A Central Detroit Christian rehab project on Philadelphia Street. Courtesy of CDC
Matthew Corbin has been in property management for over 20 years. But after working exclusively at for-profit companies, he needed a change.
“Their only concern was the bottom line and they didn’t care if they pushed people out,” Corbin told Detour. “After awhile, I just couldn’t stomach it anymore.”
Five years ago, he became the property manager at Solid Rock, the in-house firm at Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), which owns a sizable number of affordable rentals in the greater North End neighborhood. His work now has more of a purpose.
“We’re very people focused,” Corbin said. “We actually have a desire to actually house the poor.”
CDC has been around for over 26 years, and during that time its housing portfolio has been a relatively small part of a larger project to empower low-income residents within its footprint. The organization offers financial planning services and has started numerous small businesses, like a laundromat and grocery store, to provide jobs.
But in recent years, it’s expanded its housing options, going from owning 92 rental units in 2018 to 130 units today. And if a couple of projects close in the next year, CDC could add another 288 units.
Some of the surge is due to opportunity, but has mostly been driven by residents’ needs.
“We’ve all seen in the last few years more evictions and less affordable housing,” CDC Executive Director Lisa Johanon said. “That’s not neighborhood friendly.”
CDC largely operates in the area north of New Center, bounded by Woodward Avenue and Linwood Street north of West Grand Boulevard. In this neighborhood, often called Piety Hill, the need for affordable and quality housing is indeed great.
In one of the area’s census tracts, the estimated median income among residents — who are almost 95% Black — is just over $25,000, and the neighborhood has a large population of renters.
Corbin said there’s a sizable waiting list for all their multi-bedroom units. “Sadly, when they come to us, they don’t even care where the unit is,” he said. “They just ask if we have someplace for them.”
In response, CDC has pursued an aggressive strategy to acquire properties through sales (and one donation) to bolster housing options for the poorer members of the neighborhood. It’s also begun to build housing through its in-house construction subsidiary, CDC Construction. If everything falls into place, in the next year CDC could triple its holdings.
The one closest to completion is a 40-unit apartment building on Linwood Street, which was gifted to CDC in December 2020. While Johanon declined to discuss the details of the donation, she said the building was in bad shape and the owner was looking to unload it. CDC moved the few tenants living there to other units it owned and is currently doing a gut rehab.
This summer, it’s hoping to start construction on 16 duplexes along Gladstone and Blaine streets. Johanon said the project, called Piety Hill 2, will have an architectural style that fits the neighborhood. Each unit will be family-sized — 1,400 square feet with three bedrooms. The whole development is expected to cost around $9 million, though there’s still a $4 million funding gap.
Johanon said that because of all the vacancy and demolition, the area has become “pockmarked” and that some infill construction is needed. “Detroit has been so depopulated. We’ve lost so much quality housing here,” she said. “To have neighborhoods and neighbors is a value we should all want.”
Elsewhere, CDC is renovating the 11-unit Kingston Apartments on 2nd Avenue. It hopes to soon start renovations on a building called the Oakland Row, in collaboration with the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, which will bring six units above storefronts at Oakland and Euclid.
The biggest development, which will bring the largest increase to their portfolio, is mostly under wraps. Johanon said CDC is working with a couple other partners to purchase a 210-unit single-family project spread across three neighborhoods that has expiring Low Income Housing Tax Credits. (LIHTC is a federal program that subsidizes private developers’ affordable housing projects; the credits are set to expire for several thousand Detroit units in the next few years.) Johanon hopes they will close on the first batch of purchases soon, with all parcels acquired by the end of the summer.
With all of these projects, Johanon said CDC is going to keep all or almost all of the units affordable. For her, that means no more than 30% of a tenant’s income, which is commonly considered the most one should pay in rent to remain financially stable — but can be a significantly lower payment than the common affordability rates determined by median incomes countywide. Corbin said rates for most of their units are between $550 to $750 a month.
“That’s our commitment,” she said. “We’re working with some for-profit developers and I’ve been clear to them: CDC will not be a part of it if it’s not affordable. Because that’s who we are and that’s our mission.”
Tom Goddeeris, chief operating officer at Detroit Future City, said nonprofit developers are suited for this kind of work because they’re in tune with the needs of residents. He should know — he was executive director at Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation for 26 years.
Because of that experience, he believes community development corporations have an essential role to play in the stabilization of neighborhoods, particularly in times like the present, when the economy is depressed and cautious investors delay projects.
“For-profit developers are going to have the bottom line as their driving motivation,” Goddeeris said. “The best community organizations are there for the long haul, responding to up markets and down markets.”
That goes hand-in-hand with the more humane approach Corbin and CDC’s Solid Rock firm bring to property management: they’re in it for the long haul with tenants, too. If someone has credit problems or a criminal record, they don’t immediately reject them. If someone has trouble paying rent, they’ll get them enrolled in one of CDC’s financial assistance programs.
“Our goal is to never see anyone lose their homes,” Corbin said.