This is Black development in DetroitA look at Detroit's development ecosystem

Realtor Magazine describes how many people enter the field of small-scale development as a “somebody oughta moment.” When a person notices that there is an opportunity in the real estate of their community and decides to use their resources to create change and make a profit. 

My late grandmother, Elvira Rogers, lived in the same house for 30 years. She watched Lauder Street evolve throughout the decades from her favorite seat on her front porch. 

As the city’s demographics changed, the population declined, and manufacturing jobs were harder to get, houses on her street started to sit empty. The empty houses on either side of her own house prompted my grandmother to have her “somebody oughta” moment. 

Starting in the 1980s, she bought those two houses and five others on the same street. The houses were rented to family and friends with whom she built a community for years. While they were eventually lost to mismanagement after her passing, it doesn’t negate that she was what is now called “a small-scale developer.”

While she probably wouldn’t have called herself that, that’s exactly what she was, says Chase Cantrell, executive director of Building Community Value, a nonprofit that collaborates with community members and partners to rebuild and renovate (often historic) properties by educating residents and leaders in all aspects of the development cycle.

Cantrell developed Better Buildings, Better Blocks, a curriculum that teaches the nuts and bolts of small-scale real estate development to Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park residents. The six-week course teaches the basics of identification, acquisition, financing, leasing, and project management for neighborhood-based residential and commercial development projects. 

“In Detroit, a lot of folks want to have a particular community impact. So it could be a small nonprofit that's buying a house to turn into a community center; we see a lot of that. (Their small-scale development) is not always an investment vehicle.”

Individuals who are not creating or working with organizations, usually, are looking for an investment opportunity. Many of the participants in Cantrell’s program are looking to purchase homes that they will turn into rental properties. But, he notes, even those investors usually are looking to also make an impact in a neighborhood. 

Monique Becker, who is the manager of program implementation at BCV, is one such investor. She and her best friend/business partner, Elyse Wolf, have known each other since they were 4 years old. After graduating from the University of Michigan, they were interested in investing in real estate in Detroit. The pair searched for houses in the North End but later purchased a residence in Virginia Park in 2016 that they call The Hazelwood Home. They moved in and quickly purchased several more properties in the neighborhood as investments. 

Elyse Wolf and Monique Becker at The Hazelwood Home. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“We rent our properties at approximately 40% area median income, which makes them affordable housing homes,” Becker says of the four additional properties owned by Mona Lisa Development. While they are a for-profit business, Becker and Wolf developed their company as a socially responsible real estate development firm with property management, consulting, and general contracting services. Both are self-taught but were motivated to effect change. 

Becker, a former elementary school teacher with Teach for America, explains, “As I began to learn, first by working for others, I recognized very quickly that the work of development affects the quality of life in the built environment. I felt like it was oftentimes too much about the building and the numbers and not about the people and the impact on human beings. And that’s why we are so mission-focused.” 

Becker and Wolf are very aware that they are a rarity in the development space as two women. But it doesn’t stop them from tackling new and exciting projects. “It is refreshing to see more and more women coming into this industry, particularly on the construction side of things,” Becker says. “We’ve been really lucky to train several women and be fierce advocates for more women to join and thrive in this industry.” 

Several of their properties are rented to artists, and emerging entrepreneurs for renting are valuable options. Mona Lisa recently entered into a collaborative effort to establish a short-term rental property/art space with artist Tony Whlgn who will live on the upper-level of the two-family flat. 

Many of Becker’s and Wolf’s neighbors have been living in the historic neighborhood of Virginia Park for generations. For them, they needed to become a part of the fabric of the community. The two women built trust by throwing an annual cookout and organizing a neighborhood yard sale. 

“We entered this neighborhood with humility. We spent a lot of time at the park hanging out with our neighbors. When I’m advising clients, I advise them to do community outreach. Be vulnerable and respectful. We even tell our residents to get to know their neighbors as part of our orientation.” 

“We encourage the creation of a sense of community by telling our residents how much it has meant to us,” says Wolf. “But, we really saw the benefit to it over the past year and how people had to lean on each other during the pandemic.” 

With over 600 houses available through the Detroit Land Bank Authority, Becker and Wolf and Cantrell, and others hope to encourage Detroiters to invest in ownership for themselves and those with resources to consider investment opportunities with a community bent. 

The Hazelwood Home. Photo by Nick Hagen.

As the pandemic struck Detroit in 2020, one specific Mona Lisa project was put on hold. Becker and Wolf began searching for grant funds to complete the project and were made aware of a grant from FHL Bank of Indianapolis. The $25,000 grant helped the company complete construction on a project and paid for training for two staff members. 

Through its community engagement and economic development programs, FHL Bank provides grants to small businesses. It plays a role in connecting businesses, development teams, and residents with funding and grant dollars. 

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis (FHLBI) is one of 11 independent regional cooperative banks across the U.S. The bank is privately capitalized and owned by member banks, credit unions, community development financial institutions (CDFIs), and insurers across Indiana and Michigan.

Anna Shires, the Detroit community investment outreach partner for the bank, says the programs FHL Bank offers are more generous than ever. As 2020 brought into stark relief the disparities in wealth and equity for women and minorities, the bank recognized that what many of these underserved populations lacked was access. 

“Minority developers are actually up and coming but often aren’t going to financial institutions for lending,” Shires says. “They are often using their own capital and equity that they have. We think we can help in that space. We want to make sure that new small-scale developers are aware that there are opportunities available for them and that our programs offer them a seat at the table.” 

For Cantrell, he sees his work at Building Community Value and the connections he can make with his program participants and programs like those at FHL Bank as part of a greater ecosystem to help Black small-scale developers succeed. 

“Black people have been doing development in Detroit for as long as we've been a majority population,” Cantrell says. “But again, (the image of) is often one of the white people doing things to our neighborhoods. I'm trying to flip that narrative by highlighting the work that Black people are actually doing.” 

“Five years ago, I would not have said that there's an ecosystem for small-scale developers. But there's actually an ecosystem now of training, technical support, project mentorship, capital development. There's been a lot of work in five years,” he says while also naming programs like Detroit Future City and the Neighborhood Housing Compact. 

“It’s the collective of government, nonprofits, developers, academics, and I'm sure I'm missing some other folks,” Cantrell says, “An entire group of system actors who are actively working to transform our for sale and for rent real estate markets, which can really transform housing in the city.” 

This is part of the Block by Block series supported by FHLBank Indianapolis that follows minority-driven development in Detroit. 

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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.