Watson Fellow Strives for Safe, Affordable Housing for All Americans

Langston Stephens outside Chambers building

Langston Stephens became keenly aware of housing inequities as a child growing up in Zambia, the Philippines and the United States. He’ll study housing around the world as a Watson Fellow.

Langston Stephens took a class called “Hip-Hop and Urban Sociology” during his first year at Davidson College because he loves hip-hop and wanted to study the cultural and economic messages behind the music.

The class explored economic inequality, crime, intimate life and housing. Stephens ’21 found himself dwelling on housing, and how a lack of a safe, affordable place to live generated so many of the world’s problems.

That awakening started when he was nine, living with his family in a gated house with a guard and swimming pool in Zambia, where his stepfather headed security for the American Embassy. On his way to school, he’d pass poorly built informal settlements and children begging for food. When his family got transferred to the Philippines a few years later, he sat on his school’s rooftop and saw gleaming high-rises to his left, and bamboo shacks on the right.

He’s never forgotten those images, or a dream to put every human being, from those evicted households in his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hometown to those children in Zambia into safe, affordable homes. After graduation, he plans to spend a year as a Watson Fellow, learning how to turn that dream into solutions for the world’s homeless and displaced.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation recently named Stephens as one of its class of 2021 fellows. The prestigious award comes with a $36,000 stipend to spend a year abroad pursuing research interests. Stephens is the 88th Davidson student awarded the fellowship in its 53-year history.

“Someday, I want to be in charge of an organization that can make a great impact in this world,” said Stephens, a social entrepreneurship major, Belk Scholar, Terry Fellow and Davidson’s men’s track team member. “It only makes sense to go abroad, to see how other places handle this, and imagine a future where everyone in the United States can have a home.”

Stephens’ roadmap to tackle America’s housing crisis will bring him to Brazil, South Africa, Singapore and France, researching policies in each country that made their situations better, or worse. He’ll work with university researchers, government and non-profit agencies and community residents for a mix of academic and hands-on experience.

In Brazil, he’ll study how the country is building subsidized housing—more than four million units in the past seven years—for more than 48 million Brazilians who are homeless or living in substandard conditions. He’ll assist in the planning of a housing project, working with residents to address their needs and concerns. He’s particularly interested in the housing experiences of Afro-Brazilians.

He’ll then head to Cape Town, South Africa, where a minority white population owns a vast majority of the country’s land, leaving many in the Black majority without adequate housing. He plans to meet with researchers, government officials and policy makers working to mitigate housing and poverty disparities wrought by Apartheid.

In Singapore, he’ll  research how a program that began in 1960 put 80 percent of the population into government flats accessible to schools, jobs and stores, lifting millions from squalid, substandard housing and extreme poverty. He also wants to explore the differences that Malay, Indian and Chinese communities experience with rental housing and home ownership.

He plans to end his journey in France, studying suburbs that were built to unify but have instead helped create national divisions. He’ll explore how the lack of access to cities and jobs has exacerbated suburban poverty, unemployment and police harassment, and hindered upward mobility among Black and immigrant residents.

Holistic Approach to Housing

All of these issues hit home with Stephens, who has also lived in Milwaukee and the Washington, D.C. area. He also spent several summers working with housing organizations in Charlotte. From foreclosures in Milwaukee to gentrification surrounding Washington, D.C., and Charlotte’s downtown, he’s seen close up how many Americans in low-income and working-class communities end up losing their homes.

As his capstone project he pitched a transitional housing program called R.I.S.E. Residential, which stands for Recover, Inspire, Sustain and Empower. After the Watson year concludes, he plans to settle back into an American city, probably Milwaukee, where many family members still live, and tackle the evictions that leave many people homeless.

Evictions loom large over America today. Many low-wage workers have lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephens worries that without a rent forgiveness plan, many families who have fallen behind on payments will be pushed into homelessness when the pandemic’s eviction moratorium ends.

“I think we’re going to see people kicked out of their homes at levels we’ve never seen before,” Stephens said. “This is hard on landlords too, especially the mom-and-pop ones who struggle to pay property-related expenses. Still, my main concerns lie with the 30-40 million Americans at risk of eviction due to the impact of COVID-19.”

He’s never forgotten those images, or a dream to put every human being, from those evicted households in his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hometown to those children in Zambia into safe, affordable homes.

He envisions that R.I.S.E. would buy and renovate foreclosed properties, offer recently evicted households an affordable rent, and help with job placement and financial education as residents work toward self-sufficiency.

“We would take a holistic approach involving tenants, landlords, social workers, employers and housing managers,” he said. “We would work to break whatever gaps exist and empower people to achieve the goals they may have for themselves.”

Economics Professor and capstone project advisor Fred Smith said Stephens worked tirelessly through issues such as funding, policy obstacles, and the question of how to get landlords to buy into giving residents with spotty credit another chance.

“I was so impressed with the seriousness and the passion for how he approached each of these challenges,” Smith said. “I’m very hopeful that R.I.S.E. is going to be something that he’ll be able to attract investors to. It’s not going to be easy, but the possibility—to solve these problems and help people have better lives—is pretty exciting stuff.”

None of Stephens’ achievements, including the Watson award, surprise Joseph Ewoodzie Jr., Malcolm O. Partin Assistant Professor of Sociology. Ewoodzie teaches the sociology class Stephens took his first semester of college. That second semester, Stephens took Ewoodzie’s class that explores the history of how housing inequalities impact other social inequalities.

“He’s one of the brightest kids I’ve ever been around, and it’s in such a quiet, modest way,” Ewoodzie said. “Langston became convinced that housing is ‘the structural lynchpin of all inequalities’ and focused on that with tunnel vision.

“This will open up his imagination to what is possible in housing,” Ewoodzie said. “I have the absolute highest expectations for him. And whatever we at Davidson expect from him, he expects more from himself.”