Resilient Neighborhoods: Detroit CDC is getting eco-friendly to make its community more affordable

When Ruth Bell moved back to Detroit from California in 1995, she barely recognized the city she and her family had left behind in the 1960s.

“It was like a war zone,” she recalls. “It was totally different.”

Surprised by the vacant lots and crumbling homes that now peppered the northwest Detroit neighborhood she had called home
"A lot of people in the community were there selling candles, vegetables that they grew, one lady was selling honey — she keeps bees."
as a teenager, Bell instead settled on the city’s east side and spent the next two decades raising her children there.

By around 2015, though, Bell’s kids had grown up and moved out on their own, and she found herself searching for a new house. When her Realtor kept steering her back to the same house in HOPE Village, Bell’s initial reluctance to return to her old neighborhood faded. That year, she moved back to the same block she had moved away from decades earlier when she, her mother, and her grandmother had gone west to open a bakery in California.

Hoping to get back into baking in Detroit, Bell attended a business class sponsored by Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit that provides training and educational opportunities for underrepresented minorities with a goal of overcoming poverty and racism. Afterward, she was invited to participate in a summer farmers market in the HOPE Village neighborhood, selling loaves of freshly baked bread alongside other entrepreneurial Detroiters.

“A lot of people in the community were there selling candles, vegetables that they grew, one lady was selling honey — she keeps bees,” Bell recalls. The farmers market, she learned, was part of a local community development program that sought to create better outcomes for the residents of HOPE Village.

Established in 2002 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Focus: HOPE, the organization spun off as an independent entity called HOPE Village Revitalization Community Development Corporation in 2019. Operating under the mission of building a more sustainable, equitable neighborhood, the organization works to create a high quality of life for its residents through the promotion of sustainable housing, healthy living, and community programming.

In Detroit, where residents have been particularly hard-hit by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, that mission has perhaps never been more important than it is right now.

Connecting with residents’ needs

With her interest piqued, Bell soon became an active member of HOPE Village Revitalization, taking part in monthly meetings and making friends with people in her neighborhood.Stephanie Johnson-Cobb

“You walk up and down the street and get to know your neighbors. If their houses are falling apart, [it’s not] because they just don’t care. It’s just the lack of having money to do the repairs on the house,” Bell says. “Even if you’re working and you’re not making top dollar, that money goes for food, and to DTE — our gas bills are high.”

Like herself, Bell says many of her neighbors are senior citizens living on limited incomes. According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 35% of Detroit residents were living in poverty in 2019, compared to 13% of the overall population of the state. Because many of the houses in the HOPE Village neighborhood are older, heating them can be expensive.

To help relieve residents of some of the costs associated with powering their homes, HOPE Village Revitalization launched an initiative to connect community members with energy-efficient solutions in fall 2020. In addition to operating its own eco-friendly offices situated in the La Salle Eco-Demonstration Home, which is powered by solar panels on the roof with rain gardens in the front and back, the organization now works to connect residents with a pilot DTE Low-Income Energy Efficiency Assistance program focused on providing free energy-efficiency solutions.

“[HOPE Village] called people in the community and asked, ‘Would anybody be interested [in the program]?’ And, of course, everybody went wild,” Bell recalls. “So everybody was helping one another fill out the applications.”

Since last year, HOPE Village Revitalization has helped facilitate the free installation of eight different energy-efficient measures in residents’ homes, including new furnaces, insulation, and more. 

Between 2014 and 2016, while still under the leadership of Focus: Hope, HOPE Village worked closely with Detroit Future City to launch its own solar plant to power the neighborhood. In addition to complex laws surrounding ground-mounted solar facilities in Michigan, the costs of providing solar power in that way were too high. Instead, HOPE Village is now seeking ways to expand solar energy in the community.

Bell was able to have her furnace replaced through the program in December. Although it’s still too early to know how much money Bell’s new furnace will save her in heating costs, she expects that her bill will be cut by about half.

A focus on sustainability

Moving beyond environmentally-friendly measures like the energy-efficiency program and the community’s 2016 designation as an Eco-D Neighborhood, HOPE Village Revitalization also places a strong emphasis on sustainability in the community by Debbie Fisherempowering locals to make democratic decisions about their neighborhood through automatic resident memberships, a resident-controlled board, and regular neighborhood meetings.

To ensure those decision-making meetings could continue taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, HOPE Village Revitalization recently partnered with Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors and Connect 313 to distribute tablets to over 30 seniors in the neighborhood.

“Sustainability, for me, would be a state that could be easily maintained — not subject to the current market forces that cause booms and busts or displacement in neighborhoods, but something that gives some of the control back to the inhabitants of that particular environment … where benefits are more equitably shared among people over a long period of time,” says Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, deputy director of HOPE Village Revitalization and a lifelong resident of HOPE Village.

To achieve that goal, the organization is working to find ways to give residents more control over local housing.

“Seventy-nine percent of people who live in our neighborhood are renters right now,” says Debbie Fisher, executive director of the CDC. “If the rents in the neighborhood were to go up dramatically, or even just by a couple hundred dollars, that would effectively mean a lot less people would be able to be housed in the neighborhood.”

To mitigate that risk, HOPE Village Revitalization is currently engaged in a feasibility study with hopes of taking over three vacant apartment buildings in the neighborhood and renovating them to high-efficiency, renewable energy standards with a focus on what Fisher describes as “deeply affordable” rents and dividend housing where renters would “share in some of the benefits of ownership.”

“Most of our residents are at about 50% of area median income,” Fisher says. “A lot of affordable housing is targeted at 80%, but we’re really looking to have deeply affordable housing in our neighborhood, so that would be between 30-50%.”

Building bridges

In addition to its commitment to sustainable energy and housing, HOPE Village Revitalization is also focused on building bridges between neighbors and encouraging a more vibrant local culture.

“There are a lot of great founders here and families that have been here for generations,” says Khary Frazier, vice chair of Khary FrazierHOPE Village Revitalization and lifelong resident of HOPE Village. “And there are also some [newer] renters here. So, building that bridge between people that have been here for a long time … and people that are coming is another one of the goals of HOPE Village — welcoming our neighbors.”

To help fulfill that part of their mission, Frazier says HOPE Village Revitalization operates local community-building events like a farmers market that runs from June through September, several community gardens, and engaging events like photography festivals — all centered on bringing people in the neighborhood together.

“It’s a journey, living within a community like this and being Black, with some of the challenges that we naturally face in the landscape of access to resources that are sustainable … HOPE Village has some great ideas,” Frazier says.

“We’re trying to create a strong community base whose voice will be heard regarding issues that affect quality of life and what life looks like in a neighborhood in Detroit,” Johnson-Cobb adds. “Hopefully, we will become a model that can be replicated — not only in Detroit, but in other places as well.”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.