Anything but Beige

Angela (Nefertiti) Harris needed affordable housing. But what she didn’t want was beige, prefabricated lodging bereft of originality or amenities. She found a three-bedroom dwelling with purple hues and wood trimming – in North Corktown.

“I did not want a cookie cutter house. I wanted something unique and something that mimics the old homes from the colonial period. I was so impressed. This is everything that I’ve asked for. The colors are phenomenal,” says Harris, the owner of a natural hair salon in Midtown.

She and her 14-year-old son are moving from the Chicago-Boston area into North Corktown – which encompasses the Lodge to 18th Street, I-75 to Martin Luther King. Harris spent three years on a waiting list for one of 30 single-family homes developed as part of an affordable housing venture by the nonprofit Greater Corktown Development Corp. (GCDC).

This $4 million-plus endeavor has been four years in the making, but by the end of this year all of the units will be filled with families. The hope is that the project will help spur more growth in the neighborhood.

No part of Corktown left behind

Corktown is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood and is seen as an imitable model of what trickling reinvestment can do for an enclave. It epitomizes the “cool cities” concept — pushed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to attract and retain young residents — with diverse residents, urban living, cafes, pubs and trendy locales. But North Corktown hasn’t quite fared as well.

With the shutdown of Tiger Stadium, vacant lots that once drew in baseball parking no longer have appeal. And because this section of the neighborhood isn’t officially historic, the intrinsic charm of the houses isn’t the same. Fabulous restored 19th century houses co-mingle with structures with burned out roofs.

For GCDC, ushering in this new housing construction — of which the neighborhood has not seen in about 50 years — is the first phase of plans developers have for North Corktown.

The next phase that the GCDC hopes to start includes affordable lofts and town homes and a condo project that has an affordable component. Sites are still being scoped. From there developers will focus on steering pedestrian-friendly retail along Trumbull such as small cafes and retail. They are working on “pocket park,” which is a grassy knoll tucked away on Cochrane encompassing a pathway and artistic elements.

As the neighborhood continues improving, developers can look to a project completed by University of Michigan graduate students as part of a class assignment. Last year they compiled a design handbook that intricately details planning, zoning, street details. The document gives examples of what kind housing would work well in the neighborhood.

Incorporating the arts

There is also an artistic component weaving throughout the neighborhood. Last year Greater Corktown received a $440,000 grant from the state housing agency to install six public art installations. One, for example, is a bronze etching of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, which will be at the corner of the respectively named intersections.

“The incorporation of public art to a neighborhood has many positive effects on the community both from the beautification aesthetic improvement, but it more or less gives it identity. People drive through the community and they know it’s the North Corktown community,” Mahoney says.

Harris says that artistic energy was a draw for her, too.
“There are a few artists and musicians, who I understand, who will be in the neighborhood. Greater Corktown seems to be very open, embracing people like that. I enjoy the arts. I’m drawn to that kind of energy. That was good enough for me,” she says.

Affordable and attractive

A spate of market-rate housing has been sprouting up across the city but affordable housing advocates say low- and middle-income families have been overshadowed in the crush new lofts, condos and town homes.

The North Corktown project will help to fill that void, and the GCDC is on a mission to make the affordable housing not stick out like polyester on a red-carpet gala. In the end developers are hoping affordable housing will be indistinguishable from market-rate housing and thus strengthening the overall neighborhood.

“We tried as best we could not make them look like affordable housing units in the city. We really paid extra attention to detail …so it doesn’t look like a ‘housing development,’” says Keegan Mahoney, of GCDC, and point person for the project.

The aesthetically pleasing homes, ranging from 1,300-1,700 sq. ft., have modern details like kitchen islands, sleek countertops, bay windows, an alarm system, dropped lighting and wood windows. There is no cheap vinyl siding on the homes, which all have open floor plans. Some models have living rooms and dining rooms. Master bedrooms include their own bathrooms.

The homes range in colors from reds to olives with sweeping front porches and a one-car detached garage. Even though North Corktown is not a historic district like the other parts of Corktown, the housing corporation kept the integrity of the architecture.

“The goal is for other developers to build in this neighborhood without subsidy,” Mahoney says.

Attractive affordable housing is gaining traction across the country. Earlier this year Housing and Urban Development revisited a report from 13 years ago entitled “Not In My Back Yard”: Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing” that urged government to help with affordable housing and remove impediments. HUD is on an agency-wide campaign to convince community groups and the public that attractive affordable housing adds social and economic benefit to neighborhoods.

The GCDC purchased scattered, city-owned vacant lots to build the homes, which cost between $91,000 and $98,000 in purchase price. But each home – dotted between Trumbull and Rosa Parks, Temple and MLK — cost about $160,000 to construct. Qualified applicants can buy a home for about $80,000. The corporation raised private dollars and received money through the City of Detroit, which received federal housing money to put in the pot. Residents must earn no more than 80 percent of the Wayne County median income. For a single person it is s $39,150 and $73,800 for a family of eight. Owners must live in the dwelling for at least five years. After that, the houses could conceivably be sold at market-rate prices.

For Harris, the feeling of the neighborhood helped her decide to make North Corktown her home as much as the affordability.

“It wasn’t difficult finding affordable housing; it was about where I wanted to be and the neighbors I wanted to have. I understand the concept of what Corktown was trying to do – create something very diverse. That pulled me in,” she says.

Angela Harris and her son

North Corktown Ceromony

North Corktown Fish - Artist: Tom Rudd

Artist for Sign: Taru Lahti

Cochrane Street in North Corktown

All Photographs copyright Dave Krieger

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