Build Something Big! One Million New Affordable Housing Units, 2020-2030

Photo by Sergio Souza

The USA has an ever-growing affordable housing problem. For Black Americans, however, this problem has been a chronic condition that desperately requires a solution. As DC-based architect and author Melvin L. Mitchell discusses in this op-ed, the work needed to fix this must involve Black individuals from every aspect of the building industry.

This essay references the second part of Melvin L. Mitchell's recently published book African American Architects: Embracing Culture and Building Urban Communities. Mitchell asserts that African American architects must catalyze a Black controlled housing industry and develop/build one million affordable new houses over next ten years.

"Make No Little Plans…They Fail to Stir the Hearts of Men…” – Daniel Burnham, Executive Architect, Chicago World’s Fair ca 1890

A raging national housing crisis is literally destroying Black America’s prospects for maintaining cohesion and viability in America’s cities and inner suburbs. Inside of Black America - 46 million people who check census boxes as “Black” or “African American” - resides a disjointed assortment of entities that each hold membership in a building related professional, technical, and trade association.

The entities include financial institutions, real estate brokers, building contractors, real estate developers, architects, urban planners, landscape architects, design engineers, fabricators, equipment and materials suppliers, title companies, skilled trades persons, property managers, unskilled laborers, and an assortment of related entrepreneurs. This collection of entities – most comprising “2%” (or less) of their respective national accrediting bodies – represents an anemic but nascent African American building industry.

Since the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC, African American architects - the marque 2% entity - have been experiencing a heightened level of attention from Black America.

A typical daily que of people waiting to enter the NMAAHC on the national mall. Source; WikiCommons

African American architects should parlay that attention into the achievement of something that many openly aspire to; the elevation of Black architects to a place of essentiality in Black America that rivals Black medical doctors and lawyers. Those two groups currently hold representation in their professions that are two and a half times that of Black architects. Realization of such an aspiration will require that Black architects undergo deep but doable attitudinal and behavior modifications. Of necessity their roles would cease to being obsessed with the narrow, single dimension conceit of “designer.”

That process might begin with their doing several things not normally done by formally trained architects. The first thing would be to carefully read the last several years of the Marc Morial-National Urban League Annual State of Black America reports. There, one will find a grim picture of the socio-economic and financial health of Black America in comparison to the nation’s other major competing ethnic groups of WASPS, Jews, Hispanics, and Asians. The Black America state of ill-health is the consequence of the past fifteen decades of de jure and de facto policies of determined white suppression of Black wealth creation. The Urban League reports call for a new Marshall Plan for urban main street America.

Marc Morial, Former New Orleans Mayor and currently National Urban League President. Photo Source; WikiCommons

Not stated but clearly implied is that in the execution of that Marshall Plan, Black America itself might do something that is really big, really sustainable, really scalable, really financially plausible, and that will really help to accelerate the wide-spread creation of Black wealth. For unreconstructed 1960s Black Power-cum-Harold Cruse people like myself, the burning question is who will be the actual builders and wealth creation beneficiaries?

... who will be the actual builders and wealth creation beneficiaries?

No single one of the “2%” entities – least of all architects – can make a meaningful positive impact on the dire plight of Black America. Architects are too prone to think and talk incessantly about the priority of “design” (usually of free-standing, non-residential “signature buildings”) while pointedly ignoring the reality that they are in the real estate and construction businesses, like it or not. Those two business sectors are rapidly morphing into the high-tech category that conveys “bankability” to lenders and investors (who always insist on seeing the “business plan”).

Accordingly, the mission - for a new apostate wing of African American architects who choose to conflate the silo roles of architect, real estate developer, and builder - must be to push hard for the transformation of the Black building industry into a new national African American affordable housing industry. The need for a fully networked Black housing industry was first broached by Black leadership at the time of 1948 passage of The National Housing Act but never materialized.

The need for a fully networked Black housing industry was first broached by Black leadership at the time of 1948 passage of The National Housing Act but never materialized

After the 1987 passage of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit act (aka LIHTC), there quickly evolved a (virtually all white) national affordable housing industry that went on to build millions of new housing units. They also pocketed over one trillion dollars for construction, development, design, planning, and management. Observation plus readily accessible HUD research shows that nearly 70% of the those housing units were built in Black spaces and occupied by African Americans. Yet there has been a statistical nearly zero share of the trillion plus dollars flowing into or through the hands of Black America’s nascent building industry. Imagine instead the impact had 50% of those dollars passed through, with sufficient circulatory duration, a national Black affordable housing industry.

A new Black affordable housing industry must utilize available and emerging tools and resources to radically alter the vast economic disparities between Black America and the rest of America. Those tools and resources are hidden in plain sight in places that are not where architects are socialized to look. Included are Senator Elizabeth Warrens’ American Housing & Economic Mobility Act, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, a re-worked Senator Corey Booker-inspired Opportunities Zone Act, and coming climate stabilization legislation. Just six months ago such progressive oriented national legislation was thought to be merely radical leftist pipe dreams.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), Sen. Elizabeth Warren(D-MA), Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA). Source, WikiCommons

Architecture does not come from design…architecture comes from capital [money], political power, and a cultural will to build” - Known by everybody but architects

The current white-owned affordable housing industry is actually a helter-skelter collection of several hundred pre-information age operations that now face grave threats from a rising new group of disrupters. The disrupters are being bankrolled by massive amounts of equity investment capital willing to bet big on capturing a sizable market share of the (consensus agreed upon) U.S. shortage of eight to ten million affordable housing units. The upstart disrupters seek to bring lower costs to the building of affordable housing through full integration of the silos of capital, design, and a revolutionized construction industry. A new Black affordable housing industry must plan to emulate the disrupters.

A new Black affordable housing industry must plan to emulate the disrupters

America is also on the cusp of launching a nation-wide several trillion-dollar comprehensive infrastructure upgrade. An equitable share of nationwide affordable housing and infrastructure upgrade dollars injected into and flowing through Black America-dominated spaces would ensure a very different set of National Urban League State of Black America reports by 2030.

Development in Black America’s Urban Space, 1968-2020

A new Black affordable housing industry must arrive at a clear-eyed consensus narrative about what really happened in much of Black America’s urban physical spaces between Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination and today’s troubling times of Covid pandemics and heightening national consciousness about a number of things.

That fifty-two-year period saw hundreds of billions – probably trillions - of public and private sector dollars expended, with some irony, in a failed Marshall Plan. The names and slogans of past redevelopment initiatives were seemingly endless. We had

The War on Poverty, The Great Society, The Equal Opportunity Act, Model Cities, Affirmative Action, Black Capitalism, The Community Reinvestment Act, The Community Development Act,

and so on, ad nauseum. All of this was done in the name of “rebuilding” the Black urban neighborhoods and communities in American cities that began exploding in violent rage during the mid-1960s.

The New Urbanism Movement

By the early 1980s these urban inner-city rebuilding activities coincided with the rise of a new American architect/urban planner-led movement that labeled itself as New Urbanism. The core big idea was architectural and can be crystalized thusly; community and city-scale design and building was infinitely more important than object single building design. The New Urbanism movement was founded largely by savvy, socially conscious West Coast university faculty-based architect-planner-practitioners. They were quickly joined by like-minded Atlantic Coast counterparts. New Urbanism actually began with inner suburbs and small towns as targets.

Jane Jacobs, author of the influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was the American spiritual godmother of the New Urbanism movement. The movement never carried a hint of racism or hostility towards African Americans. Yet for a host of reasons New Urbanism – like architecture - was a mainly all-white people affair. The claims of being a radical new movement were historically accurate despite biting criticisms about intellectual pretentiousness, elitism, and aesthetic superficiality.

The New Urbanist movement’s total capture of American inner-city and public housing redevelopment, design, planning, and re-building leadership was perhaps inevitable. Hundreds of new community redevelopment projects sprung up across the nation, most in big cities, and many on the sites of large, Black (and brown) populated public housing projects. New Urbanism literally captured the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a key source of project seed funding, loan guarantees, and policy mandates for the incorporation of New Urbanism design and planning principles as conditions for most project funding.

By 2004, New Urbanism was in full sway under another HUD initiative known as HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere). This began in 1992 and saw nearly six billion dollars in public funds leveraging greater amounts of private billions to totally remake “the projects.” The nation’s largest, most troubled (and almost always occupied totally by black or brown people) public-housing sites became prime objects for being leveled by dynamite and rebuilt at doubled, tripled, sometimes greater densities of mostly upscale and expensive housing units on the same plot of ground.

The HOPE VI program was a reincarnation of the 1960s era of leveling communities, neighborhoods, and homes occupied by large swaths of Black America. Back then this was carried out under the banner of Urban Renewal that came to be known across Black America as Negro Removal.

The all-Black Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis, MO public housing project dynamiting actually began in 1972. Upon initial construction completion in 1956 the project was showered with accolades and design awards by the a virtually all white architecture profession. Today the photograph of the dynamiting destruction of Pruitt Igoe is the globally iconic symbol of the failures in American social housing design in pre-New Urbanism modern architecture.

Pruitt Igo public housing project demolition, St. Louis, MO., ca 1972. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Needless to say, those HOPE VI and affordable housing developers (and their architects and construction contractors) were virtually never Black or other underrepresented minorities. Over the past decade I have been witnessing the same exact combined affordable housing and HOPE VI script being played out across urban America, whether in my old Jordan Downs public housing project neighborhood in Watts-Los Angeles or in my adopted Washington, DC hometown.

A “Third Reconstruction Marshall Plan” also needs a full-blown movement with a 21st century big idea. The core big idea might be that Black wealth creation must be prioritized in any redevelopment endeavors in America.

A new Black affordable housing industry must deploy a 21st century version of the 1881-1915 Tuskegee campus development strategy. Tuskegee arose (through great stealth and cunning no longer needed today) with the transformation of several small refurbished shacks on a 100 acre chicken farm and 37 new students into a campus of one-hundred buildings on two-thousand acres of cleared land accommodating 1,500 students by 1915. Tuskegee is still today the largest Black design-built undertaking in America.

I have long speculated that Tuskegee’s build-out was also a carefully executed “Black City” counter to the thwarted ambitions for meaningful Black participation in the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition-Chicago Worlds’ Fair “White City.” Also, unbeknown to far too many, the early 1900s Black thrust into Harlem, NYC was also silently abetted by Tuskegee leadership tactics, strategies, and finances.

Tuskegee Normal & Agricultural Institute, Tuskegee, Alca. 1910. Source; WikiCommons

The Court of Honor, Columbian Exposition-Chicago World’s Fair, ca 1893. Source; WikiCommons

Revisiting Three Big Black Wealth Creation Initiatives Since 1966

New Cities; Soul City, North Carolina

In 1968 Floyd McKissick left as head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to pursue his vision of literally building a new freestanding city in Warren County, North Carolina. Soul City, one of fourteen new towns proposed by an American president, was envisioned by McKissick as having a build-out population of 55,000 people on a 5,000-acre tract of land. “A fresh start” was the slogan coined by McKissick who was ideologically positioned squarely between Dr. Martin Luther King’s dreams of racial integration and Stokely Carmichael’s demands for Black Power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick, Stokely Carmichael, Mississipi ca 1966. Source; WikiCommons

McKissick insisted that Soul City would be open to all races. He was equally adamant that African Americans would be the dominating planners, designers, builders, and owners of most of Soul City’s land and business enterprises. McKissick and his planners had what they considered to be the perfect model in the planned new town of Columbia, Maryland. Columbia’s visionary founder, James Rouse, geographically positioned Columbia midway between Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC. Rouse and his planners envisioned a town of 110,000 people of all races living in social harmony in the 14,000-acre development.

... African Americans would be the dominating planners, designers, builders, and owners of most of Soul City’s land and business enterprises

Columbia met and surpassed those target goals. Today an aerial view of the Town Center and city beyond looks largely identical to the 1968 architectural model of the proposed city. Today’s Columbia is a city of 100,000 people whose population is roughly 50% white and 50% non-white with African Americans making up half of the non-white population. Rouse went on to become a legend in the world of planned urban development.

Aerial model of Town Center of the planned new city Columbia, MD, ca 1968. Project was completed large as show in model photo 2016. Source; WikiCommons

For Soul City, McKissick scraped together a few million federal dollars for initial infrastructure costs. He was unable to overcome huge obstacles, including the 1974 Mideast oil crisis and the racial politics of arch-conservative North Carolina U.S. senator Jesse Helms. With no private investment capital commensurate with the money available to Rouse for Columbia, Soul City’s population never exceeded two hundred people. Today, nearly fifty years after Floyd McKissick was forced to fold on his dream of building a successful new city in North Carolina there are tools, conditions, attitudes, new wealth sources, and political power in place that scream out “somebody needs to try this again!” There are as many as fifty geographic locations in the U.S. that mirror the conditions that made Columbia, MD – and therefore other new Soul City, North Carolina cities - a socio-economic, cultural and financial success.

Town Center, Soul City, North Carolina, ca 2016. Source; WikiCommons

New Towns in Town; Fort Lincoln, Washington, DC

The 1960s era vision of a “New Town in Town” in Washington, DC was implemented by Theodore Hagans, Jr. (1925-1984), a Howard University engineering school graduate. In this case the site chosen was a nearly 360-acre parcel of vacant land siting on the DC border of Prince Georges County, Maryland, just several miles from downtown DC. The project master plan called for thousands of new homes and apartment units, with a sizable shopping mall, two public schools, ample open space, and recreational facilities. The population is majority African American with a growing number of white and “other” families and individuals.

This too was a very big idea that involved bold initiative by a coalition of progressive politics and black entrepreneurial vision. By the mid-1970s, Hagans had becoming the largest black developer in DC. He became the sole owner of all rights to redevelop Fort Lincoln New Town.

It has taken fifty years to reach the halfway mark of full achievement of the Fort Lincoln New Town vision. The project is being completed under the ownership and executive leadership of Hagans’ daughter Michelle Hagans who is also a Howard engineering school graduate. Conditions and circumstances today are ripe for the replication of the Hagans family’s Fort Lincoln New Town vision in at least fifty other U.S. cities and inner suburbs over the coming decade.


The third and quite possibly most important of the three big past initiatives is a now seven-year-old movement that is already gaining momentum throughout Black America’s cities and suburban population. This movement’s participants range from the Black new rich athletes, entertainers, media moguls, and high-tech entrepreneurs to the Black working class poor. The movement is simply known as “BUY THE BLOCK” or BTB.

The initial BTB model was founded by Lynn P. Smith in Cincinnati in 2013. Smith has been a serial entrepreneur and real estate investor since she turned twenty-one. She has created investment vehicles that are catalyzing precisely the actions that are continuing to happen across Black America at a geometrically accelerating pace. Her BTB idea is scalable from the single house or lot in an urban neighborhood and on up to the creation of a new urban city. A recent high profile BTB example is a mixed use commercial project launched by the late Nipsey Hustle in South Central Los Angeles.

An even more pointed recent example is the initiative of a phenomenally successful African American developer, Donahue Peebles, based in Miami. Peebles is partnering with two other minority developers on a $1.2 billion mixed use high-rise project in downtown Los Angeles. Peebles recently launched a $500 million Fund from his vast equity capital sources. The Fund will provide equity capital to minority owned real estate developers whose focus is on affordable and workforce housing and related commercial uses. The initiative will leverage thousands of new houses and apartments at combined costs and values exceeding billions of dollars. Despite the size and scope, this all clearly falls under the rubric of BUY THE BLOCK.

Predictably, when thinking about alternative and counter models most professionals – particularly architects - are intuitively drawn to other elitist professionally led models. The BTB model is a movement that is as fittingly large, clear, and as compelling as the 1980s architect-led New Urbanism movement. “Buy the Block” could morph into the Equity Urbanism movement that I envision. Nothing short of that will be required in order to build one (or more) million affordable housing units and an equitable share of the national infrastructure movement over the next decade in Black America’s spaces.

Equitable Urbanism

Today it is increasingly becoming common knowledge that the brutal 1921 white race-riot destruction of Greenwood-Tulsa, Oklahoma and a dozen other large Black building and wealth creation undertakings served to snuff out Black big building ambitions and culture over the ensuing nearly fifty years. The coinciding Urban Renewal and New Urbanism movements of 1968-2020 has been beset by systemically racist policies that rendered any further city building scale Black-led initiatives as either nonstarters or as “Black Separatism.” The next period of 2020-2040 offers an opportunity to achieve full redress from the prior fifty-two years of continuing suppression of Black wealth creation.

The only path to achieving truly Equitable Urbanism is through a fully mobilized Black America that actually leads or plays meaningful partnering roles in an urban main street Marshall Plan rebuilding effort. Equitable Urbanism can incorporate and build on the Old New Urbanism’s big core architectural idea. There is no need to re-invent that wheel. In rebuilding urban space with the required millions of units of affordable housing and 21st century physical and cyber infrastructure, the overlaying of New Urbanism with the new core big idea of Equitable Urbanism must be the indispensable measuring rod in any attempts to answer the question I posed, who will be the builders and wealth creation beneficiaries.

*This article was orginally published on Sep 4, '20 5:34 PM EST on*

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