I’Sha Schultz-Spradlin and her husband Alex couldn’t be happier with their decision to purchase their first home in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood last year. Originally built in 1925, the home is a rehabbed 800-plus-square-foot house on San Juan Street. Fitzgerald, the Northwest Detroit neighborhood where it’s located, has seen its share of struggles over the last few decades, but it’s a tight-knit community — and it also happens to be the center of a focused first-of-its-kind Detroit revitalization effort.
“We love our home! It's modern, updated, and beautiful,” says Schultz-Spradlin. “Our neighbors are great, we hang out with them on their porches and at community events put on by community leaders.
“We all look out for each other,” she adds. “It's really the neighborhood I dreamed of living in.”
Alex is a native of the Motor City; I’Sha came here by way of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The millennial couple met in college while she was doing a research paper on Detroit. The two fell in love and eventually moved in together, initially renting a place in Green Acres, not far from Fitzgerald.
I’Sha Schultz-Spradlin and her husband liked the neighborhood they were living in, but were priced out. After conducting an online housing search, they eventually discovered their future home on San Juan.
Although they liked Green Acres, they were effectively pushed out of the neighborhood when their landlord announced plans for a rent increase. And although they’d been keeping their eyes out for a home for around two years, there was nothing available in their price range there.
While the Spradlins both work in Detroit, the money they bring in from their jobs doesn’t exactly place them in a high-income bracket, and they’re still paying off their student loans. After conducting a search on a real estate website, they eventually discovered their future home on San Juan. It was move-in ready and being offered up for sale for $90,000, an amount they could afford.
As luck would have it, their current home is one of roughly a dozen homes in the area that have been renovated and made available specifically for households making less than $45,000 a year. The affordable homes program is being administered by the Fitz Forward Development Group, the organization which oversees the local revitalization effort, and is subsidized by a $1.5 million community development block grant.
“My husband and I are very aware of the housing crisis in the city and appreciated that they were trying to remedy that with pricing houses affordably for folks in the neighborhood to be able to buy,” says Schultz-Spradlin. “We got married in our home, which would have not been possible if it wasn't for the diligence of Fitz Forward.”
Rethinking neighborhood revitalization
Fixing up local homes and finding people to own and live in them, however, is only a part of what’s happening in Fitzgerald. Over the last two years, the community has been home to a special initiative led by the City of Detroit called the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project that’s taking a comprehensive approach to redeveloping the area on a neighborhood level.
The project, which falls within a quarter-mile area of Fitzgerald bounded by West McNichols Road, Livernois Avenue, Puritan Street, and Greenlawn Avenue, involves a public-private collaboration between the City of Detroit and other partners interested in transforming vacant properties and land in the area and reinvigorating the neighborhood.
At a price tag running between $12 and $15 million, the plan originally called for the renovation of more than 100 homes and the repurposing about 200 vacant lots in area covering roughly 300 parcels of land. Backed by financial support from the Kresge Foundation and other foundations linked to the Reimagining the Civic Commons grant, the revitalization has also encompassed the creation of a new 2.5-acre recreation area called Ella Fitzgerald Park, the establishment of the Neighborhood HomeBase community center, and is in the process of building a half-mile greenway linking Marygrove College and the University of Detroit Mercy. Beyond that, the city is also planning to redo the streetscape along West McNichols to make It into a more attractive commercial corridor.
Fitz Forward, a joint venture between two development firms, Century Partners and The Platform, is the group responsible for stewarding the transformation of vacant land and properties in the project footprint.
“We want to see some of that progress hit the neighborhoods. We want to give opportunities to those who are normally left out of the economic process here to own a piece of this city," David Alade says.
David Alade of Century Partners says his firm is excited to be working on the project and was motivated partly by a desire to bring some of the development attention that downtown and Midtown Detroit have been experiencing to a different part of Detroit — and to do so in a way that benefits longtime residents.
“We want to see some of that progress hit the neighborhoods,” he says. “We want to give opportunities to those who are normally left out of the economic process here to own a piece of this city, as well as the ability to live in a fully functioning neighborhood.”
To that end, Fitz Forward has made it clear they’re interested in pursuing a mixed-income housing plan for their rehabbed homes that will make some of their properties available at market rate while keeping others affordable to low-to-moderate income households by taking advantage of community block grant funds secured by the City of Detroit. The development group has also created a nonprofit called Century Forward dedicated to engaging with residents and getting their input about what they’d like redevelopment to look like in their neighborhood. Alade says the group has been present at numerous community meetings and that he makes his contact information available to residents who want to share their opinions and ideas with him.
They’ve also expressed a desire to hire local residents to take part in the revitalization. Through a workforce development program, 40 local residents have been hired up to this point for services like demolition, snow removal, lawn maintenance, and painting. Of them, two have been brought on full time to work with Detroit-based construction firms engaged in their rebuilding efforts.
Working with the City of Detroit, Fitz Forward has approached the redevelopment of Fitzgerald with creative thinking. To be sure, a good deal of the revitalization effort has involved clearing vacant land and boarding and fixing up blighted properties, but their work has also incorporated plans for nontraditional elements like establishing flowering meadows, creating neighborhood hub areas, and transforming neglected into homestead properties that will be sold with adjacent land that can be used for farming.
Despite their big ambitions, Fitz Forward's work hasn’t been without its challenges. The project’s work of reworking vacant lots and renovating the homes in the area was originally set to be completed this year. To date, the development group has only completed the rehabilitation of nine homes and their revised plan now calls for the renovation of between 70 to 80 homes at a pace of about 10 to 20 homes a year. Alade says Fitz Forward is focusing its rehabilitation effort on houses where that sort of investment makes economic sense, and the other homes will likely be demolished.
“There’s certain properties that have been out of rotation and have deteriorated over time that are no longer good for renovation,” he says. “And we want to make sure that we’re moving at a pace that allows folks to understand what’s happening and to participate in the economic resurgence.”
So far Fitz Forward has sold five of its homes, three of which are now owned by people with low- to moderate-household incomes. Going forward, Fitz Forward is also teaming up with two other entities, Rehabbed & Ready, a program connected to the Detroit Land Bank, and Bridging Neighborhoods, a program that relocates Delray residents, to speed up the process of their redevelopment.
Excitement and apprehension
Local residents and stakeholders are encouraged by the progress but shared some concerns when interviewed by Model D.
Michael Thomas, a 48-year resident of Fitzgerald who works in the construction field, is excited that blighted homes are being fixed up and vacant lots are being transformed into community assets.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “It’s coming along good. The residents around here appreciate it,” he says.
But despite this optimism, he’s still curious about whether current residents will end up being priced out by new development, a concern he says many people have been expressing in the neighborhood lately.
Cynthia Morris is a travel agent who’s lived in Fitzgerald for 40 years and has several relatives who live in the neighborhood. While she likes what’s happening, she does wonder about the pace of development.
“Some of the houses I thought they’d have demolished by now haven’t been,” she says. “But other than that the things they’ve been renovating and bringing to the neighborhood are fine."
As for impact, there have been a lot more people passing through her street lately, and Morris believes the revitalization is spurring more business and diversity in the area.
That said, Morris feels that Fitz Forward could do a better job at outreach. While representatives of the group are good at holding meetings and answering questions, she thinks there’s room for improvement when it comes to informing residents about new developments.
Lolita Haley, a local Realtor and director of the University Commons community development organization, loves the inclusive vision of the project and thinks revitalization has the potential to be rewarding for local residents. And, yet, she’s not shy about voicing her questions about how the effort is proceeding.
“I don’t see, with all those millions of dollars, why you can’t fix more houses and hire (more local people),” she says. “A lot of us are thinking: ‘OK, what are we missing here? You can’t find any plumbers, carpenters, drywallers, painters to do that? And there’s no contractors that can find people to do it in the community?”
For his part, Alade welcomes residents who have questions and concerns like these to reach out to him through Fitz Forward. Even with the challenges Fitz Forward is facing with its renovation, the revitalization has brought new energy and opened up new possibilities to Fitzgerald.
Schultz-Spradlin, who bought her home on San Juan last year, for example, is now the president of the College Core Block Club, an association of local blocks in the Fitzgerald area. While she understands people’s frustrations, she’s also grateful for the opportunities the revitalization have made possible for her.
“The process hasn't been the smoothest in regard to the expectations and realities of the community members versus the expectations and realities of Fitz Forward," she says. “As with being the first to do something innovative, there are many moving parts. I strongly feel Fitz Forward is doing the best they can and appreciate their diligence.”
This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.