James Armstrong and Chris Lewis | Photo Credit: Rayford Johnson

James Armstrong III and Builders of Hope Continues Working to Change Lives and the Face of Homeownership in North Texas

By Lynn Pearcey

Five years ago, James Armstrong III was tapped to take over the reins of Builders of Hope (BOH), a once fledgling non-profit organization focused on bringing affordable housing to underserved citizens. Much has happened since the ushering in of new leadership with real estate in North Texas seeing its fair share of ebbs and flows. But through it all, ebbs, and flows, peaks, and valleys, BOH and the vision it was founded upon remain constant.

Perhaps more than any other sector of the economy, real estate is cyclical, with twists and turns that can wreak havoc on even the strongest business minds. During COVID-19, real estate was white hot, with buyers lining up for blocks hoping to secure a dream home. A period of stabilization followed the surge in home sales before demand driven by a limited supply prompted another purchasing run. But, regardless of the state of the market, one thing holds true: minorities are always on the short end of the stick when it comes to homeownership.

James Armstrong III wants to fix that right a wrong that for too long has come to be viewed as the accepted norm. We spent time with Armstrong III and newly appointed COO Chris Lewis to look back, look forward, get access to their grand plan to right wrongs, and ultimately change the face of North Texas homeownership.

A Lot Can Happen in Five Years 

“If I had to use one phrase to describe these last five years it would be exponential growth. From partnerships to people and projects, we’ve seen significant growth in each of these areas,” said Armstrong. “We’ve also become CHDO certified, and this allows us to serve all of Dallas County, not just two to three communities.” 

Diversity in projects is the hallmark of any good developer and this fact was not lost upon Armstrong III. Having a mix of residential options is crucial because every family is different in terms of wants, needs, and income, but every family deserves a home. “We have a diverse mix of projects in our pipeline that include multi-family and subdivision development by design as it provides balance. The best part is that each project reflects our expanding partnership base and people readily accepting our message.” 

The Personal Nehemiah Experience

Nehemiah is one of the most significant figures in the Holy Bible. Known for being a man of great patience and hope, he received the call to repair Jerusalem, a city that, at the time, lay in ruins and was a source of humiliation for its citizens. A native of Dallas, Armstrong III heard a similar call while driving through the streets of West Dallas. “I like to call it my personal Nehemiah Experience, and after hearing the call, I decided to become involved in the effort to resurrect my city.”

Armstrong III has always been a man of the people with a passion for community service. A Baylor University graduate with a BBA in Finance, he cut his professional teeth working with high-end clientele at market leaders like JPMorgan Chase and BBVA Compass. But even as he charted a course through corporate, he knew his path would eventually lead him to serve the community.

“West Dallas was my Jerusalem, and I set about doing the work of rebuilding.”

Chris Lewis | Photo Credit: Rayford Johnson

Enter Chris Lewis 

Things began to get hectic at BOH but in a good way. With the executive load becoming too much for him to shoulder alone, Armstrong III knew he needed help, and he knew just the man to call: Chris Lewis. A Navy veteran with an engineering background, his meticulous, calculated nature was just the thing BOH needed to manage the now dizzying volume of opportunities in their pipeline.

An accomplished Project Manager, Lewis brought order, has helped to streamline processes, and consistently plays a major role in each project from inception to completion. “The technical aspects of my background have been invaluable and helped me guide the organization during the various phases of development,” commented Lewis. 

Like Armstrong III, Lewis is a native of Dallas and grew up in one of the poorest parts of the city. He noted that, in some cases, the community is suspicious of developers who make grand promises but fail to deliver. Another part of that mistrust lies in the quality of the homes, as many developers have a history of using substandard materials. 

“One of the best things we do at BOH is we take our cues from the community and build quality products. We don’t dictate. We allow the buyer to pick and choose what they want their home to look like, so they see themselves as part of the process.”

James Armstrong and Chris Lewis | Photo Credit: Rayford Johnson

Transforming the Community

To Armstrong, it’s not just about the homes his organization builds, it’s about the community. “We’re not just here to put down bricks and sticks. That’s important, but what matters more is that we lay a foundation for strong, thriving communities where everyone has a place to live and a place they’re proud to call home.” 

BOH has already activated several community transformation programs, and more are on the way. Current programs include the Mill City Project to remediate urban blight and a home improvement program aimed at West Dallas seniors. It should also be noted that an Anti-Displacement Toolkit to offset gentrification and displacement of minorities is currently being developed. Once the toolkit has been approved, it will be adopted as policy and provide a layer of protection for minority households who have historically been targeted as part of urban renewal efforts. 

Affordability is a Relative Term

There’s a stigma attached to the term affordability. Most view it as a code word for poor, disadvantaged, or Section 8 housing. The term applies to every buyer, regardless of race or socio-economic background. “If more than 30% of your income goes toward paying your mortgage, you’re living in a state of housing cost burden”, said Armstrong III. “Part of our charge is to help people of color understand this term and get them into quality homes that can become assets, not liabilities.” 

The State of Black Homeownership 

Armstrong III knows that their fight is an uphill battle, but they’re making progress, and he’s encouraged by the tools his organization is working tirelessly to put in place. Due to race-based policies and practices like redlining and Jim Crow, Black people started the race to prosperity at a severe disadvantage. “Statistics show that 76% of Whites own homes compared to only 44% of Blacks, representing a huge gap in property and wealth. They’re also a reflection of the systemic mistreatment we receive.”

The thought of displaced families keeps Armstrong III up at night and pushes him during the day. “I know we’re on the clock, and I’m constantly thinking about families in distress and how BOH can develop programs that help them salvage their homes and protect their prospects for generational wealth.”

Both Armstrong III and Lewis know that it takes more than buying a home to get Blacks on par regarding wealth with other segments of the American population. “Education in the form of financial literacy is a large part of what we’re doing here. We’re creating programs that help educate our customers, and at the same time, we’re making them aware of the ones that already exist. For example, there’s the issue of property taxes. Some communities don’t know that tax assessments can be challenged or mitigated. We’ve got to change that, and the programs we’re preparing to introduce will address these types of issues.”

The Future

The disparity in wealth and homeownership in Dallas is a microcosm of the nation. Dallas annually ranks at or near the bottom whenever the issue of minority homeownership in metropolitan areas comes to the table, but the city isn’t alone. The fact that this is a national issue points to the opportunity for expanding into other markets in the future.

When asked about the potential of this happening, Armstrong gave an answer that shows the discipline and direction that have become hallmarks of his leadership tenure. “People see what we’re doing here in Dallas, and we’ve received calls about bringing it to their cities. That might happen one day, but for now, as the old folks used to say, we’re going to clean up around our own front door before moving on to someone else’s.”