Resilient Neighborhoods: Regent Park's comeback has been building one home at a time

Living in Detroit's Regent Park neighborhood for almost a decade now, Pat Sherley has definitely seen the area go through some big changes.

"It's a lot better than it was when I first moved out here," she says. "People are keeping up their properties more. We had some drug houses around here, [but] I haven't seen any drug activity in years." 

Historically Regent Park was known as a stable working-class community, one that LifeBUILDERS apartment complex. (David Lewinski)was called home by large numbers of firefighters, police officers, and teachers. At the tail-end of the 1990s, however, it started going through a rough patch after the state passed a law banning municipalities from requiring city workers to live where they worked. 

Vacancies grew, blight crept in and crime began to proliferate. Over time Regent Park's Zip Code, 48205, developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous areas in the city. The housing market crash of the late aughts only served to exacerbate these troubles. 

Sherly, a security guard who is currently on medical leave, has watched the situation improve markedly in recent years. She moved to the neighborhood nine years ago, after becoming acquainted with an organization called LifeBUILDERS, a faith-based nonprofit, that owns a lot of properties in the area and has been actively involved In Regent Park's revival.

She now lives at an apartment building owned and operated by the organization.Scene from a more blighted era in Regent Park. (LifeBUILDERS) Located near LifeBUILDERS headquarters on Kelly Road near Eastburn Street, the complex currently houses 16 people. According to Sherley, the building is well-maintained, and she gets along great with her neighbors. 

"I've met some really nice people by being a part of LifeBUILDERS," she says."We all get along. We look out for each other. I hear no complaints from anyone out here in the apartments. I feel like [LifeBUILDERS] are family. Because that's how they treat me. That's how they treat all the people, like family."

During her time in Regent Park, Sherley says LifeBUILDERS has been involved with a number of different initiatives to improve the local community. These efforts have included everything from infrastructure and anti-blight work to sponsoring a variety of programming, including activities for seniors, youth sports,  and a jobs program for local teens..

"They have built it up a lot," she says. "I have grandchildren who are 16 years old, and they've been a part of LifeBUILDERS since they were five. And they're still a part of LifeBUILDERS." 

A renovated LifeBUILDERS home in Regent Park. (David Lewinski)
'Getting on the right trajectory'
While LifeBUILDERS has brought an extensive variety of programming to Regent Park, its anti-blight and renovation efforts are hard to miss when walking around the 76-block neighborhood, which is located between Kelly Road, Seven Mile Road, Larry Johnson (center) with LifeBUILDERS staff. (David Lewinski) Gratiot Avenue, and Eight Mile Road. 

According to LifeBUILDERS co-founder Larry Johnson, the area was experiencing some major difficulties when the nonprofit first moved to the neighborhood around 2007. Vacant homes were all over the place. Drug use and crime were prevalent. And the area lacked street lighting. Faced with this situation, the organization's leadership felt an obligation to step up.

"When we came in here, we had no intention whatsoever of tackling the blight and abandonment. We had bought this building and our intentions were just to get people together to encourage them in their faith and minister to children," he says. "But the abandonment was so bad, we decided [we had to help with] getting this neighborhood on the right trajectory."

At the time, Regent Park wasn't really on the city's radar, according to Johnson. So LifeBUILDERS took the issue of vacancy into its own hands. At first, the organization concentrated on its immediate neighborhood, raising money and organizing volunteers to fix around a dozen homes near its headquarters at 20141 Kelly Road.

Eventually, the nonprofit began reaching out to the city of Detroit and the Detroit Land Bank regarding programs like the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which other areas of the city were using to address blight-related issues. These appeals were heard, and between 75 and 100 homes in the neighborhood were demolished as a result of these efforts in the late aughts. 

The nonprofit's work gained added momentum in the early 2010s when a team of University of Michigan Urban Planning graduate students working closely with LifeBUILDERS, the Regent Park Homeowners Association (now known as The Regent Park Community Association), and other groups developed a plan for the neighborhood. Published in 2014, "The Time is Now: A New Vision for Greater Regent Park" outlined a strategy to improve conditions in the neighborhood by engaging residents, addressing blight, and identifying and making use of local assets.

"It put our community in the spotlight and got us some attention," says Johnson. "By having that stamp on our work, we were able to secure additional financing and begin to advance our work going forward."

During its time in Regent Park, LifeBUILDERS has acquired and rehabbed more than 80 properties in the neighborhood. The nonprofit owns or operates about 50 of these units, including Sherley's apartment complex. It's also sold more than 15 of these homes to local residents. LifeBUILDERS' work has also included collaborating with other local groups like the Regent Park Community Association and the Denby Neighborhood Alliance to secure grants and help develop the city's  Gratiot/7 Mile Neighborhood Framework Plan. 

These efforts haven't gone unnoticed by Regent Park's District 3 City Councilman Scott Benson, who has praised them in an online statement

"I wouldn't want to imagine Detroit's Regent Park neighborhood without the work LifeBUILDERS has done," he said. "It has created a friendly neighborhood by rehabbing and selling homes to young families, offering summer programs for the area's youth, and providing a free childcare center for babies and toddlers.  LifeBUILDERS' impact on this community is immense and immeasurable."

Map showing LifeBUILDERS properties in Regent Park. (LifeBUILDERS)Building blocks for the future

Mike Agrusa serves as LifeBUILDERS operations manager. He's responsible for maintaining the nonprofit's facilities and overseeing crews on some of the organization's renovation projects. An employee with the nonprofit for ten years, he loves running into all the long-term tenants he knows from his time with the organization and is pleased with the role he's played in helping out the neighborhood.

"I love putting that house back in the community," Agrusa says. "It's good for everybody. It's good for the community and for the city to get a tax base again. It's an awesome feeling."
These days, a lot of the renovation work he's engaged in is focused on a 16 by 20 block area of southeastern Regent Park that still struggles with blight. Many of these properties are more difficult to rehab, since they're more likely to be wood frame houses, rather than the brick bungalows that tend predominate West of E. State Fair Avenue.

"A lot of our homes we get from the Detroit Land Bank. There's a wide variety of them. Early on, we were able to get homes in better shape, though not perfect by any means," he says. "[Now] our options are limited." 

A $75,000 Kresge Innovative Project: Detroit grant awarded in 2017 helped pave the way for the nonprofit's current renovation of the area, providing funding to board up and secure vacant houses and clear out vacant lots. 

Since that time, the organization has renovated over 50 homes and built the state-of-the-art Regent Park Early Childhood Education Center on the grounds of the former Tracy W. McGregor Elementary school. Much of the facility was beyond repair when LifeBUILDERS began work on the $1.1 million renovation, but approximately 8,000 square feet was eventually salvaged and rehabbed into the current facility. United Children and Family Head Start now leases the building from LifeBUILDERS and provides pre-school type services to 60 local youth. 

Bringard-Boulder Park sits right next door to the early childhood education center. The park is one of several pocket parks in the neighborhood renovated by LifeBUILDERS, which has held its summer camp and other activities there. The recreation area is currently slated to receive new playground equipment and additional improvements from the city of Detroit.

Beyond its rehab work, the nonprofit also dispenses home repair funding to local residents through a grant provided by Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). 

Looking ahead, the organization is focused on creating a new community gathering space on a three-acre property located across the street from Fisher Magnet Upper AcademyLifeBUILDERS wants to create a new community gathering space across the street from the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC). (David Lewinski) (home of the Ford Resource and Engagement Center) at 15491 Maddelein Street.

The nonprofit is also looking forward to seeing the realization of the city's Gratiot-7 Mile plan (also known as G7), which is part of the public-private Strategic Neighborhood Plan initiative to reinvigorate 10 commercial corridors around the city. Fifth-Third Bank, the city's corporate community partner for G7 plans to invest $5 million to revitalize a 3.4-square-mile area of the community bounded by Houston Whittier Street, Eight Mile Road, Schoenherr Road, and Kelly Road.

Elements of the G7 plan include blight remediation, new streetscaping, and efforts to promote business along three area micro-districts. What that means for Regent Park, says Johnson, are safer pathways for local residents, improvements to the area around the Heilmann Recreation Center, and the repurposing of several abandoned buildings that remain in the neighborhood.

Johnson is excited to see the impact the initiative will bring to the area, and can't help but feel that the work LifeBUILDERS has done has contributed to the new changes that are in store for Regent Park.

"I really believe it's because of the work that we were called to do here that we got selected as one of those neighborhoods," he says. "There's been dramatic improvement. All of this stuff has just sort of worked together for [the greater] good."

Photos by David Lewinski unless otherwise noted.

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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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.