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New real-estate program gives Detroiters the tools to invest in their neighborhoods

Monique Becker

After graduating college and moving back to Detroit, Monique Becker wanted to purchase property in the city where she was born. Unfortunately she no idea where to begin.

So in the summer of 2016, she took a course aimed at helping Detroiters understand the nuances of real-estate. She learned practical skills necessary to complete a successful purchase and was connected to lenders and attorneys who offered tips.

Becker is now the proud co-owner of a duplex in LaSalle Gardens, which she purchased in July this year with her best friend, Elyse Wolf. They live in the upper floor along with another friend, and are in the process of renting the first floor to three tenants: a Syrian refugee, a French man who wants to move to Detroit, and a lifelong Detroiter who wants to learn from Becker's experience and eventually buy her own home.

Duplex in LaSalle Gardens co-owned by Monique Becker
 
"I definitely wouldn't have been able to successfully go through this process … if it wasn't for that support system and knowledge base that I acquired as part of this class," Becker said.
 
The class Becker completed was part of a University of Michigan program that has since become Better Buildings, Better Blocks, a training course offered by the nonprofit Building Community Value (BCV).
 
As part of the three-month course, participants pick out a property and research comparables, figure out renovation costs, and do a pro-forma analysis of the project. A panel of professionals then judges the projects, with money and in-kind services being awarded to winning projects.
 
Chase Cantrell founded BCV in spring 2016 as a way to promote redevelopment in Detroit's neighborhoods outside the central business district. He practiced corporate and real estate law in Detroit for several years before quitting to start the nonprofit.
 
As an attorney, Cantrell negotiated purchases and sales, architectural and contractor agreements, and crunched numbers for real estate projects. He was living in Brush Park and working at the Renaissance Center, areas which he described as being in a "development bubble." But when he would visit friends and family in other parts of the city, he saw that development wasn't happening in an equitable fashion.
 
He launched BCV to do development work, train other Detroiters how to do small-scale developments, and help fund their projects.
Chase Cantrell, founder of Building Community Value
"I've been doing this for clients for seven years—I should be doing this for the community," he says of his thinking at the time.
 
The courses actually began in 2015 as a program through U-M's business and social work schools. The university piloted three classes as a way to get more Detroit residents involved in redeveloping their city. Cantrell decided to sit in on the course since it seemed to mesh with his mission.
 
"It was actually pretty spectacular, which is why I was so eager to get involved," he says. "I saw normal Detroiters who didn't know that much about real estate going from having a passion to being able to understand how to build a pro-forma, how to find property, what financing looks like, being able to create a finance deck that they could actually take to a lender, a bank, for a proposed project."
 
The U-M course was operating on a "shoestring budget," according to Cantrell. So he offered to take it over, find funding for it, and scale it. In June, he received a $157,500 Knight Cities Challenge grant to help him do just that.
 
Cantrell continues to partner with U-M, which manages the curriculum and performs evaluations. Developer Dietrich Knoer of The Platform, who owns the Fisher and Kahn buildings in Detroit, teaches the class. Cantrell's organization administers the program, which includes residents from Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. According to BCV, the program this summer has drawn a diverse pool of applicants whose age ranges from 22 to 77.
 
Becker, who took the class and purchased the duplex, also got a job out of the deal. She now works as a development associate for Knoer and is a teaching assistant for the class.
 
The goal of Better Buildings, Better Blocks is not teach people to flip houses, and the people who successfully apply for the course aren't in it just to make a profit. This was made clear to Cantrell on the first day, when participants shared their reasons for taking the class.
 
"I was near tears at the end," Cantrell says. "Because people have a vision for what it means to breathe life back into their neighborhoods. … We're attracting people who really care about ethical redevelopment."
 
Participants pay $100 to take the course. Cantrell wants it to be accessible to community members, but also wants them to have skin in the game. He notes that for-profit classes that focus on house-flipping can cost thousands of dollars.
 
The Knight Cities grant provides stipends to Cantrell, professors, and assistants, as well as a fee to U-M. The funding allows Cantrell to have staff to call and follow up with graduates and see if they need additional help or resources. It also will fund a lecture series where they'll go into different communities and hold two-hour seminars on various real estate topics. Community organizations have already begun to request neighborhood-specific courses, Cantrell says.
 
While Cantrell initially sought funding from foundations and grants, he's working on business models to find creative ways to wean the organization of philanthropy.
 
For example, BCV is considering raising capital for a fund to offer low-interest loans for commercial, mixed-use, and residential projects in the city. Interest proceeds from the fund could go back into the program. Another income source could come from fees earned by Cantrell for development consulting on behalf of the organization.

Cantrell also recently completed a business accelerator program at Ford Motor Company Fund's newly opened Ford Resource and Engagement Center on the east side. Last week he was presented with a $25,000 check as one of two venture winners of the accelerator program. 
 
The next semester of Better Buildings, Better Blocks starts in January 2018. Applications will be accepted starting in October. 

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Read more articles by Melissa Anders.

Melissa Anders is a freelance journalist based in suburban Chicago.
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