Bring shelter for the soul to BeltLandia

Serenbe Art Farm 20K houses

I recently toured a couple of live-work artist cottages at Serenbe Art Farm. The so-called 20K houses are the result of a seemingly unlikely partnership between the new urban enclave of the wealthy that is Serenbe, and Rural Studio, an undergrad program of Auburn University’s School of Architecture that builds houses for poor people.

The visit took me back to one of the most transcendent moments of my life. It happened standing in a downpour outside a poor, elderly woman’s home in Hale County, Alabama. On the porch beside her stood a young Auburn architecture student. The elder was crying tears of gratitude as she thanked the young woman and Rural Studio for repairs and a new bedroom/bath addition to a shack that had barely served as a home.

I was grateful that the thundershower provided a screen for my own tears, as I felt embarrassed by an unexpected display of emotion amongst a gaggle of strangers. It was the beginning of the summer of 2002 and the lingering shock and awfulness of 9-11 had not fully subsided. But here was Tikkun Olam — a repairing of the world — and there seemed to be hope for humanity, yet. None of us in the crowd sought cover from that drenching rain. The moment was too important to miss. The Rural Studio’s founder, the legendary Sambo Mockbee, used to say that everyone, rich or poor, deserves shelter for the soul.

And we had found some.

After touring other student projects, it seemed clear to us all that Mockbee’s leadership and legacy would live on, even though he had died the Christmas before. Rural Studio was focused on sustainability, affordability, and creative reuse of materials long before it became the trend. The sheer genius of some of the nation’s poorest benefiting from thesis projects in the form of beautiful, safe, well-constructed homes inspired many to go back and be creative change agents in their own communities.

To “proceed and be bold” as Mockbee was fond of saying.

Fifteen years later I’m touring some of the neighborhoods that touch the currently-under-construction Atlanta BeltLine Westside Trail. How different from the Eastside! A recent inventory of housing stock reveals almost 1900 abandoned houses. Poverty seems to be the only thing in abundance in this land suffering decades of flight and disinvestment. And yet, just blocks away are colleges where students are getting advanced degrees in architecture and city planning.

It occurs to me that BeltLandia needs its own version of Rural Studio.

Why not? The BeltLine itself started as a Georgia Tech student’s thesis project. Ryan Gravel has said from the beginning that his vision was for infra-culture that could be for all of us.

If current trends persist, a good many of the long-standing residents may not be able to enjoy the benefits of the $43 million investment running through their communities. Increasing property values and the corresponding rise in property taxes and rents could displace them.

Displacing multi-generational families strips communities of their culture, diversity, and history. It reduces social capital and diminishes all of us. Atlanta’s CDC practically defines it as a disease.

So, let’s proceed and be bold by designating some parcels as empowerment zones and let architecture students have at it with design-build projects. If it’s anything like Rural Studio, it could be some of the most beautiful, creative, inspirational solutions to affordable housing we’ve ever seen.

Let’s make sure that BeltLandia is for all of us. That’ll be good for the soul.

citizen architect

About Burke Sisco

Burke Sisco is a Realtor and Associate Broker of eXp Realty with over 20 years of experience in the Atlanta real estate market. He calls the surging infra-culture around the BeltLine both home and business territory and is the founder and managing editor of He has helped a number of satisfied clients buy and sell property in BeltLandia. Those interested in living the BeltLandia Lifestyle can reach Burke at 404.421.9968 or by email at


  1. Tommy Conlon says

    Well said, Burke! I love that you are still out there banging the drum for justice (economic and otherwise) – keep dreaming big, and implementing all you can!!

  2. Awesome, awesome article Burke!!! Definitely about to share this on my Facebook timeline. We all need to come together to start planning ways to make this a reality. Love it.

  3. The waxing and waning of real estate throughout human history is a phenomenon that fascinates me endlessly. Historic industrial buildings where bankers and I stood in inches-deep pigeon droppings, and where I was informed that “normal” Atlantans would never set foot, now sport eclectic. luxurious lofts. What you eloquently propose should be a foundational element to waxing Westside Atlanta.

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