As a real estate consultant, developer, and CEO of a large public housing authority, I am constantly looking for opportunities to provide quality housing to underserved populations. Much of the reading I do in my spare time is rooted in historical urban studies, particularly during the time of the “Great Migration” from the South to the promise, or perceived promise, of a better life in the North. A “better life” has a great deal to do with living conditions and housing in general.
Neighborhoods and communities were and are shaped by a family or individual’s need for the best housing they can afford or qualify for. Why do many cities across the United States have such density of urban poor, often residing in public housing or, worse, slum private housing?
As an African-American male and one of the first in my family (migrants from Mississippi and Georgia to Detroit and Flint, MI) to go to college, I now have a position of responsibility and influence to help undo the fate of urban blight that has descended upon many US cities.
Families sharing one-room apartments was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the practice is far from over. This lack of housing translates into a lack of opportunity, as many of the least desirable housing options also feed low-performing schools, and the other way around. Underemployment, insufficient housing, and lack of education are the spokes in the wheel of poverty, driven by a larger economy that feeds off the poor while not recognizing they exist.
As an opportunist, I want to build. Not just build, but build in a way that sustains a community and underprovided families with hopes of a better and brighter future. I see these opportunities in existing urban decay where communities plagued by drugs and crime can be replaced with urban vibrancy. Purposeful and intentional urban revitalization opportunities exist all across urban America. However, the pitfalls of local, state, and federal policies and politics threaten the opportunity to build.
Going back to the 1930s, Chicago was notorious for forcing blacks to live in the south side of the city, thereby creating the infrastructure for what would become one of the most crime-riddled communities in the country. The south side continues to be plagued with social ills associated with urban crime, low homeownership rates, high insurance rates, little retail investment, and so on.
Concentrating poor blacks within certain neighborhoods while simultaneously removing services and isolating opportunities has proven to be disastrous for numerous cities.
The idea of mixed-income, mixed-finance development has been around since the mid-1990s and has been a key development approach to helping make communities and their cities vibrant, as they once were. This approach is beneficial for real estate, local businesses, and the education system. Sadly, however, this happens at an alarmingly slow rate.
The socio-economic forces that contribute to substandard housing and block the creation of quality affordable housing collaborate to ensure that minorities remain excluded from participating in the broader economic system. I resist the notion that somehow affordable housing professionals alone can eliminate all the barriers to economic participation with the development and management of sustainable, affordable housing. Instead, our collective voices and advocacy will help pave the way to break the cycle of generational poverty.
Chief Executive Officer
Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority
Master of Real Estate Development, class of 2015