Story, video, and cover photo by Jennie Trejo. Additional photos provided by Builders of Hope.
Dallas Doing Good has had the privilege of partnering with the Communities Foundation of Texas for North Texas Giving Day over the past few years, but this year, we are doing it Texas BIG. It is the 15th anniversary of the largest community giving event in the nation, so we have selected 15 organizations to highlight leading up to Giving Day on September 21. Early giving kicked off on September 1.
James Armstrong moved around Dallas with his single mom a lot as a kid. Now, he is building affordable housing in every neighborhood that he used to live in.
“The neighborhoods that were affordable for my mom back then are still in need of affordable housing,” James explains. “So it’s a full circle.”
James is the President and CEO of Builders of Hope CDC, a multifaceted community development corporation that seeks to transform Dallas by investing in people and the places in which they live. For over 25 years, they have delivered true grassroot transformation to urban communities in Dallas by building quality affordable housing and strong, thriving neighborhoods.
James has been with Builders of Hope since 2018. “I came in with a new model for community development,” James says. “I thought about how to revitalize our most vulnerable neighborhoods without leading them to neighborhood change that displaces legacy residents.”
Their model includes constructing and preserving quality affordable housing, community transformation initiatives, cultivating public policy, and creating pathways to economic mobility.
The list of initiatives Builders of Hope has implemented over the years is extensive and impressive. Their recent contributions include the creation of the Mill City Public Safety Initiative, an Anti-Displacement Toolkit, and, coming soon, a Neighborhood Preservation Center that will provide public assistance for all things housing-related.
Mill City is a historically underserved neighborhood in South Dallas with about 5,000 households. The Mill City Public Safety Initiative was created in partnership with the City and other local organizations to remediate abandoned lots and buildings with a block-by-block approach. Research supports that crime is reduced dramatically in neighborhoods where vacant lots are cleaned up.
This revitalization aims to reduce violent crime, increase resident satisfaction with the quality and condition of their neighborhood, and provide an efficient alternative to the City’s current code compliance for addressing blight.
Aside from digging into neighborhoods that need support, James and his team also teach residents how to advocate for themselves and each other. They include community leaders in the conversations and hear their concerns.
“What we saw is the very families that we built housing for in these communities are now at risk for displacement because of the rise in property values, which equates to a higher tax bill,” James says. “So we wanted to do something about it.”
As a result, Builders of Hope created an Anti-Displacement Toolkit and the Neighborhood Advocacy Leadership Program. They turned to premier minds and thought leaders on equitable neighborhood development and the best models nationwide to do this.
The project identifies 18 neighborhoods across Dallas vulnerable to gentrification and displacement, plus whether it is preventable or reversible. James hopes it will be a policy solution and steer development decisions so that low and moderate-income families have a greater chance of staying in their homes and building wealth.
“Displacement is an American phenomenon,” James says. “It’s seen throughout every major city. When you look at it from the Dallas context, you will see that it cuts deeper because we are already dealing with these huge disparities created by some oppressive and racially motivated policies in the past, like Jim Crow and redlining.”
James explains that when you layer the disparities on top of an inequitable development process, you see the Black and brown communities in Dallas are at high risk for displacement at any given time, now more than ever.
“We’re living in a time where our workforce is unable to afford homeownership in the City of Dallas,” James elaborates, “and that should be scary for us. That should move us to action.”
Builders of Hope has moved to action. In the 25 years that they have existed, their activities have created approximately $35 million in wealth for low to moderate-income families. They have built over 500 single-family homes totaling $60 million in single-family real estate constructed, and three major residential subdivisions developed.
It is clear that James stays busy, but he says that his story and connection to the communities he supports with his organization keep him motivated.
“The earliest memory that I have living in West Dallas was my mom, my sister, and I sleeping on a twin mattress in the projects,” James says. “Our life did not become stable until my mom became a homeowner. She pulled herself up from the grips of poverty. She got her education and was able to provide economic mobility that had lasting change.”
James believes every family deserves that right– the right to improve their economic position.
“We as practitioners of community development have to be the ones to remove those barriers,” James says. “That’s what makes me passionate about not only the displacement work but building quality, affordable homes that deliver instant equity to homeowners. It’s about providing more than just shelter.”
On average, James says homeowners walk into $80,000 in equity on day one of living in their Builders of Hope home. In the West Dallas project, homeowners are walking in with about $200,000 in equity, which is the difference between the market value of the house and the price they pay for it.
“Because of the racially oppressive policies of the past, we have to do everything we can to close that gap and build a bridge for hardworking families to improve their economic position,” James says. “If there’s a way that you can deliver a basic human right that also breaks cycles of poverty, then it’s a win for everybody. We feel like we are closing the gap on some of those disparities in the city.”
Looking forward, James and his team plan on opening a Neighborhood Preservation Center that focuses on being a one-stop shop for all things that involve protecting, preserving, and promoting affordable housing and neighborhood self-determination in Dallas. It will include services like pre-homebuyer education, property tax abatement, homestead exemptions, tangled title issues, etc.
They are also building 36-unit multifamily projects to provide Dallas residents with more housing options.
“By donating to Builders of Hope, you are investing in our most vulnerable communities,” James says. “You are giving families a fighting chance of economic mobility.”