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The evolution of community development in Detroit: Three leaders talk about their work.

Linda Smith, director of U-SNAP-Bac

Tom Goddeeris, executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation

Public art in Detroit's North End

Oakland Avenue in Detroit's North End

North End

North End

Grandmont Rosedale

Grandmont Rosedale

North Rosedale Park


Community development corporations, or CDCs, are nonprofits formed to meet specific needs in their neighborhoods. Here in Detroit, where development has until recently been a risky proposition, CDCs were the entities preserving and developing neighborhoods when no one else saw the potential. Now those organizations are facing new challenges and opportunities of a revitalizing city.
 
We talked with the executive directors of three longstanding CDCs -- Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, Vanguard Community Development Corporation, and U-SNAP-BAC -- about how the work of their organizations is evolving in 21st-century Detroit.
 
Model D: What are the unique needs you are addressing in your neighborhood (or neighborhoods)? What are your neighborhood's biggest strengths/assets?
 
Tom Goddeeris, executive director, Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation: The housing market remains one of the biggest challenges and needs in our community. In the wake of the major national housing crisis, we saw vacancies shoot up and prices drop. We have been working to revitalize the housing market and help people stay in their homes. We're also trying to revitalize the commercial district; we think remaining a viable residential neighborhood means we need to have the kind of businesses people are looking for, as well as other things we address, such as public safety, parks and other amenities.
 
[In terns of assets] we have a very attractive and historic housing stock which does attract a lot of people to the community, and homes are available at affordable prices. It's more than just housing – we have a very strong community fabric and residents are very well organized.
 
Pamela Martin-Turner, executive director, Vanguard CDC: We are the neighborhood most immediately near to Midtown. As Detroit is being revitalized, it's really important for us that the people who have been here in the neighborhood are able to stay and people like them are able to come here.
 
In North End, there is really a sense of place, and of this being a specific neighborhood with a specific history. At one point this was a Jewish community with a thriving commercial district; then it became an African American community and there was still thriving commercial district. Along Oakland Avenue there was night life -- singers and bands came through and played in clubs here. People have a real emotional connection to this neighborhood even if they don't live here any longer.
 
Linda Smith, Executive Director of U-SNAP-BAC: One of our unique needs in the Morningside Neighborhood is stabilizing the neighborhood. Housing conditions have declined, with most houses in need of renovations or repairs. Over 20 percent of all properties in the neighborhood are vacant lots.
 
Our biggest assets are that residents who live in the neighborhoods are long-time residents. Block clubs are organized, and residents maintained some of the vacant property for years without support from the city of Detroit.
 
Model D: Has your mission changed to address changing conditions (social and physical) in your neighborhood?
 
Goddeeris: The biggest change is around public safety. We led a whole citywide effort around the idea of a special assessment district to address the issue. We were successful in getting the city to pass an ordinance, but it has not been implemented. We're trying to launch a petition drive for that. That's been the biggest change, in terms of doing something that is not our traditional mission, but is addressing a pressing need.
 
Martin-Turner: The mission has not changed, but the environment has. There is much more of a demand for land. In real estate development, the foundation of a project is site acquisition. If you can’t acquire the site, you can’t do the development. That's been a fundamental change in the way we work. It's becoming a lot more competitive than it once was. It just makes it more challenging moving forward, but it's something to consider and we have to plan for it.  
 
Smith: Our mission has not changed but the work has changed. U SNAP BAC is a housing development corporation organized to stabilize neighborhoods with brick and mortar. Today, we have to think about vacant land turning it into community gardens, side lot programs, and green venture projects. Our current work consists of helping families to stay in their homes by providing resources with property taxes and mortgage assistance programs.
 
Model D: What roles do you see CDCs playing in a post-bankruptcy Detroit that may differ from what you've always done?
 
Goddeeris: Organizations like ours end up filling some of the gaps left by the city when it no longer has the resources it needs. Our organization ends up stepping into those gaps and organizing both volunteer efforts and private funding sources that address some of those community needs the city hasn’t been able to.
 
Martin-Turner: Compared to when we were doing this 15-20 years ago, in some respects it is a lot less difficult. We had to convince all of the funders and the city and the state that we had the capacity to make a difference. There was a lot of doubt we could accomplish anything that would push the needle forward. There were not really good systems in place. In other respects it is now easier – there is more financing available and a certain level of confidence in the CDCs. There used to be lot less competition with private developers, and that makes it harder — there are trade-offs.
 
Smith: The funds are no longer available to support homeowners with grants to fix up their homes. Currently, we are one of 11 CDCs who are intake centers to provide assistance with the zero-percent interest loans on the behalf of the city of Detroit/LISC.
 
Model D: There's been a great deal of development downtown and in Midtown, but much of it has not benefitted the neighborhoods. How does your organization approach the challenge of neighborhood revitalization? What potential "spinoff" benefits do you see to your neighborhood from a revitalized central core?
 
Goodeeris: Not everybody wants to live in downtown or Midtown. A lot of people still want the traditional single-family home with a backyard and their own garden. We have some people moving out of the Midtown area as their stage of life changes -- we're always finding people moving into the neighborhood from outside of Detroit who want to be part of the city's revitalization. Neighborhoods like ours have benefitted from the revitalization of downtown. It gives people more optimism about the future of the city in general –there's room for everybody.
 
Martin-Turner: This is the thing about revitalization  -- it has to start somewhere. It doesn’t start everywhere, it starts somewhere. I don’t have as much angst about downtown versus the neighborhoods. It's a matter of time and it seems logical to me. Here in Detroit it started downtown because that was the logical place for it to start. I believe over time there will be significant revitalization in many neighborhoods, but it takes a minute. Think how long it took for Detroit to be distressed. It would take a significant amount of time to become revitalized. Because we are at the edge of Midtown, it will happen for us sooner rather than later, but it's a double-edged sword because there is also the whole idea of balancing what the community wants with what developers want.
 
Smith: I don’t see potential “spinoff.” Each of the communities in the City of Detroit is unique in their own way.  Our neighborhoods are all so different. We have to figure out that what works in one neighborhood will not work in another neighborhood, without some new planning taking place. Some of the stronger neighborhoods may not require a new plan, but working with the infrastructure that is currently in place. A weaker neighborhood is starting from a zero-percent base and not sure where to start.
 
Model D: How does increased availability of data help you do your jobs better? What tools have proved helpful for you?
 
Goodeeris: One of the things that has really changed for us over last few years is the availability of data that is accessible online and in map form, like what Loveland Technologies has put together. We try to keep track of trends in the neighborhoods, such as houses that are vacant and need to be demolished or rehabbed. A lot of that stuff used to be literally kept in notebooks, then kept in Excel, but it was always difficult to keep up to date. And now that has changed. The Loveland website saves us a lot of time on the collection end and makes it much easier to zero in on certain target areas.
 
Martin-Turner: When I started, data wasn't that available. It made it more difficult to plan targeted development that could create a positive change in a particular area. We would have to go out and create as much data ourselves as possible – there was no GIS mapping, I can tell you for certain. [The availability of data has] made a positive difference for us. I believe institutional knowledge is important, but it's part of my responsibility not to have all the information only in my head.
 
Smith: The data helps us to make key decisions and to market the neighborhood strengths. Data also engages residents to participate in planning their neighborhoods.
 
Model D: What roles do collaborations with other CDCs, city departments, the private sector, etc. play for you?
 
Goodeeris: We found we had less resources available for housing through the city of Detroit, which used to be the biggest part of what we did. We have had to use more private sources. Kresge and Neighborworks America supported our housing rehab program, and that would not have happened 10 years ago. We have a partnership with Michigan State Housing Development Authority for our low-income home repair program. Without that partnership that program wouldn’t happen.
 
One thing that has changed a lot in the last year or two is that we have more relationships with organizations working on business development, such as ProsperUS and TechTown. A lot of those other nonprofits are working towards the same goals we are. A lot of those partnerships have been really helpful because you don't have to feel like as one organization you have to develop all the capacity. They bring what they are good at to the table and we help each other.
 
Martin-Turner: Because we are in this particular place, we need to be able to work well with other people and work for the greater good. There is way more than enough work to go around. There is not really competition – that's not the environment that is supported. Even if you're inclined to be that way, you are not going to be a success if you do.
 
Smith: It helps to influence local policy and build relationships with each other. It also provides access to financing to support community development.

Support for this feature was provided by Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKuras.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

 
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