- POLICY ACTIVATIONS
The HAND network is hard at work to address the growing housing affordability challenge across the Capital Region. Five Minutes With is a series highlighting these members and other stakeholders. This informal conversation delves into their recent projects, the affordable housing industry, and more. In the latest edition, we have a conversation with Suman Sorg, Founder of A Complete Unknown. Sorg chatted with us about her extensive experience in the architecture and design space and her journey to this point. She tells us the origin and explains why she starting A Complete Unknown. She highlights what separates A Complete Unknown from other architecture firms. Check out our dialogue below:
HAND: You have extensive experience in the architecture and design space – can you tell us about your journey to this point?
SS: For over 26 years I grew my first firm, Sorg Architects, into one of the largest woman-owned architectural firms before its acquisition. During that time I was fortunate to have worked on projects in over 30 countries and was recognized with Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects (AIA). However, when I looked back the most meaningful work that I completed during that time were those that made the most impact on its occupants and the surrounding community. With this realization, I have now channeled my energies into this new non-profit design firm A Complete Unknown.
HAND: Tell us about how A Complete Unknown came to be. What prompted you to start this firm?
SS: With my previous firm, I did a lot of work in underserved communities or for people in need. They weren’t the largest or most glamorous buildings or the ones that made the most money but are the ones that I carry in my heart the most.
When we finished the John & Jill Ker Conway Residences in Washington, D.C., 120-units of permanent supportive housing, I was so touched by meeting the people who moved in and hearing about the impact that having this kind of housing has had on their lives. In fact, the first person to moved into the building was a guitarist in Elvis Presley’s band. After Elvis died, this gentleman joined the army and served in Vietnam. Hooked on heroin, and unable to connect with family, he landed in Washington DC after the war and was homeless ever since. At a computer room in the building, donated in part by my own family foundation which helps residents acquire basic computer skills, the staff was able to help locate his family. The joy on his face to learn that his sister lived just a few blocks away, was indescribable.
Now I want to only do buildings like these and serve communities, people, and nature in need.
HAND: What excites you about your work over the next year? Do you foresee any challenges?
SS: With A Complete Unknown, we hope to make an impact on a wide range of disadvantaged communities focusing on affordable and housing for the unhoused. There is an awareness now, that has been building for quite some time, actually, that empathetic architecture should be the norm. It’s not just what we design but how It impacts the surrounding communities, nature, and animals. The exciting part is seeing how other partners like developers or engineers are also understanding this and more importantly wanting to address this.
As for any challenges, It’s been clear to me in the first 7 months since we officially launched that there is a demand for the type of work we do. However, the big question is how can we get in front of the people who are doing this work such as non-profit developers and community leaders? If we can do that well, we can show them that we are here and are able to help you, right now.
HAND: What factor separates A Complete Unknown from other architecture firms?
SS: As a non-profit Architecture firm, we are driven by our mission which is making a difference through architecture and design in underserved communities worldwide. Therefore, the emphasis we place on equity and social justice is a critical part of what we do. We believe that good design should be accessible to all. Also, being a 501(c)3 organization we are able to pursue grants and to support our client’s philanthropic goals. Our services are offered at a discounted rate depending on the project, thus reducing the soft costs of development and helping more of these projects come to fruition.
HAND: What is one thing you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career?
SS: The act of designing and building is a long process so the relationship between a designer and client is like a marriage. You want a good partner who is going to trust you, have a good dialogue, and you can work with for a long time. We would like to get into a relationship like this with someone who matches our ethos, goals, and mission. It didn’t take me long to figure this out, but it’s especially true when working on projects where the economics are tight like affordable and housing for the homeless.
HAND: What do you think is the largest hurdle when it comes to designing spaces for underserved populations?
SS: Under-represented populations are often overlooked in a variety of ways and so there is often a lack of funding or commitment to these types of developments. When they do get funded they still tend to be underfunded for what needs to be built. This leads to buildings of lesser quality, with compromised programs and less durability. Also, these developments tend not to address the bigger picture. For example, truancy, literacy, and obesity are all issues that affect underserved communities disproportionately but are not addressed as regularly. These are the things that we also consider in every project that we take on.
HAND: What is your “why”? What keeps you motivated to continue your work in this space?
SS: In architecture school, I never heard about love, compassion, or empathy in our coursework. There is so much opportunity in the collaboration of architects, social workers, and volunteers and we need to promote listening, unselfconscious doing, and modesty in the profession. There is arguably no better sector to work with this perspective than in affordable and housing for the homeless. Being able to work collaboratively about how buildings fit within the context of the community and more importantly how they can serve those in need. That’s how we can make a difference.
With a design approach that is infused with the basic tenets of humanity, such as compassion, love and a pledge to nonviolence towards all – humans, animals and nature; we are searching for an architecture beyond one that does no harm or even withstands harm to one that can undo the harm. In this endeavor I happily find that the outcome and the path to it are both a complete unknown.
HAND: If you weren’t working in this industry, what might you be doing?
SS: Long before I became an architect my grandmother would say she thought I would be a doctor. I liked the idea as I would be doing something that helped people. But when my father met Louis Khan in Ahmedabad while working on the Management Institute and later Corbusier in Chandigarh, he suggested I look into architecture as a major in college. I did, and my artistic side fell in love. Without that guidance, I probably would have become a doctor. I have also painted for many years, so likely I would also be doing more of that.
A lack of investments, an unstimulated economy, and inadequate access to healthy foods, education and healthcare is not an unfamiliar reality of low-income communities. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund) created the New Market Tax Credit Program (NMTC Program) to reinvigorate struggling local economies of low-income communities by breaking the cycle of disinvestment. The NMTC Program accomplishes its goal by permitting investors to receive a tax credit against their federal income tax in exchange for making equity investments in specialized financial intermediaries called Community Development Entities. The credit totals 39 percent of the original investment amount and is claimed over a period of seven years. The CDFI Fund recently announced those awarded the 2020 NMTC allocation. We are excited to uplift and congratulate our members who have received this award:
For more information, please see the NMTC Program Fact Sheet (English / Español). A detailed overview of the NMTC Program, including information on eligible activities, can also be found in the Introduction to the NMTC Program presentation.
AHF’s 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards Finalists
Thirty-six developments have been named AHF’s 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards Finalists. Each development was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 or 2021 and built for families, seniors, homeless people, and people with special needs. With over 20 HAND Members represented in at least one of the finalist developments, HAND is proud to highlight our members who have contributed to the development of those projects. Check out the full listing developments here.
If you are an AHF magazine and newsletter subscriber then you can vote for the winners beginning on August 2nd until August 20th. The winners will be recognized at AHF Live: The 2021 Affordable Housing Developers Summit, on November 15-17, 2021 in Chicago.
The HAND network is hard at work to address the growing housing affordability challenge across the Capital Region. Five Minutes With is a series highlighting these members and other stakeholders. This informal conversation delves into their recent projects, the affordable housing industry, and more. In the latest edition, we have a conversation with Georgetown University’s Law Professor Anthony Cook. Cook chatted with us about his journey and how he landed in the community development industry. He explains the origin story of GateBridge, his forthcoming affordable housing community that will provide opportunities for renters to become homeowners and workers to become business owners. He highlights what sets GateBridge apart from other communities. Check out our dialogue below:
HAND: Tell us a bit about your journey. You have a really interesting story and extensive experience in a number of fields – can you speak to how you landed in the community development industry?
AC:I was born in the small rural community of Magnolia, MS. It was a community of mutual aid associations and relationships that had the church at its core. While none of us called it this at the time, I later came to understand it was, in fact, a community of residents engaged in a practice of community development: building and renovating each others’ houses; borrowing tools and lending expertise and assistance on a wide range of endeavors – from homestead repairs to quilting and canning vegetables, from growing crops, slaughtering hogs, and sharing with those in need to co-parenting and providing employment and enrichment opportunities for children. On the other hand, it was Mississippi, and one of my earliest childhood memories was of a cross being burned across the road in the churchyard – one of many threats against Black churches and communities involved in the civil rights movement and demanding the right to vote and equal rights. The community came together in many different ways to protect itself against domestic terrorists who intended to undermine democracy and harm our community. It was a tumultuous time, as are the times in which we live today, but growing up in that community taught me the importance of simultaneously building community through what we now call placemaking and establishing the necessary preconditions for communities and individuals to flourish. These were the laws, policies, structures, and systems that impacted life and opportunities within our community. So, in many ways, community development, a very rich and textured understanding of the term, is part of my DNA, and I have Magnolia, Mississippi to thank for that.
HAND: Let’s talk about GateBridge. How did it come about?
AC: As a Georgetown law professor, I’ve practiced and taught in the field of community development and affordable housing for many years. I understand the limitations and often contradictory policies around affordable housing for low-income and workforce populations. This work has led me to believe that building more affordable units is a necessary but insufficient solution to our present crisis in affordable housing, particularly as a tool for fighting poverty. The crisis facing under and disinvested communities are complex and intertwined. Poverty is highly racialized, place-based, gendered, and age-concentrated. These populations need quality housing in a stable and secure environment that furthers health and wellbeing, access to nutritious food, living wage jobs, and home and business ownership opportunities. All of these are interrelated parts of a larger problem sitting at the intersection of poverty and longstanding structural and systemic racism. In the future, affordable housing solutions will need to anchor affordable developments with the kind of robust placemaking that expands the capacity of residents and community to tackle these interrelated problems. GateBridge is a vision of how this can be accomplished – affordable residential units anchored by an incubator for placemaking and the kind of cooperative and community enterprise development needed to build the entrepreneurial capacity of residents to find solutions to problems confronted by their communities. It was this kind of rich and intentional placemaking and economic ecosystem that made it possible for a kid like me to thrive, despite growing up poor in one of the poorest states in the country. I believe these communities can do the same for others.
HAND: What sets GateBridge apart from other communities?
SK: GateBridge is a community of change-makers. It promotes multifamily limited-equity cooperatives anchored by an incubator for cooperative and other community businesses. GateBridgebuilds resident and community wealth by providing an opportunity for renters to become homeowners and workers to become business owners.
HAND: What excites you about this community? What challenges do you foresee?
AC: GateBridge Communities center placemaking as an indispensable tool for impacting under and disinvested communities. Only by building the capacities of residents to plan and execute their own community development can initiatives become sustainable. Sustainability is crucial to any long-term effort to reform structures, systems, and practices in place for generations. The primary challenge for GateBridge is building its balance sheet and finding balance sheet partners that can help expand our capacity to build a portfolio of GateBridge communities in the DMV and region.
HAND: What is one thing you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career?
AC: I wish I had appreciated then, as I do now, the vital need for legislative reforms in this space. In many ways, the system creating affordable housing shortages and our present crisis is designed to do exactly what it is doing. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result. Innovations in the market are possible around the edges, and GateBridge stretches the existing system to its limits, but to scale GateBridge-like innovations requires a different system of financing affordable housing. It requires recalibrating priorities around brick and mortar development on the one hand and human development on the other. Like GateBridge, the human development component can no longer be an afterthought. It must be an integral part of development, built into the capital stack and funded with the precision and care of the building itself.
HAND: As someone who took somewhat of an untraditional route into community development, what do you think is the largest hurdle when it comes to creating and preserving affordable housing across our region?
AC: Access to low cost and less extractive capital is essential. Federal funding programs like LIHTC make the construction and preservation of affordable housing much more complicated than it needs to be, largely because financing structures based around tax credit incentives serve the interests of an investor class over those of local communities. Low-interest federal loans channeled through community financial institutions to vetted and approved local developers, preferably those with a strong track record in the community, should cover ninety percent and more of the total cost of qualifying developments. Revising affordable housing financing structures would go a long way in meeting the demand for affordable and secure housing. Furthermore, there should be pathways to at least limited equity ownership for residents of multifamily units.
HAND: What is your “why”? What keeps you motivated to continue your work in this space?
AC: Many BIPOC communities have been devastated by a long history of policies originating beyond their communities: urban renewal, investment in suburban growth and the disinvestment in urban centers, redlining, gentrification, and inefficient neo-liberal, supplyside tax credit programs that have benefitted those not residing in under and disinvested communities more than it has benefited those within the communities. The pendulum must swing back in the direction of community-generated affordable housing anchored by the kind of placemaking and community wealth building envisioned by a GateBridge Community.
HAND: Do you believe there is a “secret sauce” to addressing housing affordability? If so, what do you think that is?
AC: Community-based access to long-term, low-cost, debt financing that covers at least ninety percent of the costs of producing affordable housing, along with funding for metrics-driven, evidence-based human development supports that improve residents’ quality of life and helps move them to greater self-sufficiency.
HAND: What is one thing most people don’t know about you? Do you have any hidden talents?
AC: I love traveling, fine dining, music, and stimulating conversation around visionary ideas and the nitty-gritty of bringing them to life.
It has been a challenging time for housing and community development nonprofits as demand for our work has increased, but resources have diminished. However, now more than ever, we know that a safe, affordable home is an important foundation for any individual or family – and our work must continue as our communities are relying on us. Here to help your nonprofit thrive is the Virginia Community Development Corporation (VCDC)’s Mission Elevation program. The year – long program brings together a cohort of like- minded organizations and provides access to custom mentoring & tools to help your nonprofit strategically face the top challenge impeding mission & impact in the communities you serve.
Learn more and apply today (applications are accepted on a rolling basis until a cohort is formed):
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