Black Housing in America – with Melvin Mitchell

The Big Rethink: A Weekly Interview.

Photo by Rachel Martin on Unsplash.

The history of black housing in America is one of segregation, stigma, and wealth destruction, not creation. Architect Melvin Mitchell, CEO of Bryant Mitchell Architects, calls for a new black-owned and controlled corner of the housing industry, one capable of creating household wealth for black communities rather than funneling it elsewhere. Whether opportunity zones done right or “buying the block,” what are the policies needed to make that happen?

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Transcript

Greg Lindsay:
Thank you so much for joining us Melvin. We really appreciate having you.

Melvin Mitchell:
Thanks for having me.

Greg Lindsay:  
Well I guess as a first question, if you could talk a bit about your vision for a million affordable housing units, and particularly the policies. In your in your op-ed, you really pointed out that a number of U.S. politicians, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez & the Green New Deal, and others, have started laying out the planks about how we can really start to imagine what a new housing industry in the United States would look like, including for example the repeal of the fair cloth Amendment, which would allow the construction of public housing again – we talked about that this summer. But in your essay, you talk particularly about the notion of extremely low participation rates by demographic, in terms of demographics by African Americans in architecture, engineering, all of these industries and raising the question of how do we get them more engaged in that and how do we create really a black housing sector, a black real estate sector, architecture sector in the United States. So if can you talk a bit about your vision as a starting point?

Melvin Mitchell:
Yeah, a little context here. First of all we got to keep in mind here that, when we talk about black America, we’re talking about an entity of probably 45-50 million people. That’s a pretty big splice, however, it’s dispersed over the country, but it is  in all sorts of identifiable clusters and city locations across the country. So, housing is obviously a central area and a central issue. Black America occupies a lot of housing, but it does that pretty much from a consumerist point of view, as opposed to, more, petition, more participation, more involvement, it all ties back into this whole larger issue of black wealth creation, or I should say, black wealth suppression that has been the norm for so many years. And so, part of transitioning from black wealth suppression to black wealth creation, you got to start where we are, where black America is, and that is the housing that it lives and that it occupies.

Right now there’s such a thing as already a black housing industry, an all black construction industry service. And it’s composed of what I call the two percenters club. Starting with architects you know how that’s always what 2% look. There’s a whole bunch of two percenters there in the built environment, architects are just starting over the marquee, the more visible one, but you name them and I point them all out: architects, real estate people, contractors, developers, lawyers even to a certain extent.

And so, they’re already operating independently in disjointed sort of ways. All bumping up against a sort of a ceiling erratic seems to be able to break through in terms of 2% or 2% of our whatever the, whatever, whatever our professional organization is or trade or whatever it is – we’re 2% up of it. And trying to pierce that and break through that independently, is doesn’t work. So, the issue here, tied back into housing and the need for a black controlled housing industry, again, just simply replicating or turning to something that was talked about and thought about is laid back as 1948 and first Housing Act in which there was this understanding that by black leadership that we needed to have a piece of the action. If there’s going to be black housing built for black people. It should be also have some black participation in it.

But then there was another strain of monster black America worrying about segregation and being labeled segregationist and separatists and all of that. So you have all those things bumping up against each other. So today, I’m simply asking the two percenters club, formalize ourselves, and recognize that this is inherently a political operation. To operationalize, what I’m talking about is fundamentally politics. We got a lot of black politicians and they are very strategically located, and we’ve got a lot of what I consider to be good allies, non black allies. All of them have a lot to say about the issue of housing, which we’re going to go out. Painting for what happens November, 23 and January, 20 21st but regardless of what happens, sometime around January, we’ve got to start talking to our politicians and holding them accountable and telling them what we want, and asking for the levers range. Things that give us better access to capital to the money, the funds that are there flowing through, you know, housing, federal government funds as well as lot of the state and local funds. That’s just leveraging money. It basically ties into the whole larger private sector.

Greg Lindsay:

Yeah, where would where would you start what would be sort of your tools of this I mean in your in your essays or criticize the low income housing tax credit, which of course developers have used and I think as you pointed out there that case, what a lot of white developers use that to earn trillions of dollars from basically tax subsidies there. I’m curious what do you think are the pieces of legislation or where you would start building this now, because Vice President Biden for example, his big housing plank is making Section 8 vouchers an entitlement for everyone, which does not address the structural issues you’re dealing with there so I’m also curious your thoughts on things like opportunity zones, which was proposed you know bipartisan with Senator Cory Booker among others, which was designed to just funnel investment into neighborhoods of color and low income neighborhoods, which has become a sort of you know real estate grab through all sorts of rewriting of things.

What do you think of the tools to operationalize this vision?

Melvin Mitchell:
I think the tools could be  with some tweaking and adjustment and under a more liberal regime could be helpful. I use the word liberal, in terms of progressive, I think everything is ultimately going there, it’s just a question of how you get there. And I’m not personally interested in getting rid of the current administration, in hopes of immediately getting the full blown-out progressive one, but I just don’t think it is going to happen for another generation. But a step along the way. I think a lot of the legislation that’s already happened as well as it’s been planned, used to be pipe dreams, now, these things are realities. And if things break the way they should, November, 3, January 22, those things will be real.

And so I think all of the legislation, all of the pieces are there, even opportunity zones, as flawed as that is. Because you got to remember, all of the legislation is basically set up and designed in such a way that, it’s like a big plate being passed around all, you know, good old boys, and black America and the two percenters are, you know, we’re supposed to represent back America and its interest, and then they’re by and large left out, for all sorts of reasons and rationale. So those are some of the things that we’re looking at now.

When you talk about the tax credit, there’s already a housing tax credit programming regime and it builds millions of houses. It has built millions of houses and will continue to do so. What black people have not done yet and I want to see him do, is his elbow to the front of the line, because these programs are being built in blackspace, and they’re being occupied by black and brown people. And control of them in a manner and ways to channel, and make sure that the dollars that are flowing from construction dollars, all the other pieces, controlling those things can go a long way towards helping to get the economies, the sub economies, the black economy, if you will, prominent and working within the framework of what we have and what we will have for another couple of generations, that is a private pre-market sector.

Greg Lindsay:

Interesting. There’s a number housing models that have come out of particularly out of black America and I’m very excited, of course community land trust which came really out of the Civil Rights Movement 1968 if I understand that history correctly but that doesn’t create wealth of course that is a way of effectively sidelining land value forever, but in your essay you talk about a tactic that I was less familiar with which is the by the block strategy – developing entire strongholds of black wealth in communities there and can you talk a bit about the history of that and how that might be resurrected as a tactic to do rebuild black communities and neighborhoods.

Melvin Mitchell:

Well, here again, you got to remember your context. Since the 60s. There have been three big ideas that have been percolating and coming out of working its way through black America.

One of them of course has been new cities themselves actually building new cities. Another one is a variation of that and we’re sharing you building new towns in town. And now the third, which is really a big idea, by the block, that’s been happening for the last almost decade, but it’s starting to take off and gain momentum. And so, in its in its most basic form it’s just simply a case of of the stereotypical rundown ghetto type black community in which people come together and try and figure out a way how to start buying and purchasing house by house to block.

But that is beginning to expand to the point now where it doesn’t just involve poor people. It involves all stratas of black America, and the wealth that is happening, that is being generated in black America by the nouveau riche money, athletes or entertainers or whatnot. So everything that is happening now in terms of trying to do things that are going to help with trying to get money circulating and working. We all use this metric of the disparity in black America in terms of white versus black wealth rather it’s homeownership with businesses, or what have you. And however you measure those things, and higher we’re going to try and raise those things, it cannot be done if black America itself does not participate in a big way financially, as the builders and makers. We can’t do it based on strictly being consumers. Because, in any typical housing project, let’s say, $10 million, well that’s $10 million that you may create 100 units and those may house black and brown people. But, 9,900,000 of that immediately flows right back out of that community and into the larger white community, and everybody gets paid, everybody gets gets wealthy, and black people who end up, you know, being parts of photo ops.

Greg Lindsay:
Yes. So you mentioned you wanted to take the 2% and formalize them. How have you thought about how to do that. I mean, are there any institutions or any new associations or structures? How would you go about building a block coalition of black health and black talent?

You know, and I want to be careful I say this respectfully Greg, but one of the biggest problems that I have with a lot of people, Trumpers, mainly, but a lot of other people is, it’s so little history of understanding of how that 44 million people that constitutes black America, how we’re made up. There’s a lot of organization and structure and things going on that are already there. You know, some of them are hidden in plain sight, some of them. So there isn’t a whole lot needed to be done, it’s just really a matter of will, and communications. It’s a matter of taking things that are already there in place, and wrapping up the levels of communications and interactions. But you do it around, big things, big ideas, big projects and projects in which your objective is very clear and that is that all of the two percenters are going to be the launch to benefit and that is also going to be pushed out beyond into other other aspects of black America, and it’s community. So specifically, all of these two percenters, starting with architects for instance, you were already organized, you already have organizations. It’s just a matter of understanding the need for political organization and structure and working with our politicians, white and black and being able to articulate and to say what we want.

Because here’s where I am basically of the mindset that America is a group of competing interests. And it’s obvious what those groups break themselves out, and one of them has about 14-15% of the pie is black America. And there are certain things that even when we get to Valhalla of what Bernie wants, a Swedish style economy, it’s still like Sweden, going to still have a market sector. It’s just that, it’ll have a much bigger welfare state or bigger regulatory apparatus, and make sure that the playing field is level, but that still does not take away the need for black America to function and operate in ways, and manners in which we build our serious economy. It’s there already in a mini form.

Greg Lindsay:

We had our housing conference this summer, our final session had almost, on some level an unfortunate debate, or a very interesting tense debate between Daryl Carter who, as a black CEO of an affordable housing company and finances affordable housing across the country, and he was pitted against multiple advocates basically of decommodifying housing – the notion that we should basically not use housing as a vehicle for the building of wealth, which is really much part of your plan to basically concentrate wealth and communion black communities and keep it there. What do you think of the decommodification of housing argument and the idea that you know America should invest much more heavily in public housing and social housing?

Melvin Mitchell:

I’m for all of that. It’s just that I am a realist in terms of how long is it going to take for that to happen. That’s a 30 year project. Now, what’s supposed to happen in the meantime. The country is structured as it is and what it is. I don’t think there’s going to be, at least I hope not, a jacobian type revolution where heads will be rolling. It’s going to be evolutionary. And so, I’m for all of the big progressive ideas, all of them,  including the decommodification of housing. But that’s a long term project. In the meantime, there has to be a potent, effective, black economy, that really is able to participate in and take advantage of the system in terms of hard work. Again, getting back to the tax credit thing. The tax credit thing was set up in such a manner and it wound up being almost 99% white people controlling it, and blacks getting the crumbs, as well as units, but in terms of the money – crumbs. Okay, well, this could take a while. Basically, but black people have to elbow into that stream. So what are we supposed to do that’s where I am basically a Harold Cruz advocate. Do you know Harold Cruz?

Greg Lindsay:
I did not know Harold Cruz, I feel put on the spot. No, who was Harold Cruz?

Melvin Mitchell:

His book is a 1996 book, “The crisis of the Negro Intellectual”. He basically was talking about the continuity, and the back and forth, in black America, since the end of slavery. It’s been back and forth between integration versus self reliance. Which is a kind of a ridiculous dichotomy because you got to do both things, why is that an ‘either or’ situation. And I’m seeing signs of black leadership, starting to wake up and step up, let me just say one last thing.

[…] When Barack Obama was elected twice, in both cases, I never had any expectations of him other than him not embarrasse us. I was very clear, he was elected as president of America. Had he ever attempted to do anything to help directly black America, he would have been impeached. Clear, plain and simple as that. Now, fast forward to the day and what might happen November 2, Joe Biden the Liberal. If Biden doesn’t do something to explicitly and specifically address to the whole wealth gap focused on black America, he could get impeached. If he doesn’t do something. So that’s, you know, that’s where we are. That’s where we’ve come now.

Greg Lindsay:
Well that’s a good setup for the last question here because obviously this whole series is sort of rethinking of course the post-COVID ramifications for cities and various degrees. We’ve talked a bit about what could happen past election day and the President has very, very obviously signaled his contempt for cities, his attemps you know what he’s done to affordable housing…

Melvin Mitchell:

He’s got a got a housing program. It may not be the one that the pure, progressive would want to have. But you know.

Greg Lindsay:

Yes, still in effect so people forget that sometimes with the Secretary Carson. But the question I would ask is, how does the pandemic intersect with your plan in this regard, as I think came through particularly that for the last two decades, the triumph of the city, that whole back to the city movement, was of course based on displacement and on logics of gentrification. I’m originally from outside Chicago and you could see quarter million African American residents displaced I think between 2000 and 2010,  the last census that was taken.

So what happens now with the pandemic where we’re seeing these narratives of mostly wealthy whites, bailing out on cities, buying homes in the Hamptons, or buying country homes, planning on remote work forever. We know the data shows that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to remote work. Are you afraid of another potential dark era of disinvestment in cities, regardless of whether Biden is president or not, I mean still like the tax revenues, what it does to a downward spiral and city budgets and things.

Melvin Mitchell:

There’s always that possibility but I’m a strong believer in the power of science and technology and the whole information revolution and where we are as a society and as a people. I think the United States, a lot of us, we’re at a point right now where there’s no fundamental reason for there to be any want, by anybody for anything. None. Technologically speaking, financially, there’s a whole bunch of cultural reasons why that doesn’t happen, and insofar as what we’re going through now, yes, it’s going to cause some major changes and some major rethinking of a lot of things, spatially and how we how we develop and how we build things. But I have a faith and belief that, you know, our electoral infrastructure, universities and technology,  I think all of that, coupled with thrust towards an ultimate progressive state, I think that will work itself out. So, these are interlocking things that have to be approached in that way. That would have to do with probably my age, I’m three times the age of the average progressive. On one hand I like to say that I’m really to the left of my children, but they wouldn’t buy it. “Revolution now.” “Okay, bye”.

Greg Lindsay:

On that note, I think we need more realist revolutionaries or revolutionary realists whichever.

Melvin Mitchell:

Yes, count me in the  latter.

Greg Lindsay:
Well thank you so much for joining us Mel, it’s been a pleasure.

Melvin Mitchell:

My pleasure.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai