These 3 affordable housing projects are reimagining historic Detroit sites

For years, Maureen Dritsan wondered what would become of St. Matthew School, a shuttered Catholic school building not far from her home in Detroit's East English Village.

Dritsan, a parishioner with St. Matthew’s parish and vice president of the East English Village Association, has taken an active interest in proposed development efforts in her area. Several of these have involved the St. Matthew site, whichMaureen Dritsan (Nick Hagen photo) ceased operating as a school about two decades ago.

"Back probably 10 years ago, we actually did have a couple of proposals that came to the table, from charter schools, to repurpose the space. But it didn't quite get to the finish line," says Dritsan. 

Recently, however, she and other community members have been consulted on a new proposal for the former school that is in the process of being realized. Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan (CCSEM) is now working to transform the site, located at the corner of Harper and Whittier avenues on Detroit's East Side, into an affordable housing complex called the Residences at St. Matthew

The renovation is being made possible with help from Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis (FHLBank Indianapolis), which has awarded CCSEM with a $500,000 grant for the effort. Each year, FHLBank Indianapolis makes available special grants to help facilitate affordable housing and rental projects, awarding $1.5 million in such grants for 2022 Detroit projects alone.

The facility will be converted into 46 units of affordable housing, with 36 one-bedroom units, four two-bedroom units, and six studio units. Of these units, 25 will be designated permanent supportive housing and set aside for the formerly homeless. The rest will be reserved for low-income families at rates ranging from 30% to 60% area median income (AMI). A former gym at the site will also be transformed into a community service space.

"About half the residents will have had a history of homelessness and the other half will simply be seeking affordable housing," says Paul Propson, CCSEM's Chief Executive Officer. "Those who come through  the homeless track will have their own apartment, key, furnished apartments, and they'll have staff from Catholic Charities to help make the adjustment to being housed."

CCSEM is partnering with Ascension Michigan, a division of Ascension Health, and St. Matthew’s parish on the project. The charitable nonprofit will be offering case management services to residents, while Ascension Michigan will be providing medical care both remotely and on-site. St. Matthew Catholic Church, which is located right next door, will be handling grounds maintenance. The community development financial institution (CDFI) Cinnaire is co-developing the project with Ethos Development Partners. 

The school is also in the process of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The renovations, which are estimated to cost over $17 million and take 16 months, will include masonry improvements and new doors and windows, as well as adapting former classrooms into living spaces. New fencing, landscaping and parking are also planned for the outside of the facility.

Neighborhoods like East English Village and Morningside have seen a lot of development in recent years and these changes have led some in the area to worry about gentrification-related displacement. To address concerns like these, CCSEM has sponsored community meetings and worked to involve members of local neighborhood organizations including MorningSide, East English Village, MECCA, and U-SNAP-BAC in the development.

Propson believes the new housing complex will boost local businesses with added foot traffic,  and he's hopeful it will serve as a good place to live for local residents who may be moving out of their parents' home or seniors who need to downsize into a smaller place but want to stay in the East English Village and Morningside area. 

Dristan feels CCSEM has done a sound job of keeping the community in the loop on the project and is looking forward to seeing the project realized.

"They have just done an excellent job of communicating and engaging the community," she says. "We just feel this is a much better fit for the parish and community [than previous proposals].”

The Residences at St. Matthew is being established on the site of former Detroit Catholic school. (Nick Hagen photo)The AHP grant

The Residences at St. Matthew is being supported by a combination of city, state, and federal funding, including low-income housing tax credits, as well as a variety of philanthropic contributions. It's also one of three Detroit projects that were awarded an Affordable Housing Program grant, in this case $500,000 by FHLBank Indianapolis this past November. AHP grants are made available to help fund the acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of properties that will be used for affordable rentals or home ownership. 

FHLBank Indianapolis is a government-sponsored enterprise and one of the 11 banks in the Federal Home Loan Bank system that provides low-cost funding for their member financial institutions. Since 1990, FHLBank Indianapolis has awarded more than $283 million to create or rehabilitate single- and multi-family housing in Indiana and Michigan through AHP grants.

CCSEM applied for the grant with the help of Independent Bank, one of FHLBank Indianapolis' Michigan-based member institutions. According to Propson, the grant is playing a crucial role in the development of the Residences at St. Matthew by covering cost overruns related to inflation, which has been a big issue for builders throughout the pandemic.

"We don't yet know all of the final numbers but we're still trying to stretch our resources to make everything fit," he says. "So it's absolutely essential to have that additional $500,000 to get everything done that we need to get done."

A rendering of Orchard Village Apartments. (Courtesy photo)Orchard Village Apartments

Last year's AHP awards also included two other Detroit projects, Orchard Village Apartments and Violet T. Lewis Village, both of which are also expected to have significant impacts on their surrounding communities. 

Orchard Village Apartments is being developed by CHN Housing Partners, a Cleveland-based developer and service provider, in partnership with the local nonprofit Detroit Blight Busters. Located at the intersection of Orchard and Santa Clara streets, the project will consist of 48 two-bedroom units, ranging from 30% to 60% AMI. Each unit will have a refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer, air conditioning, and ceiling fan. The complex will be made up of a cluster of four buildings, made up of two- and three-story apartment structures, designed to create a unique sense of place. It will also feature a community space and parking.

Detroit Blight Busters is well-known for its community-building efforts in the city's Old Redford neighborhood, a mixed-income area of Detroit adjacent to Brightmoor and Rosedale Park. The new development will be situated close to the Redford Theatre and the nonprofit's Artist Village Detroit space, which is home to a coffee house and art gallery. 

The project also happens to be located at the site of the organization's first major anti-blight cleanup effort, a row of derelict homes, some of which had once been used as crackhouses. For Detroit Blight Busters co-founder John George, the Orchard Village Apartment project signals a real shift for the neighborhood where his organization has been active for more than three decades.

"We spent about a quarter of a million dollars and a decade on Santa Clara hand-wrecking those abandoned properties and putting in community gardens, so this 48-units of affordable housing on Orchard Street, just north of our community center is exciting at the very least," he says. "We know dozens of families that are looking for affordable housing and this project will fill that gap."

CHN Housing Partners and Detroit Blight Busters involvement with the project was spurred on by a request for proposals (RFP) by the city for more affordable housing in the area. The project was also given shape during a series of community meetings where residents indicated they didn't want one long institutional building. Their input ultimately led to the project's eclectic clustered building setup. 

Orchard Village Apartments is projected to cost over $14 million to develop. It's being financed with a combination of city dollars and federal low-income housing tax credits, as well as a private loan. The $500,000 AHP grant, which was applied for with the help of First Merchants Bank, an FHLBank Indianapolis member institution, is also proving quite helpful, according to Cheryl  McHallam, Real Estate Development Manager for CHN Housing Partners. 

"We currently have a small gap in the financial end of the project, so this will be covering the gap," she says. "This is helping us decrease that gap, so it's very valuable to be able to get this grant."

Construction for Orchard Village Apartments is expected to begin between May and June and should take about 16 months to complete. 

Detroit Blight Busters is also working to acquire a nearby building at Grand River and Greydale Avenues that it intends to transform into a $3 million complex called the Sunflower Arts Center that will feature a diner, art gallery, community center, and artist lofts. Beyond that, George promises his organization will continue to work to bring additional improvements to the Old Redford neighborhood.

"I believe that investment attracts investment," he says. "We just have to stay focused, work together, and create the kind of community that we want and deserve."

This former Lewis College of Business building will be getting a second life as part of the Violet T. Lewis affordable housing complex. (Nick Hagen photo)Violet T. Lewis Village
The final project to win an AHP grant from FHLBank Indianapolis this past year will involve the renovation of the site of the former Lewis College of Business, which was the first and only HBCU located in Michigan. It's a collaboration between Wallick Communities, an affordable housing development group based in Ohio, and Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM), a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Southfield.

They're working to create a 105-unit independent living community at 17370 and 17400 Meyers Road, by adapting two structures already on site and building a new 73-unit four-story building. The two existing buildings will be converted into 26 one-bedroom apartments, four two-bedroom apartments, and two studio apartments. Collectively the complex will be called the Violet T. Lewis Village in honor of the college's founder.  

"Obviously there's great historical significance to these buildings, so the preservation was important to not only the family of the founder, but also to the people in the neighborhood and the city of Detroit," says Karen Averell, Vice President of Development with Wallick Communities "So we'll have 32 units in those two buildings that are being reconfigured and reimagined. We're really excited about that."

The senior housing project will be located near Detroit's Live6 district, which has in recent years experienced an influx of new development and city investment.

PVR already operates a senior living facility directly adjacent to the site called Hartford Village, which it co-owns with Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. The two partners consulted with residents of Hartford Village and members of the Lewis family in the planning of the new senior living complex. A more extensive community engagement process was conducted for Hartford Village, prior to its opening in 2017.

Violet T. Lewis Village, which will cost an estimated $20 million, is being funded in part with city and state financing and federal low-income housing tax credits. FHLBank Indianapolis also played an instrumental role in getting the project off the ground, according to Averell.

"We were awarded an AHP grant from FHLBank Indianapolis in the amount of $500,000 that was key to our financing," she says. "That was the catalyst that helped us secure the funding from the city." 

PVM and Wallick Communities are currently in negotiations to secure an additional $500,000 to complete the project. The partners hope to break ground in June and finish construction within 12 to 14 months. Hartford Village and Violet T. Lewis Village will then be managed as a single senior living campus.

Brian Carnaghi, Senior Vice President of Facilities Advancement and Business Development with PVM, is hopeful the new senior living facility will make a difference for local seniors and act as a catalyst for continued neighborhood development. That said, he acknowledges that the need for affordable housing in Detroit is both immense and difficult to satisfy.

"You can't build enough affordable housing units for everybody. The demand is huge," he says. "[But] certainly having new and renovated buildings there will help. It's progress."

Photos by Nick Hagen, except where otherwise noted.

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