Can one local entrepreneur’s dirt blocks solve Kansas City’s affordable housing crisis?

Photography courtesy of Civic Saint.

Godfrey Riddle was 12 years old when his family lost their home to foreclosure. It was the summer of his 7th grade year and they were temporarily homeless, living with relatives and in hotel rooms before securing a rental.

“I couldn’t understand why we live in a society where housing is such a precarious thing,” Riddle was quoted in an interview with Startland News when reflecting on that time in his life.

Riddle’s family persevered, but it was a moment in Riddle’s life that shaped who he is and solidified his resolve to spend his life doing and creating meaningful work. He has worked for and with many socially conscious organizations over the years, including Rightfully Sewn and ArtsKC, but in 2020, after the sudden loss of both his parents less than two years apart and a concurrent personal battle with cancer, he went out on his own and launched Civic Saint. Initially, it debuted as a clothing brand selling apparel and accessories with affirming messages surrounding the equal rights movements. However, the company’s mission recently shifted and took a new direction: housing.

That shift came after Riddle was the subject on an episode of Amy Poehler’s Peacock show The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. As Riddle cleared out his parents’ belongings, he learned the importance of simple living and reducing his ecological footprint. That led him to focus on the importance of housing.

In Civic Saint’s new chapter, Riddle aims to tackle the racial wealth gap through job creation and revitalizing traditional redlined neighborhoods. His idea is to use compressed dirt blocks to create tiny, “artful” and affordable homes. CEBs are basically bricks composed of 90 percent soil and 10 percent water and cement. Riddle says, “For the first time in human history, it is possible to apply structural design standards to earthen buildings—a material humans have used across societies since 8700 BCE.” 

Riddle’s decision to create a dirt blocks business was partially informed by his experience on Poehler’s show, as well as his family’s own housing history and his extensive urban management background. Riddle graduated from the University of Kansas’s city and county management program, ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, and worked in Phoenix, Arizona, finding ways to fight urban blight. 

Riddle is confident that the simplicity and sustainability of dirt blocks will lower the cost of homeownership and help propagate a new home building market. “Our business model prioritizes the environment while addressing generational wealth disparities through job creation, homeownership and their ambient economic impacts,” Riddle says.

Riddle emphasizes that the homes are first and foremost sustainable and non-toxic, but that does not impact their quality. The dirt blocks bricks are bulletproof, fireproof, insect resistant, and structurally sound. 

In August, Riddle, a gay Black man, won the Inaugural Communities of Color Initiative Biz Pitch and the overall Biz Pitch competitions from the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce at their 2023 International Business and Leadership Conference in Denver for his innovative business model and his company’s social cause emphasis.

Photography courtesy of Civic Saint.

These awards brought in a total of $55,000, bringing the company even closer to its $100,000 start-up capital goal. Civic Saint plans to deliver the first demo build in April 2024 during AIA Kansas City’s annual Design Week at historic 18th & Vine, which attracts thousands every year. For Riddle, though, this is just the beginning. He hopes to start taking public orders around fall 2024, with the ultimate goal of building 500 to 800 homes a year.

“Our ultimate vision is for Civic Saint communities to become the most beautiful family-friendly neighborhoods, where people and communities can grow to their full potential,” Riddle says.

Although Civic Saint is taking a new direction, Riddle plans to keep producing the brand’s original social statement T-shirts. It’s always been Riddle’s goal to create a “meaningful company.”  

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