A former UM basketball star is on a mission to help redevelop this West Side Detroit neighborhood

David Merritt could have coasted on his earlier successes as a star basketball player for the University of Michigan and a radio commentator for the Michigan IMG Sports Network. He chose instead to go back to his roots and to the church founded by his parents in a west side Detroit neighborhood located near the intersection of the Grand River and Livernois transit corridors

Merritt and his brother are associate pastors for the non-denominational Straight Gate International Church, founded in 1978 by their parents, Bishop Andrew and Pastor Viveca Merritt.  The original site of the church — now located on Grand River Avenue — was based inside a former store at 14726 Joy Rd., and it is here that Merritt says his story begins.

“That’s basically how I grew up,” he says of a life that began in the church.  “Having watched my parents dedicate their lives to the well-being of other people and understanding and seeing, as I was growing up, that there were things provided to me that my peers and friends didn’t have. And these were things I never had to think about.”

A roof over his head, access to healthy food, clean clothes, and supportive parents were among those things that he never had to think about not having. The same was not true of other youth he knew.

“There were things that were part of their life on a daily basis that I didn’t have to think about, like not having a father.  There were things I didn’t have to deal with, but I had peers and friends and for them that was their daily existence,” Merritt says.

It is not lost on him that he had opportunities that were beyond the reach of some where he grew up. Working with his brother and father, he has committed himself to serving the residents of that neighborhood and young people throughout the city of Detroit by giving them opportunities and resources to be successful.

With more than 1,000 members, Straight Gate has become a major force for good in the small community,  which is bounded by Elmhurst Road to the north, Livernois Avenue to the east, and I-96 to the west and south. The census tract for the area conforms to the same basic geography but extends two blocks north to Fullerton Street. According to 2018 data compiled by Data Driven Detroit, median household income for that area of 1,700 people is $22,846 and the poverty rate is 33.6%, more than double the statewide rate. NeighborhoodScout.com estimates the median real estate value for the census area to be $40,471.

Through the years, the neighborhood has experienced an exodus of residents driven in part by a lack of access to basic needs like good-paying jobs and quality, affordable housing.

“The number of residents in the neighborhood has decreased over the last 10 years,” Merritt says.

The church offers a robust food assistance program in the form of a food pantry and operates Hope Academy, a charter school serving more than 500 youth, located about one mile down the road. But the Merritts collectively knew that more had to be done to lift residents out of poverty and give them much-needed opportunities.

After several years spent thinking through various ideas, they created the community development nonprofit called Renaissance of Hope in March 2021. It's taking a holistic approach to positively impacting the neighborhood and its residents.  

Future location of Renaissance of Hope's park development. A framework for renaissance 

Under a heading reading, "This Neighborhood Shall Not Remain Nameless," the Renaissance of Hope website lays out its aims to help transform the area into a "well-connected equitable neighborhood" that makes use of its boundaries on the avenues of Grand River and Livernois "to define the neighborhood character and draw regional traffic."

These goals include bringing a new park, resource hub, and food ecosystem to the neighborhood. Beyond that, the project seeks to: develop a substantial number of single-family homes; repurpose vacant buildings; bring in commercial, educational, recreational, and health services to the area; and help the community decide on a formal name for the neighborhood.

That work includes a holistic life skills training and fitness center focused on youth, which is expected to break ground this year at a cost of about $10 million. Renaissance of Hope is also interested in making improvements to the neighborhood’s current housing stock, as Straight Gate now owns 35 parcels that are considered single-family in the neighborhood.

Residents and stakeholders are working alongside church leadership to complete and finalize a master plan for the initiative. 

Merritt understands raising money for such an ambitious project is a challenging endeavor. But the project has already attracted some early support from the Ford Foundation, who've awarded it a $50,000 grant to connected to the resource hub and housing development plans. The former basketball player is also inspired by the work his father has done over the years raising capital to build Straight Gate Church and Hope Academy and purchasing parcels of land for future development. 

“Our definition of ministry is when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels,” Merritt says.

In addition to Straight Gate and Renaissance of Hope, Merritt is also involved with Give Merit, a nonprofit he started about a decade ago with co-founder Kuhu Saha that focuses on youth development.

The organization, Give Merit, is the nonprofit arm of Merit Goodness, a cause-based fashion brand company they co-founded 10 years ago by Merritt and Saha. Their brand, Merit, is similar to companies like Tom’s, Warby Parker, and Urban Zen by Donna Karan, where 20 percent of retail profits go to help those in need; in Merit’s case the proceeds are used to fund college scholarships for under-served youth in Detroit. 

Both Renaissance of Hope and Give Merit have engaged in a process to figure out how residents of the neighborhood Straight Gate is connected to can best be served through community spaces, housing, and programming.
“Through a combination of organizations, we will be making sure our young people and neighborhood residents and seniors have the proper opportunities and resources for them to be successful,” he says.  “Our hope is to help people in the neighborhood to see how much they are valued. Our hope in the next five to 10 years is to make sure they’re served correctly.”

Straight Gate Church on Grand River Ave.
Building towards the future

Health, wealth, and agency are key parts of the Renaissance of Hope planning.  Community members determined each of these three areas as initiative priorities.

The neighborhood is definitely in need of quality, safe affordable housing options, according to Merritt. Of the 506 parcels that make up the area Renaissance of Hope intended project footprint, 166 are vacant. Merritt says the neighborhood's median home value is currently $35,400, which represents a 61 percent decrease since 2010. 

“A major percentage of the portfolio will be focused on increasing Black homeownership in the community. This will be done by giving ownership of newly-constructed or rehabbed homes to residents free of charge. That, in turn, will enable them to utilize the money they would be spending on a mortgage for other needs that will give them the opportunity to achieve successful outcomes for themselves and create generational wealth.

“We want to make sure that people who have been here the longest aren’t priced out of the neighborhood.  Decisions will be made by them, not for them,” says Merritt.

The land is there to create housing options including single-family, multi-family, and apartments. The parcels in the project area not owned by Straight Gate are owned by the city of Detroit, but could be purchased if needed. A percentage of homes within the housing portfolio that are rehabbed will be gifted to residents.

Merritt is currently working with residents to figure out the needs and amenities community members want to be addressed. Beyond housing, Renaissance of Hope's vision also includes a resource hub that will offer childcare, food assistance and job training. The resource hub will be located in 50,000 square feet of space at the back of the Straight Gate church, which used to house Hope Academy. The main facility will be complemented with features like community gardens and gathering spaces. Merritt sees the hub as a place where residents can have direct access to family and human services without having to leave the neighborhood.

Establishing trust with residents is critical to help realize Renaissance of Hope's vision for the neighborhood and it's something the church and nonprofit are working hard to achieve. 

“There are people we haven’t yet served or built trust with," says Merritt. "We want input from residents and it takes time when you want to do it correctly. We need to be proactive and bring those meetings to people and go door-to-door, so we’re not just checking the box.”

Right now, Renaissance of Hope's leadership is looking at case studies of related efforts, especially those that relate to affordable housing in Detroit. They're also speaking to others who are engaged in similar projects.

“One of the things that’s very important is us not trying to do everything. There are other developers and potential partners out there who have years of experience,” Merritt says. “We are working closely with the city because we want to take some of the same principles in planning and learn from neighborhood planning processes as much as  possible.”

A second iteration of the Renaissance of Hope master plan is expected to be completed in the first quarter of this year.  Merritt also hopes to have updates from individuals and organizations interested in funding this work. He calls it a generational plan that acknowledges what a continued lack of equity could look like. With that in mind, how residents are involved and can benefit from development in the neighborhood will be a significant area of focus for the Merritt family and others working with the Renaissance of Hope project.

At the end of the day, Merritt knows residents of the neighborhood will be most interested in the impact the faith-inspired initiative will have on their lives, and in that he's determined to emphasize works over words. “This is a message of the Gospel demonstrated, not just communicated," he says.

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