How The Real Estate Boom Left Black Neighborhoods Behind

Before stepping into film,

Giorgio Angelini had quite the diverse path: After touring in indie rock bands for most of his 20s, he enrolled in the Master of Architecture program at Rice University in Houston, which happened to be right during the 2008 real estate collapse. It was back then that the seeds for Owned: A Tale of Two Americas

took place for the once-budding architect. After serving as producer and co-conspirator on the memorable Independent Lens film i">>Feels Good Man, Angelini makes his directorial debut with the ambitious documentary Owned.

At times dreamlike and personal, and at other times diving into some shocking histories, Owned explores the dark history of America’s housing industry and the false promises for many in the narrative of the “American Dream.”

Angelini talked to us about what led him to tackle this project, how understanding architecture and development gave him a unique perspective, how the very recent stories about racism in the real estate market would fit into this narrative, and which famous Americans he’d most like to see his film.

So what led you to want to make

Owned

?

I watched Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes several times during architecture grad school. It exists almost purely in a visual format and forces you to confront the massive ecological and social consequences of infrastructure. When thinking about the film, initially I wanted to make a grand visual study of the commoditization of space in the American housing market.

I was consumed by two pieces of data: that over the past 70 years the size of the average family household went from 3.5 people to 2.5 people. And in that same time, the size of the average single-family home went from 900 square feet to 2,700 square feet. So, fewer people were inhabiting far more space.

Headshot of filmmaker Giorgio Angelini in blue shirt
Filmmaker Giorgio Angelini

The original conceit of the film was to try to find a way for people to feel that kind of alienation, that abundance of space, on an emotional and personal level. But then Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson and, soon after, Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Urban uprisings followed, and I began to realize that the machinery that had created the vast emptiness of suburbia was linked to the slow violence being perpetuated in inner cities across America. It felt too indulgent to make this art film about space, given the history unfolding around us at the time. It felt far more critical to understand the relationship between the vastness and the violence.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

As is the case with most independently funded documentaries, they take a lot of time to make. And as such, history is constantly changing around you. So the most difficult part of making this film was figuring out what story we were actually telling.

It seemed to me, coming out of the 2008 housing crisis, that we were all under the assumption that we were in a recovery. The film began as a kind of narrow critique of this idea of recovery. What were we recovering? What did it mean to prop up a system that transformed the air-conditioned square foot into a globally traded economy? As an architect, I was really interested in what effects this hyper-commoditization had on design, not just of the home, but of cities and landscapes.

But as history changed around me, so did the story. Michael Brown and Freddie Gray’s deaths and the ensuing uprisings around them underscored an important aspect to this story I hadn’t yet considered. That is, we can’t critique suburbia without really understanding the plight of inner-city America. One came at the expense of the other.

And then the challenge was really about figuring out how to fit it all into an 83-minute doc. In a sense, people needed to really understand this general history of housing policy in order to understand everything. So, figuring out how we could create a film that was both incredibly informative, while also conveying a larger, emotionally truthful story, was the central struggle.

overhead drone shot of housing complex where every home looks the same
Credit: Giorgio Angelini

Speaking of that particular challenge, this is indeed a very ambitious story to tell, so how did you focus on which stories to tell and which people to feature? Because obviously America’s complicated history with home ownership and racism could be an 8-hour-long epic, too!

Part of that focus came simply from a lack of resources. [laughs] I would love to do a longer series about housing (wink, wink). Just hard to do that as a self-financed film. So I had to figure out what was most important to me, given what resources I had and what stories I could actually cover in the most meaningful way.

The conclusion I ultimately came to was: I wanted to answer a question posed to me by Jimmy, one of our characters in the film, a retired police officer living in Levittown, NY. In witnessing the Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore, obviously captivated by a certain kind of nonstop, 24-hour news drip, he asked me “how someone could burn their own neighborhood down?” I took him at his word that he really wanted to know.

So from that point forward, the film was about how to answer that question for Jimmy. And if I could do that convincingly, perhaps we could break through the toxicity that so much of American media uses as a wedge. Cartoonish, shallow imagery that captivates the minds of suburban America, keeping them addicted to their phones and their TVs, but doing very little in the way of building empathy or understanding.

After spending time with our characters in Levittown, I became convinced that this was not an unwinnable struggle.

Levittown sign on water tank

Too often, middle- and upper-class Americans look at our problems through an ownership mentality without considering, even for a moment, how foreign the concept of ownership is to millions of other Americans. We take for granted what it must feel like to live in a system that essentially functions as a kind of apartheid. It’s a system that alienates millions of Americans from the benefits that the ownership class take for granted.

As a former architect, what did that experience and perspective lend to your approach to this film? Did you ever work on the design for something that felt potentially problematic, that is, a part of the problem as told in

Owned

?

I think basically every project I’ve ever worked on could be seen as problematic, in the sense that we’re all working in a self-perpetuating system that often puts the needs of capital accumulation ahead of all else. I have had the chance to work on small affordable housing projects. But those opportunities are few and far between, in large part because the system doesn’t really incentivize it much. And therefore there are only so many developers interested in doing that work.

As an architect, certainly a young one, you don’t often have the luxury to pick what projects you can work on. That said, as an architect, you’re really the only one on any development team who’s trained to be thinking about such a broad array of implications. You’re constantly negotiating between issues of infrastructure and culture and environment and material sourcing and costs.

And what I often tell architecture students is that while the problems seem vast (and they are), what you can do is be that voice in the system that brings to light issues that would otherwise go unheard.

Development in America is an incredibly risk-averse business, overwhelmingly dictated by banks, and more directly, what is replicable. As architects, what we should be doing is finding new models of replicability. Rather than relying on the old, “problematic” models.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, interviewed in Owned
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of The 1619 Project.

The imagery of suburbia was built in large part by architects. Those were constructed fantasies sold to American consumers. The desire to leave the city, to manage your own little strip of land, pick your siding, your layout, and fill it up with consumer goods. But those desires can also be changed. Architects should be taking their influence much more seriously. We are supposed to be the visionary ones. But more often than not, architects are often just executing on the visions of developers, not wanting to rock the boat, to focus more on growing their own businesses.

My hope is that in the near future, I can take what I’ve learned from all the projects I’ve worked on and put it into developing a new model for home ownership. A project that would aim to take the speculation out of home ownership. To build something desirable, but stable—and replicable.

There was a recent story from the Bay Area that made world news coverage, about a Black couple who are filing a racial discrimination suit against an appraiser who lowballed their home value, and it made me think of the stories you’re telling in this film. Where do you see a story like that fitting into

Owned

, or what did hearing about that story make you think of?

We’ve built an economic system in America which has situated the home as the primary source of wealth for families. People rely on the value of their homes for their retirements, to put their kids through college, and to have a general sense of security and stability. It is also a system still rampant with racism.

Regardless of the passage of the Fair Housing Act five decades ago, there is a more pernicious, soft racism embedded in the system that still manages to overwhelmingly, negatively impact Black families, as well as other nonwhite groups. When an appraiser lowballs the value of a home simply because a Black family owns it, you are effectively committing grand larceny. You are robbing people of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars. And it happens all the time.

There was also an incredible piece in the New York Times about this very issue in Memphis. Not just on a single homeowner, but across an entire neighborhood. Even when you account for education and income, Black neighborhoods which look demographically identical to white neighborhoods will often be valued significantly lower. We have to look at that issue for what it is: theft.

I think Owned finds itself squarely in the center of this conversation. In the most literal sense, our film explores the overt racism embedded in our housing economy. But on an emotional level, the larger conversation Owned hopes to engender is about the very nature of home ownership. Or at least the way we have constructed it in America. Because if we treat homes, first and foremost, as wealth accumulators, it will always result in teasing out the worst aspects in society.

On the financial side, we will continue to have predatory lending practices whose ambitions are to depart homeowners of their wealth and pass it up to the investor class.

And on the cultural side, if we indeed live in a racist society—which it seems we obviously do—if you think the primary purpose for your home is to build wealth and you see Black homeownership as a threat to your ability to build that wealth, you are going to do everything you can do to prevent integration from happening. Which means we will continue to have segregated neighborhoods, schools, and segregated access to resources that come along with those things.

In some sense, what Owned is arguing for is a different system of home ownership. One that attempts to decouple wealth accumulation from home ownership.

Baltimore street scene, corner grocery

When you researched the film, what did you learn that shocked you the most?

In doing research, I spent some time with an organizer in Baltimore named PFK Boom. He’s a formerly incarcerated man seeing life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He spent several years in solitary confinement before he was finally set free. Half of that time in solitary was spent as an innocent man before he even stood trial. How that is legal is beyond me…But I digress.

He described to me his experience as a former gang member-turned community organizer during the Freddie Gray uprising. He talked about taking this group of at-risk youth from his neighborhood of East Baltimore over to West Baltimore (where Freddie Gray was from).

Up until that point, this trip never would have happened because of rival gang activity between the neighborhoods. But in the spirit of camaraderie during this moment of activism and demonstrations, rivalries were breaking down. Upon visiting the west side of their own city, these East Baltimore kids were astonished by the conditions they saw. Despite the fact that East Baltimore deals with its own crumbling infrastructure and lack of resources, these kids couldn’t believe what the kids on the other side of town were dealing with.

Boom told me something I will never forget: Those East Baltimore kids had never left their zip code before that.

“Confinement f—s with your head, especially as a kid,” he said. The comment was particularly loaded for Boom, but the way he described how the city confines children and how this experience serves to restrict a kid’s capacity to dream beyond their immediate conditions…It absolutely destroyed me.

This is something that white Americans have never fully reckoned with: the slow violence that redlining and all the innumerable, vile externalities of racist housing policy have inflicted upon generations of people. To deprive others of the same benefits you get as a white person is particularly evil. But to diminish a kid’s capacity to dream by forcing them into a kind of urban incarceration is about the cruelest thing I can think of.

Every day [that] we’re not actively dismantling our ugly, racist system, we are perpetuating this violence and we are all complicit. That’s what I learned.

Jimmy Silvestri of Levittown and Brooklyn, in Owned
Jimmy Silvestri of Levittown and Brooklyn

What are some similarities in how you approached making this film and how you approached making

Feels

Good

Man

(with director Arthur Jones), as far as the style and pace? 

Historically, I feel like people have viewed documentaries as visual journalism. In some sense, they’re not wrong. There’s an immense responsibility for documentary filmmakers to get the story right, of course. But there’s also the responsibility of being a filmmaker.

At the end of the day, you are choosing to tell this story through the medium of film, rather than a book or a podcast or an article. And so you have to take that decision seriously, if you’re asking someone to sit through an 83-minute film about housing policy.

For Arthur and I, we see a lot of opportunity in making news/information-based documentaries more engaging and more cinematic than perhaps what viewers are used to experiencing. Just because you’re transmitting information does not mean you are relieved from the duties of building character and creating a visually compelling viewing experience.

The other issue we’re up against is that we are living in a post-truth world. While documentaries have historically been seen as tools to advance a particular cause through rigorous research and factual accounting, the reality is that your rhetorical ambitions as a documentary filmmaker are not necessarily emboldened by more facts.

Meaning, just because you have irrefutable, conclusive data on a subject does not mean your documentary is going to change more minds. The more critical thing to capture is the emotional truth. Ultimately, this makes for a more compelling film.

I can tell someone about redlining. I can show them the maps. I can point to the disparities in wealth over time. I can show them millions of pages of factual, irrefutable evidence of our racist housing system. But if you can’t show them what that means, on a human level, you’ve missed your opportunity as a filmmaker.

So for me, the approach is about figuring out what personal journey is best at expanding our emotional understanding of a particular issue. And if I can’t find that personal story, then maybe the subject is best left for an article or some other medium.

If you could pick a few famous Americans to see

Owned

and think about the themes explored in the film, maybe even think differently about the world, who would you pick?

Without a doubt, the first would be

Barack Obama . I feel like he had a huge opportunity during the housing crisis to fundamentally change our relationship to homeownership. I was disappointed with his response. I always felt like it was such a missed, generation-defining opportunity to fix the system to both account for its racist past, while ensuring a more equitable, stable, and accessible future. I would love for him to see Owned and maybe President Biden might join, too.

Ta-Nehisi Coates would be another. The Case for Reparations was an incredibly influential piece of work while I was filming this. He has such a rare gift of doing both incisive journalism, but imbuing it with a level of humanity and heart that becomes all-consuming. I would love to hear his critique of the film and learn from him.

I really wanted to show the film to

Eli Broad before he passed away. He was the founder of KB Homes, one of the nation’s largest home builders. Ultimately, you need to bring people like him into the fold in order to affect real change. I would love to show the film to any person who’s building at that scale, and work with them on trying to think about new models of development. I think we take for granted that suburbia wasn’t some kind of means-tested, tried-and-true apparatus. There was very little thought put into all of it. There was a need for housing. Someone threw out the idea for mass-produced suburban homes. And we just poured money into it and saw it grow.

I’m convinced that there’s a different model for homeownership that is scalable, [and] more environmentally and socially sound. One I’m certain people will love to participate in. It just requires one person to take a chance on one development with a different vision of the future.

To that end, I would love to screen the film for

Jamie Dimon. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I feel like after seeing the film, he would be inclined to back such a development model. He seems like he’s reaching a kind of introspective moment in his life. One can only accumulate so much wealth. I have to hold out hope that within the proliferation of billionaires, there must be some who’ve become bored with simply accumulating more money.

It’s like beating Contra and then just beating it again…And then again, and again. We get it. You’re good at Contra. Why not try a new game? Like a game called “Let’s fix the housing economy so more people have access to better homes and maybe it’s okay if it’s not a globally traded commodity and just a house for a person or a family?”

Morgan State University professor and writer Lawrence Brown
Morgan State University professor and writer Lawrence Brown

Were there any other stories you wanted to tell in

Owned

but didn’t have the space for?

I wanted to show audiences how our housing economy was actually just a construction of our imagination. And to do that, I wanted to go to other places around the world, to see how other cultures value homes. For example, in Japan, the home itself actually loses value over time. That what has value is not necessarily the object that is the home, but the land it sits on. In that sense, it’s more like a car. It has a functional value. Or going to a favela in Brazil, where the concept of ownership is even more complicated and fascinating.

Is there a particular moment in

Owned

that especially had an impact on you?

Certainly spending time with

Greg Butler in Baltimore [pictured at top] was a life changing experience for me. He illuminated things to me in ways I’d never really understood. There was one moment when we were filming with him outside of one of his early childhood homes that had been burned down. He described this concept of legacy. Which for the ownership class, often has a lot to do with property and passing material goods down to future generations. 

But in marginalized communities who’ve been historically cut out of that ownership system, legacy is earned in a different way. That was an incredible gift Greg gave me. I hope audiences see it, too. I know there’s a lot to digest in the film. But that one moment has always stuck with me. Because at the end of the day, what I want people to take away from this film is a deeper understanding of what home means to them.

Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film that you can share?

I’m happy to report that many of the central figures in our film have gone on to do extraordinary things since filming with them.

Nikole Hannah-Jones went on to win a MacArthur [Fellowship] and published the much-celebrated 1619 Project.

Richard Rothstein published a book called The Color of Law, which went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award.

Lawrence Brown published his book about the legacy of redlining in Baltimore called The Black Butterfly

Chuck Marohn ’s organization, Strong Towns, has grown on a national level, and I’m happy to report that many, many more people come to his lectures than what we captured in our film. Jim and his wife Donna have grown their real estate business and are doing better than ever.

And Greg Butler’s case was ultimately dropped, as was his restitution payments. He’s now an educator at a celebrated charter school in Baltimore.

Lastly, what documentaries or feature films would you say influenced you in making this one?

The films that influenced Owned are probably Manufactured Landscapes, Grizzly Man, and The Century of Self.

Photo credits: David Usui except where noted.


Footnotes :

https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/12/07/marin-appraiser-sued-for-alleged-race-discrimination/

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/18/magazine/real-estate-memphis-black-neighborhoods.html

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Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.

Source : https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/owning-up-to-the-dark-history-of-americas-housing-industry/

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