Racial Inequity Critical Review 1
The Other Golden Rule
By Kimberly Dowdell
Public Interest Design (PID) plays an important role in a game that I believe should become obsolete: financial dependency within urban communities of color. Over the course of my career, I’ve made some hard-earned observations about how Black communities in particular tend to differ from other types of ethnic communities throughout the United States as it relates to wealth building and access to resources. Only when Black communities can begin to build sustained wealth (i.e. gold) in our society, will the inequities of the past begin to fade and make way for a more equitable future.
Decades of racially-biased policies preceded by centuries of slavery certainly make it a challenge for Americans of African heritage to compete in living the American Dream. It’s time for Black communities to leverage the slowly flowing new waves of equality in America to prioritize opportunities for ownership. Real estate, talent, time, patents, trademarks, artwork, stocks, and other appreciating assets of all types will be critical for breaking the chains of financial dependency that are so prevalent in Black communities.
Segregation is deeply rooted in our nation’s DNA. I won’t count on a surge of urban integration in the near term, but the idea that Black neighborhoods have to be “bad” is no longer acceptable. Wealth creation for Blacks doesn’t mean poverty creation for other groups. There will still be ghettos and poor neighborhoods of every race for generations to come, but the time to start planning for a better future for everyone is now – especially communities of color, which appear to be disproportionately impacted by poverty. I think that people are waiting to see how the problem of struggling Black neighborhoods will be solved, but the truth of the matter is that we are the people that we have been waiting for. It is time for more people of color to gain greater control of their own future.
The Importance of Holding the Gold
As a Black female architect from inner-city Detroit, I have had a front seat view of troubled living amidst aspirations for a better future. At age eleven, I challenged myself to become an architect to repair what I saw was broken in my hometown. Design can make neighborhoods look better, improve living conditions and help bring people together among other positive things, but what good is any of this if residents can’t afford to continue living in their own communities? Here is the solution: hold the gold.
When I was a grad student at Harvard, the lesson that stands out above of all of the others was one that I learned from Professor Marchant’s real estate finance course. He posed the question, “Does anyone here know about the Golden Rule?”. I was told very early in my life growing up in the church that the Golden Rule was to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That still seems like a pretty good guideline to follow, but that response did not match what he was looking for. The professor proceeded to tell us that the Golden Rule is that he/she who holds the gold makes the rules.
When Black communities can begin to control their own destinies through home ownership, entrepreneurship and generational wealth building, the game will change in a significant way. Having that gold will help Black communities make their own rules, instead of constantly having to rely on the government and the kindness of philanthropic outsiders to provide for basic needs like quality housing, healthy food options, education and access to transportation. The term “Public Interest Design” can just become good design, and standard market fees can be paid for quality design services – with the gold.
A New Legacy
In his article Racial Inequity in Social Impact Design, Christopher Scott writes about the “continuing legacy of policies and institutional practices that go beyond just the city, to state and federal structural racism of the past and present.” Scott further expands on this notion by describing his work in Parkside, a Black community in Philadelphia that is plagued by many of the same issues of disinvestment, racial segregation, crime, poverty, sub-par public education, under-employment rates and dilapidated housing stock that are characteristic of most urban U.S. neighborhoods with a majority-Black population. This unfortunate reality will be the status quo for the time being, especially while unconscious (and conscious) bias continues to limit opportunities for people of color across the board.
From my perspective, financial freedom is the solution to the myriad of problems being faced in Parkside, throughout Detroit and in other struggling urban communities of color. I dream of the day when cash advance venues are replaced with coffee shops where entrepreneurs of all races can work on the next big idea together. I want to see places that currently represent desolation in Black communities become destinations in the near future and I am actively taking steps to achieve that dream. I just purchased my first property last year. Now, in partnership with my company, Century Partners, I’m on target to have some form of ownership or control of nearly 500 properties in Detroit by the end of the year. This is no coincidence. I deeply understand the value of ownership and I want to begin making some of the rules that will help Black communities thrive. This is part of my legacy.
Investing For Change
Further steps toward fulfilling financial independence in Black communities include financial literacy, improved access to education, more sustainable jobs with benefits and heightened opportunities for ownership and investment. One initiative that I’m working on right now through Century Partners is raising a real estate private equity fund that pools money from investors to purchase, rehab and rent/sell properties in Detroit’s neighborhoods that are on the cusp of revitalization. Our work to date has resulted in over 60 units of housing being restored in Detroit and raising the bar in residential real estate standards in the three neighborhoods where we have focused our efforts.
We are breathing new life into predominantly Black neighborhoods by rehabilitating beautiful vintage buildings that have been sitting vacant for years in many cases. Having raised over $3.5 million in the past three years, Century Partners is poised to have a transformative effect on city neighborhoods while providing investors with double-digit annualized returns. We are helping our investors do well financially while also doing the good work of helping to rebuild the socio-economic fabric of the city – block by block and house by house. The long-time Detroit homeowners who have remained committed to their neighborhoods are now finally starting to see their property values climb again in the areas where we have invested. Our work is creating value for existing property owners, our local contractors, our tenants and for those who are investing with us directly.
We recently partnered with an innovative impact investment platform called Rabble to raise an additional $550,000. What’s exciting about this partnership with Rabble is the opportunity to open our fund to non-accredited investors. That means that anyone can get involved in what we’re doing and earn strong returns on their investment for as little as $100. Prior to Rabble, our minimum investment was $10,000. In effect, Rabble is making impact investing accessible to all, including residents of the neighborhoods in which we work.
Beyond Wealth Creation
Enabling people of color to access capital and create stable housing situations for their families is a pinnacle feature of the American Dream. My team is working to not only transform homes and neighborhoods, but also to bridge the wealth gap that exists and to empower communities of color to gather the resources needed to solve their own problems. Moving forward, we as a society need to focus more deliberately on breaking cycles that necessitate financial dependence in the first place.
My challenge to you, regardless of your color or station in life, is to work towards helping more people in disadvantaged situations obtain the gold. Not everyone will be able to (or even want to) gain control over a lot of assets, but if all American families can begin to access financing and purchase just their own homes, that small act can change the direction of the future for generations to come. Black families in particular must consciously bias themselves toward wealth creation because the wealth gap is real and it must be addressed to resolve the “bad” neighborhood problem that is so closely associated with Black communities. Cities are only as strong as their weakest neighborhoods.
Shouldn’t we want to do unto other people’s neighborhoods as we would have them do unto our own? This is our collective challenge. Let’s all invest in designing and building a better future for everyone.
Kimberly Dowdell is a Detroit-based architect, developer and educator. She is licensed to practice architecture in New York, where she obtained her Bachelor of Architecture at Cornell. Her early career in D.C. and NYC cultivated her skills in architecture, marketing and real estate project management. In 2014, Kimberly was awarded a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership fellowship to obtain a Master of Public Administration from Harvard. She leveraged that opportunity to return to her hometown of Detroit in 2015 where she now teaches at the University of Michigan and transforms neighborhoods as a partner with Century Partners. Kimberly was recognized among the Public Interest Design 100 in 2012.
To learn more about what Century Partners is up to, read their latest blog post of a renovation project here.