OWNED: A Tale of Two Americas is a film about the history of housing in 20th century America. Housing policy in the United States established two unequal Americas: one characterized by seemingly endless growth, and another by neglect and abandonment—the suburbs and the city, if framed in binary terms. This organization was propelled by a desire to segregate populations, a system that has drastically affected the ability for non-white families to create intergenerational wealth. OWNED argues that the housing crash in 2008 and movements like Black Lives Matter are related in that they both reveal the problematic ways we have built cities in America.
The film listens to experts in architecture, housing policy, economics, and history, as well as individuals whose lives and livelihoods are tied to real estate. Beyond these stories, it uses montage and stock footage to make these history lessons come to life. OWNED is timely viewing in a moment where we are confronting systemic racism.
In 2018, the film was screened at Rice Cinema as part of the 2018 Houston Cinema Arts Festival in partnership with the ArCH Film Festival. A panel discussion afterwards included conversation between Angelini, Dr. Assata Richards (Director, Sankofa Research Institute), Steve Radom (Principal, Radom Capital), and Raj Mankad (Editor, Cite).
OWNED is the first full-length documentary by Giorgio Angelini, who graduated from Rice Architecture in 2013. The following interview with him connects the inspiration for the film with current events after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
OWNED is available on most major streaming platforms, but the RDA also has free viewing codes for Cite readers. If you’d like to view OWNED for free, email Cite editor Jack Murphy for a code: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Murphy: How did growing up in Houston shape your interest in making a film about single-family home ownership?
Jack Murphy: How did growing up in Houston shape your interest in making a film about single-family home ownership?
Giorgio Angelini: Growing up here, you are exposed to a specific kind of unmitigated American sprawl. Even at an early age, I feel like I understood what zoning meant, simply because Houston was so defiantly against it. That said, I was also the child of immigrants. Through visiting other countries as a kid, I became more acutely aware of how strange Houston actually was in comparison to all the other places I visited, for better or worse. As I grew up, I started to think more directly about the ways that city planning and infrastructures shapes culture and society. How and why did people arrive at these planning decisions? None of it happened by accident or natural consequence.
What did you learn in school at Rice Architecture that prepared you for the creative work of being a filmmaker?
I entered grad school after spending several years on the road as a touring musician. Part of the fallout of the 2008 housing collapse was that it also destroyed the live concert touring market. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the existential question of “What do I want to do with my life?” What was I actually building towards?
I entered grad school just as Sarah Whiting was starting her role as Dean, and her presence was instrumental in my education. More specifically, I’d never really given much thought to the idea of process and art making. Architectural education forces you to confront these issues head-on rather than leaving decision-making to divine intervention, as was often the case when I was making music. Sarah would often say that architecture is a “generalist’s practice,” meaning that you need to know a little about a lot of things. And then all of that knowledge coalesces into a coherent project. This is what makes architecture as a discipline so special. She also said, maybe on her first day as Dean, that all architecture is political. I remember that simple quote inspiring a pretty intense debate in studio afterwards. Of course, any art worth remembering has some political position. But it was worth reminding students that decisions in architecture don’t happen in a vacuum; they touch on all kinds of political decisions that you’re dealing with, whether you like it or not. It was from wondering about what role architecture—or a young architect, for that matter—could play in rebuilding a healthier housing economy that I decided to make OWNED.
Coming to film from architecture made me think more critically about how to build a story and how the medium of film could help make my rhetorical argument. As with architecture, where you’re constantly shifting scales, from the corner detail of how a window meets a wall to the entire elevation, in film you’re constantly having to assess the ramifications of a barrage of small decisions that collectively amount to a film, eventually. Studying architecture trained my brain to think at those constantly-shifting scales while keeping in mind the ultimate vision of the project.
Your original ideas about the film were more closely related to design and emerged from photographs you made of California’s Inland Empire. What were those initial ideas and how did they change?
I watched Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes several times during 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 my film, 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 seventy 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 SF to 2700 SF. So, fewer people were inhabiting far more space.
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.
Given our heightened awareness about systemic racism now, what do you think architects should learn in school about how these historic issues have shaped and shape the built environment?
Architects have ceded so much control to developers and to bankers in defining the desires of consumers. Architects must take a more active role in envisioning our futures. Because we’re the only field that is thinking about these issues on a comprehensive, systemic level. Or at least, that’s what we should be thinking about. More often than not, architecture is relegated to the roll of serving capital interests, which are just about serving consumer desires. Because these desires were constructed in the first place, we can change them.
Architects should be doing more visioneering, with more attempts to change the desires of consumers. Suburbia wasn’t a desirable place to be in the 50s. The retired cops in Levittown, as seen in OWNED, all dreaded the idea of leaving the city and going out to the humdrum solitude of suburbia. But those desires changed over time, and designers of all kinds, from copywriters and advertisers to architects, all took part in reshaping those consumer behaviors. We need to spend more time shaping new ones, taking into account all the mistakes that were made. This means getting more directly involved in development or working for city planning departments. If architects don’t play this role, no one else will. We should re-dedicate the profession to the challenge of democratizing housing. We ought to take seriously what equity in housing means, on personal, societal, and ecological levels.
You’ve said that getting to know Baltimore was an important moment when making the film. That has been an important city for me as my father’s family lives in and around the city. What did you learn there?
In doing research for the film, I spent some time with an organizer in Baltimore named PFK Boom. He’s a formerly incarcerated man who was 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... 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 young kids 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 gang activity. 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. “Confinement fucks 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 we’re not actively dismantling our ugly, racist system, we are perpetuating this violence and we are all complicit. That’s what I learned.
The film links the desperation felt by suburban homeowners during the housing crisis to the desperation felt by individuals who live in neglected urban areas. Can you say more about that linkage?
Suburban expansion and white flight are often seen as benign consequences of natural shifts in consumer demands. Conversely, white Americans have often looked at the plight of “urban” America through an equally persistent mischaracterization; they refuse to see the connection between these two experiences. None of this happened by accident. The federal government overtly picked winners and losers. For decades white Americans benefited from a form of economic affirmative action through several policies that allowed them to build generational wealth through home ownership. Meanwhile Black Americans were denied these same benefits. They were segregated and relegated to live in under-funded, inner-city neighborhoods, and systematically denied access to all the other benefits of living in these newly developed suburbs. Lately, Black families in America have 1/10th the wealth of white families. Home ownership is a huge component of that equation.
We can account for this reality in two different ways. Either you think Black Americans are innately incapable of competing in our economy, or you recognize there’s a structural system that was intended to prevent Black families from achieving wealth parity with their white counterparts. In the first case you’re an outright racist. In the second, if you recognize the structural benefits of being white but are unwilling to support the necessary changes to create a more equitable society, then you’re also a racist, albeit in a less cartoonish, more insidious way.
The 2008 housing collapse made it clear that this system of wealth creation which had historically benefited white families was now preying on them. As home mortgages became globally traded commodities, wealth was transferred from the homeowner to the investor class. What the film hopes to communicate is that the system is broken. Where it was once benefiting white families explicitly at the expense of Black ones, it now benefits the investor class at the expense of everyone else.
The hope, then, is that we learn from this history of housing discrimination; become aware of its current, more broadly predatory nature; and join together to build a new housing economy that creates reparations for those who were harmed in the first place, while creating a more equitable system for everyone in the long-term.
What response to the film have you received from design communities that have seen it? Architects, landscape architects, or urban planners are not usually the ones financing the projects they work on; what do you say to designers who are looking to acquire more agency within developer-led projects?
The film has received broad support from the planning and design community. We screened the film for the Minneapolis City Council and Planning Commission in October 2018. A few weeks later, the city ended restrictive single-family zoning. I don’t think the film single-handedly made that happen, by any means! But it has helped advocates communicate a message to their audiences that may help carve a path towards solutions.
In practical terms, it’s vital that architects get more directly involved in development and policy. We should work to offer better visions of the future. I hope architects can recapture the dynamism of early Modernists and make good on the promise of democratized housing.
Developers are ultimately opportunists. They build what they think people want to buy. Architects used to be the ones shaping those desires; we need to re-capture that role. We cannot rely on billionaire futurists to guide these trends. Their motives, while at times beneficial to the greater good, ultimately only exist to serve the investor class. While technology is great, the people who work in tech are not trained to synthesize the problems of the built environment and society. They have a very narrow view through which they engineer solutions. Architecture is the only discipline that actively seeks to synthesize these two points. We should take that task more seriously.
You’ve said that home ownership is good but should be made more equitable. After making the film, what kinds of housing reform do you think would be viable to help with the housing affordability crises we see in most American cities?
I’m not sure what specific policy decisions need to be made. Ending single-family zoning will help. City councils need to stand up to NIMBY homeowners who consistently prevent changes in zoning to allow for more density. I also think the government should get more directly involved in building affordable housing vs the utterly confounding process by which public-private partnerships currently exists.
The reformulating our housing economy should be focused on finding ways to remove financial speculation from the role of the home. This is the critical point, I think. If you want to buy a home in today’s market, you basically only have one choice: whether you want to participate in the casino operation that is American home ownership or not.
I would love to see more commitment at the federal level to expand the creation of community land trusts or something similar. If you want to have the security of home ownership without speculative risk, people should have the option. This should be a product that exists: a home ownership structure in which one can buy the home and when they’re ready to sell, they get out what they put in. Plus, some accounting for inflation, maintenance, etc. I think given this option, millions of Americans would prefer taking the security of a decommodified home versus spinning the roulette wheel.
One of the stated goals and projects of the Green New Deal legislation is to “provide all people of the United States with affordable, safe, and adequate housing.” How do you see housing being a part of this type of systemic change?
On an ecological level, the negative impact of suburban development is obvious. “Affordable, safe, and adequate” is well and good but in terms of the Green New Deal, we should also understand how we’re building that affordable, safe, and adequate housing.
More than any other aspect of your life, where you live will influence your capacity to advance socio-economically. The most influential factor in any person’s life is the zip code in which they grew up. If you take that conceit seriously and you accept the fact that we’ve built a housing economy that deliberately benefits some at the expense of others, I don’t know how you can continue maintaining the status quo and thinking this country is a meritocracy of any kind.
Housing policy touches on so many things, from policing, to schools, to access to food, to parks, to the environment. Housing is everything. Any conversation about systemic change must start with housing policy.
The film has been out for a year but still feels relevant right now. How do you connect OWNED to these more immediate current events?
Police brutality is inextricably linked to housing policy. White suburban Americans who scoff at the idea of defunding the police often return to the tired refrain, “How can you keep the peace without police?” Yet the experience of most suburban Americans is devoid of police. It’s not the presence of police that makes the suburbs “peaceful,” it’s access to social and physical infrastructures that suburban living provides. As such, we should have the courage and determination to chart a new path, one where a city like Los Angeles—where I live—doesn’t spend more than half of its city budget on policing. Instead, it ought to invest more money into neighborhoods. We need to understand that ending poverty is the best way to lower crime, not turning neighborhoods into police states.
Police unions are acutely aware of the suburban American paranoia. They play that to their own benefit. The obscene cost of policing in cities across this country is the direct consequence of police unions manipulating the home owners into believing that if they didn’t exist to “keep the peace” in poor neighborhoods, then you’d be at risk of crime from invaders. This loop requires more cops, larger weapons, military-grade munitions, and armed army vehicles. It’s a paranoid delusion probably best represented by last weekend’s confrontation between a heavily-armed white couple in St. Louis who confused peaceful protestors marching on their street with armed insurrection at the front door of their lavish mansion sporting the stereotypical attire of white American privilege. I think everything you need to know about housing, policing, and the BLM movement is contained in those photos.
What are you working on now and next?
We’re about to release Feels Good Man, a film I made with my creative partner Arthur Jones. It’s about cartoonist Matt Furie, the creator of the now-infamous Pepe the Frog, and his fight to take back control of his creation from internet trolls, professional racists, and alt-right ghouls. In a sense, it’s very similar to OWNED: Both are films about commodified infrastructures (one physical, one digital) and how they serve to divide people. The story of Pepe’s coopting by online grifters is a kind of cautionary tale about how the internet has subverted our consensus of what is reality after Donald Trump’s election. We premiered at Sundance where we won the Special Jury Prize for emerging filmmaker. We’re planning on releasing the film later this summer. We’ve got some fun stuff in the works. Other than that, we’re working on a few scripted feature projects as well as an animated series.
Giorgio Angelini came into film from a longer, multi-faceted career in the creative arts. After touring in bands like The Rosebuds and Bishop Allen for much of his 20s, Giorgio enrolled in the Masters of Architecture program at Rice University during the depths of the 2008 real estate collapse. It was during this tumultuous time that the seeds for Giorgio’s directorial debut, OWNED: A Tale of Two Americas began to take shape.
Following graduate school, Angelini worked with the boutique architecture firm Schaum/Shieh, where he designed the White Oak Music Hall in Houston, Texas, as well as the headquarters for The Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology, which won The Architect’s Newspaper’s “Design of the Year” award in 2018.
In 2019 Giorgio launched Ready Fictions, a production company with his producing partner Arthur Jones, a collaboration that began on OWNED. He continues to practice architecture in Los Angeles, collaborating with fellow Rice Architecture alum, Mary Casper.
Giorgio served as the executive producer for the feature film My Friend Dahmer (2017) and directed a documentary-short for celebrated performance artist Mary Ellen Carroll entitled My Death is Pending...Because. Giorgio is also the Executive Producer for the upcoming coming-of-age drama Shoplifters of the World. He continues to seek out projects that can help expand our understanding of the perversity of American culture. Architectural, film, or otherwise.