Changes are under way.
Published: May 15, 2013
Seven years after moving to Detroit’s Penrose neighborhood, Jonathan Hubbard’s memory of that first night remains vivid.
Arriving at the age of 11 with his mother, Carolyn Campbell, and his two younger siblings, Hubbard had come from a much nicer area on the city’s west side. Looking around his new neighborhood for the first time, he saw the crackheads and the prostitutes, heard gunshots, and then went to bed — but not to sleep.
“I was too scared to sleep,” recalls Hubbard, now an 18-year-old high school senior.
The next day he begged his mother to move back to their old neighborhood, where he felt safe.
“She explained to me that where we were living before was too expensive, and that she couldn’t afford to stay there and still give me and my brother and sister the things we wanted,” he says.
The Campbells’ Penrose house — newly built and energy-efficient — was the first of dozens being made available to low-income renters in this neighborhood just north of Seven Mile Road between Woodward and John R.
Penrose is still no paradise. Burnt-out buildings and abandoned lots that have become dumping grounds are still a significant part of the landscape. Parts of Penrose look as if they have been hit by some freak natural disaster — some combination of tornado and wildfire.
Walking through the area with a reporter, Jonathan is asked how growing up in an area filled with so much despair affects a kid.
Different people react differently, he explains.
“Some people get depressed by it all, but I didn’t get depressed,” he says. “What it did for me was give me motivation. It made me want to get away to someplace nice as soon as I could.”
Yet, amid the abandonment are new homes like the one Jonathan’s family moved to, with more on the way. Heavy equipment is being used to clear and level lots for a new round of homebuilding that’s about to begin.
The criminals are being pushed out, abandoned buildings are being torn down and new houses are springing up. The changes under way caused Hubbard to have a change of heart. Instead of wanting to flee, he’s planning to stay.
He intends to put down roots here — by becoming a farmer, growing food to sell and helping others in the area learn how to garden.
It’s all part of an innovative approach to redevelopment that involves a builder, a small nonprofit and members of the community — all of them working together to transform a neighborhood that, not long ago, appeared to be a hopelessly lost cause.
A Break in the Despair
THE TRANSFORMATION OF Penrose began more than seven years ago, when developer Sam Thomas started acquiring land and building houses, financing the endeavor primarily through an Internal Revenue Service program that uses tax credits to spur investment in low-income rental housing.
Thomas, who used to call Detroit’s tony Palmer Woods neighborhood home and now lives in Ann Arbor, put the deal together, acquired the property and owns the homes. The single-family houses range between 1,400 and 1,500 square feet, with two or three bedrooms; all the homes include basements and garages.
The homes must remain rentals for at least 15 years. After that, it is possible that they can be purchased. But it is up to the developer to determine whether to sell or keep the homes as rentals. Thomas says that decision won’t be made until the 15 years is up in 2021.
Either way, it is in the best interest of the developer to ensure that the neighborhood is one people want to live in.
Thomas has projects similar to Penrose on the west side of the state, in Benton Harbor, as well as Toledo, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wis.
Thomas, 71, began his career as a lawyer but made the transition to land developer more than 35 years ago. He now focuses exclusively on building low-income rental housing using funding generated by tax credits.
Although the basic financing structure remains the same, each project is different, Thomas says. He’s not just building homes — he’s building communities. And the shape is determined in large part by the people who live there.
“Each community has a different story to tell,” is the way Thomas puts it.
Penrose originally began to take shape at the beginning of the last century, with most of the houses built between 1900 and 1920. Immigrants were the primary residents. By the time Hubbard and his family moved there in 2006, the abandonment had long been under way. Drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes infested the area.
“This neighborhood was not heaven, let’s put it that way,” says Thomas.
Gradually, though, as new families laid claim to the neighborhood, the criminals started to leave. They aren’t all gone, but the “good folks are starting to outnumber the bad ones,” says the developer’s cousin, Dwight Thomas, who manages the project’s day-to-day operations.
The first phase, which saw 36 homes built in 2006, remains fully occupied, Sam says.
Land is currently being cleared to build another 36 homes this year.
“We didn’t want to build too fast, because you risk losing stability,” the developer says. Additionally, difficulty obtaining the competitively awarded tax credits has slowed things. In this round, the focus will be on attracting people with certain disabilities and the long-term homeless.
A Chaldean social services agency located on Seven Mile Road, at the edge of the Penrose neighborhood, is screening the applicants. More than 1,000 people are queued up, hoping to get a place.
Even more homes are anticipated.
“My vision for Penrose is to see 300 homes here,” says Thomas. “To see 300 families living in a vibrant, diverse community supported by its environment.”
In his Benton Harbor project, for instance, the development includes what Thomas calls an “art house.” A pair of artists live there, rent-free, and are paid a stipend. In return, the two provide art classes to the people in the neighborhood.
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