Anchor institutions drive demand for housing in greater downtown area

Of the approximately 10,000 people Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) employs at its New Center campus, just 537 (roughly 5 percent) live in greater downtown Detroit, the 7.2-square-mile area that includes the neighborhoods of downtown, Corktown, Rivertown, Lafayette Park, Eastern Market, New Center, Woodbridge, and Midtown. That means nearly 9,500 HFHS workers are either commuting each day from other Detroit neighborhoods or from outside the city altogether.
But what if an institution like HFHS were able to grow the percentage of its employees living in greater downtown to 10, 15, or 20 percent? It is a strategy that they and other Detroit anchor institutions have been working on for several years.
A hospital invests in the health of its neighborhood
Tom Habitz is an urban planning specialist for Henry Ford Health System. Not only are he and his team drawing in major international medical suppliers like Cardinal Health—number 22 in the Fortune 500—and its 140 jobs and millions of dollars of investment into New Center (partnering with Detroit Medical Center on the recruitment efforts), they're working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to "green up" the Grand Boulevard and Milwaukee Avenue overpasses. In a partnership with Greening of Detroit, they're involved in a dendro-remediation test project, where trees are planted at the intersection of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Ferry Park Avenue to trap and remove contamination in the soil. An 8- to 10-year research study will assess the reduction in soil toxicity and, depending on the results, may be implemented citywide.
Still, for all their efforts to improve the quality of life in New Center, there's the question of housing. Of the 26,060 housing units in the area, 98 percent of them are occupied. Even if HFHS were able to go from 5 to 20 percent of its workers living close to campus, where would they put them?
While development efforts have picked up in greater downtown over the past decade—over $9 billion in real estate development since 2006 and over half of that occurring just between 2013 and '14—that's still not fast enough to meet the demand for housing. Since 2010, 1,258 new housing units have been built and 1,754 have been renovated, but with employees of HFHS, the Detroit Medical Center, and local universities all competing for the same housing stock (as well as students and others desiring to live among the many amenities greater downtown offers), supply is tight. Live Midtown, an incentive program funded in part by HFHS, DMC, and WSU, has only heightened demand. Employees of those anchors can apply for incentives that range from $1,000 to $20,000 to rent or purchase in Midtown. To date, 1,042 have participated in the program and 77 percent of those have stayed in Midtown.
Habitz and HFHS are addressing this lack of supply by fostering development in their neighborhood. The hospital system has purchased 300 acres west of the Lodge Freeway and south of Grand Boulevard, an area largely characterized by vacant lots and abandoned homes. They hope to one day fill the site with a 1,000-housing unit development, a whole neighborhood that could help attract and retain a superior workforce, right in the hospital's shadow. More housing options for the HFHS workforce mean happier employees, and therefore better services and a better hospital, so the thinking goes.
It would be a mixed-use, mixed-income development, one that reflects the diversity of the hospital's workforce, from its surgeons to its parking lot attendants. Habitz is hopeful that the first 150-unit development could be announced soon. Until then, work continues on maintaining the vacant lots and preparing them for their eventual transformation.
Habitz stresses the importance of being a good neighbor to those that live nearby. "We're buying properties 10 blocks away that nobody here ever sees and spent our own money to tear down vacant houses over there, because it is about community, too," he says.
Transforming from commuter to residential campuses
During her tenure as an undergraduate and graduate student at Wayne State University, Jennifer Hui experienced campus life as both a resident and commuter. In 2009, she spent her freshman year in the Towers Residential Suites. After that first year, Hui chose to commute from her parents' place 45 minutes away. Hui notes the advantages of each experience, though she says that meeting people and studying came easier when living on campus.
The Towers Residential Suites is one of seven WSU on-campus housing facilities. Historically a commuter school, now over 3,000 of the university's 28,000 students live on campus, putting its dorms at capacity. The College for Creative Studies, another Midtown anchor institution, also runs at full capacity for on-campus living. Though a much smaller school, CCS boasts a rate of 36 percent of its students living on campus, 521 of its 1,434 student population.
The demand for student housing is driving development in the area. WSU is planning $60 million mixed-use development, hoping to alleviate just some of the demand for student housing in greater downtown with 248 apartments and 120 hotel rooms.
After finishing her undergrad experience commuting 45 minutes each way, Hui decided that a return to the city would best suit her. She found a room in Woodbridge and lived off campus.
"I was researching for my master's degree. Rent is pretty affordable for students to live in Woodbridge. It's an easy drive, a safe neighborhood," says Hui. "I thought it would be a good experience to live in Detroit with everything going on, all these interesting things happening that I didn't embrace as an undergrad."
Since earning a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering in December 2014, Hui has stayed in the city, still living in Woodbridge today. Now she's an engineer contracted by Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc., a Detroit-based environmental and civil engineering corporation that performs work for the city.
"I didn't choose Wayne State because it was in Detroit," says Hui. "But I did come to know the city much better."

This is the first in a series of features on Detroit anchor institutions. Support for this series is provided by a coalition of organizations, including Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Hudson-Webber Foundation, College for Creative Studies, and Midtown Detroit Inc.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.

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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.