Resilient Neighborhoods: These Detroit CDOs are remaking vacant properties into affordable homes

Rick Sailes is no stranger to the ups and downs of renovating older Detroit homes. As the construction manager for Central Detroit Christian (CDC), he often finds himself rehabbing abandoned houses in the nonprofit's 24-block service area located near the middle part of the Motor City.

Rick Sailes In Detroit where long-standing issues like blight and vacancy are no public secret, CDC is one of several local community development organizations working to bring back vacant properties and make housing more affordable for residents.

The construction crew Sailes supervises covers a wide range of construction work, handling everything from simple home repairs to complete remodels. When a job calls for it, they'll even take on landscaping work. Right now, they're rehabbing a two-story home located on 135 W. Philadelphia St.

"This house is one of the better houses [we've worked on]," says Sailes. "A lot of the wall and the flooring was pretty intact. But the floors in the bathrooms, kitchens, and upstairs, we have to refloor all that." 

CDC's construction crew also needs to fix up the bedrooms, complete the downstairs, and make sure all of the home's electrical, heating and cooling, and plumbing systems are up to snuff. That's a lot of work, but Sailes enjoys the feeling of bringing an old home back from the brink and making it into something beautiful again, an experience he describes as "complete satisfaction." 

In addition to overseeing on-site work, he also trains his crew members who come from the surrounding area, which is his favorite part of the job. Sailes is also proud to be part of the larger effort Central Detroit Christian has been making in the community, which beyond housing also includes launching local businesses, offering entrepreneurial and workforce development classes and sponsoring youth programming. 

"They're really married to their projects," says Sailes. "I'm glad someone is in the area doing exactly what they're doing."

Over its lifespan, Central Detroit Christian has invested roughly $30 million in Detroit real estate, rehabbed about 225 homes, and assisted more than 250 families with home repairs. The nonprofit currently manages more than 200 homes and apartments. 

As with much of the city, the foreclosure crisis had a significant impact in its development area. According to Lisa Johanon, CDC's founder and executive director, the number of empty homes there jumped from 27 before the housing market collapse to 103 in 2009.

"We have worked our tail off for the past 12 years to get to less than 20 homes that are vacant," she says. "So we have been very busy in terms of doing rehab."Lisa Johanon (CDC Photo)

Right now, CDC is focusing its energy on renovating smaller single-family homes to sell and duplexes to rent. Those are the types of housing community members have been asking for and this emphasis fits with the nonprofit's goal of creating affordable housing that improves the look and feel of the neighborhood.

For those interested in taking on a rehab project, Johanon cautions that they can be much more complicated than simply building from scratch. It's quite common to run into unforeseen obstacles like plumbing issues, which can push a project's costs far beyond what was anticipated. And replacing fixtures like doors and windows for older homes may be more expensive since they come in sizes that are no longer standard. 

"You've really got to be tough and willing to struggle through a lot of issues, like whether somebody broke in and stole something," says Johanon. "It's a tough business but it's a great reward at the end."

Bricks and mortar

In endeavoring to make derelict houses livable again, community development organizations like Central Detroit Christian are taking on an issue that's been a thorn in the city's side for decades due to population loss connected to deindustrialization and white flight.

While abandoned homes are nothing new in Detroit, though, the collapse of the housing market certainly took the problem to a whole new level during the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2015, more than a third of Detroit properties were foreclosed upon due to unpaid taxes and mortgage defaults, according to a 2015 analysis by The Detroit News.

This past week the city demolished the last of 15,804 homes targeted for elimination in a federally funded blight removal program that kicked off in 2014. Deserted properties certainly continue to be a problem, however, as city officials estimate that more than 22,000 vacant homes still remain in Detroit. It's an issue that will go before voters in November in the form of a $250 million bond plan that would pay for the demolition of 8,000 of these unoccupied structures and the renovation of an additional 8,000 that have been deemed structurally sound.

Like Central Detroit Christian, U-SNAP-BAC (United Streets Networking and Planning: Building A Community) is no stranger to this sort of redevelopment. Linda Smith (USNAPBAC Photo)

Formed in 1987, the nonprofit community development corporation is charged with two primary responsibilities. First off, as a HUD- and MSHDA-certified counseling agency, it offers homebuyer education and foreclosure prevention services. Beyond that, it's also focused on revitalizing an area of Detroit's east side that encompasses Van Dyke Ave. to the west, the Detroit border with Grosse Pointe to the east, Charlevoix St. to the south, and a little past I-94 to the north.

"On the brick and mortar side, we have built over 130 single-family homes, and we have two low-income [townhouse] projects," says Executive Director Linda Smith. "For one, the units are available according to income. The other building is for families and the rent is subsidized, but you have to be coming out of a domestic violence or drug abuse situation to live there."

For the last 12 years, U-SNAP-BAC has also offered home repair grants to cover the costs of fixing items like doors and windows.

When looking to acquire property, Smith tries to figure out what opportunities a structure might have for rent or resale and what the return on investment might be. She's also mindful of proximity to schools and businesses like grocery stores and the shape of the building. Fire damage is something to look out for as it can damage the frame of the house and be incredibly costly to repair.

Over the years, Smith has also learned to be very vigilant about the possibility of theft. 

"You can't put a furnace or hot water tank until the person is ready to move in, literally," she says. "Because they will be removed, and as a nonprofit I don't have funds to replace it." 

When she can, the U-SNAP-BAC director likes to rehab several homes on the same block at the same time to save money.

"If you've got one on one block, one on another, you have to secure them differently than if they're close together," she says. "And when you're working on them, if the contractors can work on the roofs and the masonry all at once, it makes a lot of sense."

This is especially important for rentals, which are becoming more popular in the city, but tend to have a lower return on investment than reselling homes.

Although U-SNAP-BAC has tried working with what's known as a sweat equity model, where prospective home buyers do their own construction work as down payment, it hasn't worked out well in practice. Doing this sort of project can as much as double the cost of a rehab, due to inexperience and increased material costs. 

Smith's most pressing advice for anyone interested in rehabbing a home is to do their research.

"Most people get into this without checking it out," she says. "Do your homework. Just because it sounds good. doesn't mean it is good." 

Community concerns

Woodbridge differs from many Detroit neighborhoods in that there isn't much in the way of blighted homes left for the local community development organization to acquire. 

"In the past, there was a lot of city-owned property and land bank-owned property, and now there just isn't anymore," says Angie Gaabo, executive director of Woodbridge Neighborhood Development (WND). "As an organization we're dealing with property that we acquired in the past through tax auctions and vacant lot sales."Angie Gaabo (WND Photo)
WND has been active since 2002 in Woodbridge, an irregularly shaped neighborhood that falls very loosely between Grand River and Warren Avenues, and the I-94 and Lodge highways.

The nonprofit originally came together through the efforts of residents concerned about stabilizing abandoned homes and lessening negative impacts from real estate speculation. While it's primarily concerned with housing and development needs, the WND also promotes walkability efforts and partners with local groups and businesses to put on events at a local park.

In recent years, the nonprofit has renovated two abandoned homes, 1747 Calumet St. and 4852 Avery St., which were sold at market rate in 2019 to raise money for its low-income home repair program. 

Right now, WND is looking for prospective tenants at its 3530 Grand River building, a multi-story former bank known for its colorful giraffe mural that it's been redeveloping with Cinnaire Solutions, a community development financial nonprofit. It's also partnering with them to convert a former school at 1780 W. Hancock St. into a neighborhood hub and resident engagement center.

Woodbridge Neighborhood Development also owns about a dozen lots in the district, mostly located on an eight-acre site bounded roughly by Rosa Parks Blvd., Calumet St, and W. Forest Ave. and Grand River Ave. At the moment, the nonprofit is trying to figure out how to best develop these lots in a way that  addresses the needs and concerns of residents.

While Woodbridge is well-known locally for its stately Victorian homes, the neighborhood is also populated with a number of Section 8 subsidized homes and affordable senior living facilities. Looking forward, WDN would like to supplement these existing options with starter homes, smaller residences geared towards empty nesters, and locally owned businesses.

While it's still working out the exact details of how it wants to develop its empty lots, the nonprofit is committed to listening to residents and working to realize its vision of a vibrant neighborhood composed of a variety of people of different ages and income levels.

"We see our role as influencing the neighborhood in a positive way and maintaining the eclectic diversity that exists," she says. "And not letting it turn into a bunch of luxury condos, which it could if we're just going to leave it to the market."

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.

All photos by Nick Hagen, unless otherwise noted.
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David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.