Sharon Egretta Sutton
Yuen Lui Sharon Egretta Sutton

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nailed America’s greatest challenge: learning to coexist within “the architectural pattern of [a] large world house,” its upper floors soaring into the stratosphere of science and technology, its foundations mired in racism, poverty, and violence. Dr. King envisioned two futures: one powered by injustice, the other by social vision; one leading to chaos, the other to community.

Despite scientific and technological progress, a chasm in the nation’s economic system has steadily undermined the foundation of collective life, creating inequities that threaten catastrophic failure. On one side of the abyss are billionaires who purchase palatial abodes as safety deposit boxes for investment income. On the other are renters and homeowners who struggle to circumvent a growing mismatch between housing costs and earnings.

When the economy was robust and unemployment at historic lows, developers were raking in profits from new subdivisions, especially from areas with cheap land and low taxes. Yet, low-income families—and even median-income families—were priced out, both groups facing eviction, forfeiture of property, stays in homeless shelters, depression, illness, unemployment, and school failure.

The housing crisis that stemmed from commodifying a human necessity existed long before the pandemic but went largely unnoticed. The pause that halted business as usual exposed its ugly secrets, accentuating the life-and-death difference between sheltering in commodious spaces and sheltering in crowded ones or in streets and other spaces unfit for human habitation. News reports exposed the absurdity of “sheltering” poor people “in place,” especially black Americans, many of whom live in abysmal environments, overrepresented among the homeless and now among COVID-19 victims.

Dr. King noted that, like Rip Van Winkle, protectors of the status quo sleep through social revolutions.

Yet, Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder speculates that COVID-19 could produce a silver lining as occurred after World War II when social inequalities flattened. With business as usual on hold, we architects could seize the opportunity created by increased public consciousness of housing injustice. We could animate public dialogue about homeownership as a source of wealth, which while benefiting some, has put the most basic means of survival up for grabs to the highest bidder. Echoing sociologist Amitai Etzioni’s call for a bond among the nation’s social groups, we could envision a communitarian contract as the foundation of a world house. We could call for equilibrating the rights and responsibilities of residents, whether impoverished, affluent, or middling. We could demand that politicians guarantee the right to housing, while requiring that taxpayers contribute to community well-being according to their means.

At this watershed moment, we could reimagine our roles as architects. Not waiting for developers to call the shots, we could about-face and work with residents to create the dwellings of community. We could reinvent ourselves by studying innovations like New York’s Urban Homesteading Assistance Board or Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, where affordability stems from sweat equity, share loans, resident management, mutual aid, and energy efficiency. However, we would need to raise the bar and persuade well-heeled folks to live in mixed-income, collectively owned, limited equity communities that pool financial, social, and cultural wealth. We would need to take advantage of the public’s heightened awareness of low-wage workers’ contributions to society and call for nothing less than total reconstruction of the nation’s architectural pattern.

Dr. King noted that, like Rip Van Winkle, protectors of the status quo sleep through social revolutions. As obstructers of injustice, architects can remain vigilant and work toward transforming attitudes about collective life. To paraphrase Dr. King, residents of the world house can either coexist in harmony or perish as fools. Let’s work toward designing a vision of coexistence.

This article appeared in the June 2020 issue of ARCHITECT.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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