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90 Houses to be built in Detroit's Gratiot Woods

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A lesson in revival: Detroit's Gratiot Woods shows what a team effort and good planning can accomplish

October 26, 2003



Gratiot Woods is an unassuming nook of east-side Detroit that shows how one tired little neighborhood can revive when enough individuals and groups embark on the same mission.

Now, Gratiot Woods is about to rebloom with 90 new houses -- not a subdivision, but one house here, two there -- scattered through the many vacant lots.

Built over three years by the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, they will echo the neighborhood's vintage 1910s and 1920s architecture.

But, in designs by Archive DS, they'll be unique among new Detroit houses: At just 19 1/2 feet wide, they prove you can build a comfortable, stand-alone home on Detroit's traditional 30-foot lots.

No other current Detroit builder has tried this. The others combine lots to make them bigger or build attached townhouses.

It's part of the goal to keep this neighborhood the best possible version of its original self -- a tight grid of wood-frame houses built for workers who poured into Detroit in the 1920s.

Christopher Bray, housing director for the Catholic group, sees no need to reinvent it.

"The fabric of this neighborhood worked very well for a long time," Bray says. The houses are being sold to working people that make up Gratiot Woods' traditional population -- factory workers, a mail carrier, a meter maid, two casino workers.

Buyers will get a big price break and help with the down payment if needed, but their income and credit must rate high enough to get a standard mortgage.

Carmen Houston bought the first home -- the house shown in the artist's rendering to the left with a full balcony across the second floor. That balcony will be next to her master bedroom.

She'll pay $80,000 -- fair market price in this area -- though construction cost $150,000. The gap is paid by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

For eight years, Houston has been a court officer in the 36th District Court.

"My goal was always to be a home owner by the age of 40," she says, "and I just turned 40 at the end of September."

Neighborhood pride

In this four-by-six-block neighborhood, 90 new houses will have huge impact. But they do not fall like manna on a barren desert -- the way has been prepared.

Since 1997, 20-plus groups have pitched in to revive Gratiot Woodsby replacing gang activity with recreation, adding traffic signs and crosswalks for kids, cleaning the alleys, building local pride with "Gratiot Woods" entrance signs and building playscapes for the children.

Participants include the Detroit Lions club, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sprint, U-Mlaw students and the area 4H club. They joined two banks, state and city agencies and a core group of involved residents. The whole package has been organized by the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, a coalition of 10 Catholic parishes in the area.

In 1997, the group began to pull together the grass roots community and other participants.

Even then, the neighborhood had some flesh on its bones, including a stable base of longtime home owners: those who paint their houses, plant flowers and clean the alleys.

It had a backbone of two strong churches, Nativity Catholic Church East, a member of the pastoral alliance, and Bethel Baptist Church, which runs after-school programs like Cub Scouts; the Catherine Blackwell Institute, which is a magnet school, and what may be the country's only urban 4H club -- the site of strong recreational and community activities.

"When you drive through the neighborhood, the kids are on playgrounds, not in the street," says Amzie Griffin, a retired welding inspector who is a neighborhood organizer.

"Gratiot Woods had a lot going for it," says Bray. "Also it has the feeling of a neighborhood."

But individual run-down houses were dragging down the landscape. The Catholic alliance started buying up the worst and restoring them -- 15 so far.

The group then sells the rehabbed houses to a working person with a typical starter mortgage (FHA, for example), but at a bargain price -- say $70,000 -- market price -- for a rehab that totaled $130,000. Again, the state housing authority fills the gap.

Getting that buyer ready for a mortgage is often part of the job, says the alliance's community development director Cleophus Bradley, because almost all are buying their first house. So Bradley runs classes on home ownership and credit repair.

Doris Kent and her son Joshua, 14, live in a big white frame house the alliance restored on McClellan.

"It was an abandoned piece of hope," Kent says. "They told me it had been boarded up for like 10 years. It was ready for the wrecking ball."

Kent, who works in a nursing home in Warren, never though she could own a house.

"I was thinking, in all my life I will never be able," she says. "The criteria is too much. I'll be old and dead."

To start with, her credit was almost as messed up as the house. But she used the skills she learned in the alliance's home buyer class.

Kent wrote all her creditors and arranged a pay schedule.

The alliance "told me if you said you would do something on a particular day and you didn't, it would void your agreement. So I did a lot of Western Union."

It took her two years. "I checked off one debt every few months or so."

Other improvements

New houses and resold houses don't answer every housing problem in an old city neighborhood. Residents include some retirees who can't afford big repairs on their aging homes but don't want to leave them.

The Catholic alliance has started stepping in to upgrade these homes while their owners stay put -- eight houses since 2000, with funding in place for 10 more. It's common to fix or replace the porch, roof, furnace, plumbing and wiring, says Bray. The cost can be $25,000.

In all these projects, the Catholic alliance provides the office, staff and the organization work, then gathers money from wide-ranging sources, says Bray.

"Like most nonprofit developers, we put together a stew pot of grants, funds and loans."

Here are a few more samples of progress organized by the neighbors and by the alliance:

A flag football field was built at the 4H facility by the NFL and Detroit Lions.

Also at the 4H facility, MSHDA and others funded an outdoor stage for community events like the children's arts and crafts show.

Last summer, 150 volunteers installed a huge children's playscape at the same site.

The Greening of Detroit gave 150 trees, planted by volunteers.

Neighbors fought back when the city said it would close Chandler Elementary School. Not only did they reverse that edict, local groups got funding to improve security with a handsome black iron fence around the playground.

As in any neighborhood, not all pull their share.

Griffin, who organizes frequent block cleanups, steams at residents who don't pitch in.

"We're cleaning up the alley behind their house and they're on the front porch barbecuing."

"I'll say, 'Come help us.'

They'll say, 'Oh, I got to wash my car' or something else."

When the alliance started here in 1997, a typical house was worth about $30,000, Bray says. Now a prime house brings $70,000 or so. In few years, the group hopes values will rise until houses can sell for the cost of building them and heavy subsidies can fade.

As for the heavy religious force behind this work, Bray says it should be no surprise.

"Churches have always been the backbone of the city of Detroit."

Contact JUDY ROSE at 313-222-6614 or [email protected]

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I think it's good that people are finally concentrating on ifill developments - we've sprawled uncontrollably long enough.

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That's great news! Wow 19 1/2 feet wide is pretty narrow. Any renderings of the houses? It would be interesting to see.

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I don't know of any renderings. If I'm ever down in the area I'll take some pics. I don't go very often though, because it's 60 miles from my house to the city limits...Southeast Michigan is the definition of urban sprawl. Anyway, I did find an additional article about the 30 foot wide lots and the houses being built on them.

Architect answers a design challenge: 30-foot lots

October 26, 2003

By Judy Rose

Detroit's older working-class neighborhoods were built on 30-foot lots, but no modern architect today has designed stand-alone homes for those 30-foot lots.

Until now.

Archive DS, which specializes in urban projects, tackled the challenge for Gratiot Woods.

The city wants setbacks on each side of 5 feet, so each house can't be wider than 20. But even today's bargain buyers expect at least 1,300 square feet, says Dorian Moore, a partner in Archive DS.

These houses will be 19 1/2 feet wide by about 36 feet deep. At two stories high, that's more than 1,300 square feet. There's room downstairs for a kitchen, living-dining area, a half bath and stairs. Upstairs are three bedrooms, a full bath and space for stairs.

Inside, corridor space is kept to a minimum to make the most of the small size. "We use most of the square footage in the rooms themselves," says Moore.

They echo the design of the neighborhood, but "streamlined," he says. That adds a modern edge and holds down the cost.

"If you look at the exterior, they have a traditional character, but the form is very simplified.

"There aren't a lot of ins and outs, except mostly on the front facade." Here different bays and roof shapes give homes individual character.

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