Why the redevelopment of a Midtown apartment building is a crucial test case for inclusive housing

Disclosure: Dennis Archambault is a member of Senior Housing Preservation—Detroit, which advocates for low income senior housing.

Luke Hotchkiss found himself living in the center of dynamic changes occurring in downtown and Midtown Detroit. Then his low rent apartment, the Milner Arms, was purchased by a developer who intended to renovate and market the building to upscale tenants.

Marcus Swanson Jr., one of several older residents who had lived in the Milner Arms for 14 years, was also stunned and upset when he learned about the deal. Then he was invited to attend a meeting involving the developer and city officials where he learned the bad news: He would have to move. But there was good news as well: He could return.

Several residents who met low-income federal guidelines were told they could return at a 5 percent increase in rent the first year, followed by 1 percent each successive year, as long as they chose to live in the apartment.

About a third of the 97 apartments in the historic building, to be renamed The Hamilton, will be occupied by low-income renters when the building is reopened later in 2018.

With low-income and senior housing advocates still smarting from the mass evictions of elderly tenants from the Griswold Building (renamed The Albert) in 2013, and fearing that other low-income properties would convert to market rate, the Milner Arms deal created an optimistic sigh of relief.

Richard Broder, CEO of Broder and Sachse, which developed The Albert, learned a lesson from that experience. So he hired the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) to organize the tenants, arrange for their temporary housing, and oversee their return. 
Marcus Swanson Jr. has lived at the Milner Arms for 14 years
"Come back at the same rate? Yeah, I like that deal," says Swanson, a retired coach of the Kettering High School football team and known around the building as "Coach." "It's only fair. We're retired; we've been here all that time." 

Many of the residents were placed in nicer apartments with rent subsidized by the developer up to the amount of their original rent.

Swanson says most will return because of what the tenant community means to him: "Togetherness. Safety. Friendship. Brotherhood. Sisterhood. Fun."

"They're making a very bad situation tolerable," Hotchkiss says. "Obviously, it's not ideal that you have to move out. I know people who have been there for 20 years and that's been their home. It was like my family."

Hotchkiss, a medical laboratory scientist who has two cats, recalls, "When I mentioned I had cats, a lady told me about how her cat would own the floor and everyone knew that was so-and-so's cat and let the cat into their apartment as if it was their own."

Luke Hotchkiss

Several physicians-in-training and nurses living in the building monitored Swanson's health behavior. "Coach, didn't you just light a cigarette? You eat any fruit today?"

Swanson says, "I never drank so much V8 juice in my life."

While this deal may work out well in the end, the uprooting is still traumatic. "If you do a project like this or any other project where people are being relocated, even if they have the right to return, it's so stressful," says Claudia Sanford, tenant organizer for UCHC. "Moving is stressful no matter what support you have, but you absolutely have to have people there who can help with the relocation, as we did.

"I care about the people we relocated," she adds. "I need everything to be right. If I'm given the task I want to be sure that people have a soft landing. That's really important."

Sanford also coordinated the relocation of elderly tenants evicted from The Albert.

During the period between the two deals, Detroit enacted an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring that at least 20 percent of the units of new developments be affordable at 80 percent of the average median income (AMI), a similar commitment made previously by Mayor Mike Duggan.

In this case, Broder and Sachse is not developing an empty building, which makes the economics of the project more difficult. "What we're going to wind up with, instead of 20 percent, we're going to wind up with a third of the building at somewhere well less than 80 percent of AMI," Broder says. "You could make the argument that by doing a custom deal … it wound up serving an even more financially challenged population than otherwise would be required to."

"The owner made a wise decision to bring everyone in the building back," says Arthur Jemison, director of Housing and Revitalization for the city of Detroit. "Preserving the network of seniors in that building and getting them back together is a real priority for us."

Arthur Jemison, director of Housing and Revitalization for the city of Detroit

Jemison thinks these kind of developments will happen with more frequency, noting that there are many low-income rental apartments in the city that may be prospects for high end redevelopment. Known in the trade as "naturally occurring affordable housing," Jemison says the city intends to negotiate similar deals with developers to avoid tenant dislocation. "This was our first effort to explicitly say this is a naturally occurring housing property. We have to act because of that."

Swanson was invited to lead exercise classes in the renovated apartment's gym. But he's not sure. "I'm a football coach. I cuss a lot," he says.

When he and Hotchkiss return, they will meet the new tenants—many of whom will be paying significantly higher rents and have different lifestyle expectations. It's an experiment in socioeconomic integration that may pose some challenges.

Broder believes the affluent tenant that he's targeting are more open to urban diversity. "I think the fabric of the [tenant] community will find it intriguing and satisfying."

Hotchkiss is cautiously optimistic. "I hope the community stays the same," he says. "I hope that the new tenants coming in will embrace what it was. Obviously, they won't fully appreciate how far the building has come. ... My hopes and dreams are that the community that I fell in love with will persevere."

Broder says his company is "a lot smarter now," about the need for inclusionary housing in a city that is gentrifying. "When you work out a deal, it's easy to understand why we lose sight of that. We've moved closer to a fuller understanding of that. ... I think we did a much much better job of it on this project. The question is, did we get it right?"

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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