Brownsville, Texas, sits high in the rankings where cities want to come in low. It's the poorest city in America, with 36 percent of its residents living in poverty. (By contrast, the poverty level in the nation's richest city, San Jose, California, is 10.8 percent.) It has among the country's highest rates of diabetes and obesity, conditions that are estimated to affect up to half the local population. Other cities in Texas' Rio Grande Valley don't fare much better: McAllen, 60 miles to the west, is second-poorest in the nation.
This part of South Texas is known for its colonias, neighborhoods that developers conjured out of worthless land back in the 1950s to sell in small lots to poor, mostly Hispanic buyers, sometimes with false promises of improvements to come. There are about 1,800 colonias in Texas, and many still lack basic infrastructure like paved roads and sewage.
Against this backdrop, the body of work produced in and around the city over the last few years by a small design nonprofit and the local CDC is all the more remarkable.
Together, bcWorkshop—led by Brent Brown, a Dallas architect—and the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB) have built an attractive, 56-unit complex of affordable housing called La Hacienda Casitas. They completed a new hiking and biking trail through one of the city's most disadvantaged neighborhoods; developed a prototype for disaster-relief housing; and did major planning work to improve the infrastructure in seven colonias, with an eye to making them more resistant to flooding and high winds. They began offering personalized design assistance to low-income families buying homes through CDCB. And a second new housing complex (La Hacienda Two) is about to break ground.
In a very poor region, stringing together grants and project fees, these two organizations have gotten results at a pace that New York developers might envy. How do they do it?
"We can whack these things out," says Nick Mitchell-Bennett, the CDC's executive director. By "things," he means houses: CDCB typically builds about 150 per year, making it one of the highest-volume affordable housing groups in Texas. Over time, it had perfected a streamlined system to keep production chugging along; sticking to five or six standard house designs was part of that efficiency.
Until, that is, the CDC started collaborating with bcWorkshop. It didn't take long for the designers to see how they could add the most value: by inserting a four-to-six-week design phase into CDCB's delivery process, allowing for more individualized plans that reflected input from the homes' future owners.
"My team's going, 'Are you freaking kidding me?'" remembers Mitchell-Bennett. "'You are going to slow things down. We don’t have time to add four weeks to this, or six.'"
But they found the time. So the designers surveyed clients, asking them what they liked and disliked about their current homes. They encouraged them to bring in photos of features they wanted, and even had them OK construction documents before any hammers were lifted.
"Somebody who makes $8.50 an hour, they're never asked, 'What do you want?'" Mitchell-Bennett points out. "The longest part of it is getting them out of their shell." The new process pays off in the clients' sense of empowerment and ownership, he says. "By the end of the process ... they designed this house."
Brent Brown started working with Mitchell-Bennett and the CDC in 2011, on the La Hacienda Casitas project. CDCB was already partnering with a number of local organizations—among them the community organizers La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and Arise, a grassroots women's group—but design was the missing piece.
"There's a real need for what I would consider design-focused effort to assist other organizing and community-building efforts" in the Rio Grande Valley, Brown says. "So it made a nice fit." (His perception is backed by data: Brownsville has only five professional architecture practices for a population of 178,000.)
Soon, the workshop and the CDC were collaborating on the colonia planning initiative and on Rapido, a pilot project for disaster-relief housing that was the brainchild of John Henneberger, a low-income housing advocate who just won the MacArthur "genius" prize. BcWorkshop established a permanent Brownsville office, which has grown to employ six people and is currently led by Omar Hakeem.
Hakeem got his start in social-impact design after Hurricane Katrina, when he spent six months living in a tent pitched on a church parking lot in Biloxi, Mississippi, helping with recovery efforts. The best thing about the work with CDCB, he says, has been the chance to think on different scales, all of which interact with each other.
Understanding a colonia's vulnerability to flooding, for instance, doesn't just help you design a better drainage system for the neighborhood—it's knowledge you bring to your next set of house plans, including the cost estimates. "It's been great to understand issues holistically," Hakeem says, adding, "We work really hard with CDCB to make sure our houses are coming in at the right price." He is full of admiration for the group's speed and efficiency: "They've got it down," he says.
The design studio and affordable-housing developer are eyeing a still larger scale as they work with the City of Brownsville, the nonprofit Public Architecture, and other partners on plans for a new University of Texas campus. Mitchell-Bennett is grateful for the involvement of Brown and bcWorkshop, and not just because they design buildings that look cool.
High-quality designs get local officials excited, Mitchell-Bennett explains. When they're excited, they'll try to do whatever it takes to make sure the buildings end up looking that way—like supporting the intensive community engagement that both CDCB and bcWorkshop insist on.