes comes when officers buy a home in the suburbs and then decide they want to work closer to home. More than half of Atlanta’s police officers live outside the city, according to the foundation.

Costello is currently assigned to the street crimes unit, which operates in high-crime areas, and won’t be on duty in his new neighborhood, where most of the reported problems are property crimes, he said. But he looks forward to engaging with his neighbors.

In exchange for a cash payment of $300 a month, he’s agreed to attend various neighborhood meetings and be a visible presence in the area. He plans to start soon after moving in Wednesday by knocking on doors, getting to know who lives where and learn about his new neighbors’ biggest concerns.

“I’m a personable guy. I like to meet people,” he said. “I’m going to get to meet all the neighbors, ingrain myself in the community, start some projects and just improve the quality of life over here.”

He’s there to bridge the often wide communication gap between residents and police, not to patrol the neighborhood or personally crack down on crime, Trone said.

“We’re not under any impression that he’s going to be kicking down his neighbors’ doors,” Trone said. “First and foremost, him being here is a deterrent for criminals who would be passing through.”

The police foundation is also currently building homes for police in the English Avenue area, which has a higher rate of crime, and officers who move in there will get extra financial incentives. The first five homes built there are clustered together for officer safety, and the foundation hopes to have about 20 police homes strategically positioned in that area in the next several years, Trone said.

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