First-time homebuyers at their house in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood. Courtesy Century Partners
When the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project was announced in 2017, it came with a great deal of fanfare. Too much, perhaps.
The project to uplift the northwest Detroit neighborhood has accomplished a lot in that time. Dozens of homes have been demolished or boarded up. Lots have been cleared and maintained. The city contributed by constructing Ella Fitzgerald Park, streetscape improvements along McNichols Road and a new greenway connecting University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College. Total investment from public, private and philanthropic sources was expected to be as much as $15 million. And that investment is noticeable — in many ways, Fitzgerald looks revitalized.
But the centerpiece of the plan — renovating over 100 homes in two years — has fallen well short of its considerable ambitions. Fitz Forward, the development team composed of Century Partners and The Platform, only managed to renovate 13 homes, none in the past two years. Now, it’s relinquishing its option to purchase the remaining homes owned by the city in favor of a plan that gives residents the ability to buy as many as 40, addressing one of the project’s main criticisms that residents were being locked out of home appreciation.
Why did the rehab portion of the development fall so short of its initial goals? Were the expectations unrealistic? Was there a fundamental flaw in the plan? Or did something unforeseen go wrong?
To learn more, we spoke with David Alade and Andrew Colom, founding partners of Century Partners. (Editor’s note: Prep Realty, an affiliate of Century Partners, is a Detour advertising partner. Advertisers have no influence on editorial content.)
Contrary to some of the articles recently written about the project, they feel it’s been a success, pointing to beautification projects, new access to mortgages and appreciating home values. And they say they’ve worked to set up the neighborhood for long-term growth steered by its residents, with plans to continue working in the area in partnership with the city for the next decade.
“We helped create a lot of momentum,” Colom told Detour, “and the neighborhood is in a better place than when we first started.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Detour: Where does the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project stand now and what’s your current involvement in it?
Andrew Colom: We still own 20 lots in the neighborhood that we are holding and managing. Eventually, we’re going to begin the process of putting together a community land trust to build community housing. Our role in the development at this stage is to be a helpful and productive neighbor, to support and inform and advocate for the community.
A land trust? That’s interesting. Could you talk more about that?
Colom: The Fitzerald community is currently working with the city on a proposal for a bunch of community members and developers to renovate 40 to 50 houses which will be either an owner-occupied or investment home. Once that happens, we’ll develop a community land trust that gives a portion of the equity of the land to be shared with the community. But we’re still in the early stages of planning for that.
Why did you ultimately decide to relinquish your option on the remaining homes owned by the city?
Colom: We even decided to transfer many vacant properties that we owned, and had put some money into, back to the Land Bank. But from the beginning, we were releasing houses to [city agencies and nonprofits]. At the end of the day, the city said they were going to work with the neighborhood on a plan that would most directly benefit the residents and allow them to take occupancy of the homes. Because we’ve been so invested in the community throughout the development, gone to so many community meetings, invested so much time getting to know neighbors, we knew that’s what they wanted. The houses we brought online were some of the best in the neighborhood and we didn’t want to get in the way of residents getting the rest of the most up-to-date homes. The easiest way to do that would be for the city to work with them directly.
In early 2020, you told the Detroit Free Press that you were still going to complete the project; it was just going to take longer than expected. What changed between then and now?
Colom: In the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder impacted the entire country. For us, that meant being focused on neighborhood development in the most direct way possible by empowering the predominantly African American residents of Fitzgerald through homeownership. When the community came to us and asked if they could do most of it themselves, we supported that. In my mind, it’s still a 10 to 15 year project, and we’ll be in the neighborhood that long. It just won’t be us facilitating all of the home sales and all of the land activation the way we were previously. And the plan was never for us to do that all by ourselves.
Now the city is stepping up. And we came to the conclusion that a neighborhood as disadvantaged as Fitzgerald needed so much subsidy that private development could only be in it for a temporary period of time to jump start interest and excitement. What we did was prove that you could rehab houses and get them to a place where they could get traditional bank financing. It also made sense that if anybody was going to get subsidies, it shouldn’t be a private developer, but the residents themselves.
When we spoke in 2019, you were hoping to be done with 13 homes by the end of the summer. Flash forward to today, and there are still only 13 homes finished. Why weren’t more done?
David Alade: We had a dual-pronged approach: Use Community Development Block Grants to invest in the toughest parts of the neighborhood and build low-income housing, while also investing the development team’s own personal equity in other parts. Both of those paths needed to parallel track. Winter in Detroit is not the best builder season. We were waiting to progress to the next tranche of housing when winter hit, then March 2020 happened. For good reason, the vast majority of the city’s resources were focused on the pandemic. So winter, plus the massive impact of COVID-19 slowed our timeline and caused a reevaluation of our priorities. Everyone’s seeing racial unrest unfolding across the nation. And then we had several serious conversations with the city and realized we were in alignment with our primary goal: economic empowerment. Whether that’s the right to good housing or work, that’s the core of our mission. When the opportunity arose to do that on a meaningful scale, we had to pay attention.
Colom: We’ll always be the people that did the initial seed investment. But if the city is actually able to bring subsidies directly to the neighborhood, we’re in favor of that: We actually asked for it in the first place.
You’ve talked about the lack of financing for building homes in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Do you think residents will face those same challenges, even with the city providing support?
Alade: There are three main resources being brought to the neighborhood to support homeownership. One is Rehabbed and Ready (the Detroit Land Bank’s move-in ready home program), which has a maximum amount of money it’s willing to “lose” on each home. When we first started in Fitzgerald, the Land Bank looked at the neighborhood and thought the losses were too great to put dollars in it at all. But the comps have increased to the point where a subsidy could now finance that prescribed loss. The second is Bridging Neighborhoods (a city-administered home-swap program for people in the footprint of the Gordie Howe Bridge), which pays for the home rehab and is totally supported by program funds. We’ve encouraged them to invest here as well. The last one is the city of Detroit, which does have significant resources they can pull from, such as low or no interest loans. We’re not sure exactly what form that subsidy will consist of, but we’re confident the city is set to provide sufficient liquidity to finance homeownership and rehabs.
Colom: It’s just a different situation now. We helped create a lot of momentum and the neighborhood is in a better place than when we first started.
It seems to me that the main premise of many of the articles written about Fitzgerald is that the project was a disappointment. Over 100 homes were going to be rehabbed, but we only got to 13. But in your eyes, clearly, it wasn’t a disappointment. So where’s the disconnect?
Alade: One of the takeaways we’ve learned from this development is around inflated expectations. They were overly ambitious from the outset. Even while we were negotiating the developer’s agreement, because it was such a transformative project, we made a conscious decision to be ambitious. Also, look at projects around the country — they often are completed later than expected. For a project like this, which was so complicated, comprised so many parcels, had so many legal issues with the land, and tried to do something that’s never been done before in a neighborhood that’s suffered tremendous challenges, having an overly ambitious, really aggressive timeline set unrealistic expectations. That initial hope and optimism and emotional attachment isn’t something you often see with other developments, like with downtown skyscrapers. And it makes sense: When those developments get delayed, it isn’t as personal. But in a neighborhood context, it is. Nobody wants to be next to a vacant home. Everybody wants their home to appreciate.
Colom: It was a hard lesson to learn and I wish we’d approached it differently. The mayor said that a couple times, as well. We were also a test case for neighborhood revitalization. The city tested with us in Fitzgerald, learned what worked what did not work, then went to different neighborhoods with a different plan. That experience has really informed what the city is trying to do with new revitalization funds. Look at the bond approved by the city: they used Fitzgerald houses in their promotional materials.
What do you think have been your biggest contributions to the neighborhood?
Alade: There’s lots of numbers we can throw out to show that this project was anything but a disappointment: 100 houses boarded up, 13 houses rehabbed — all first time homebuyers, all of it appreciating in a positive equity position — 40 people hired in the neighborhood. Many really positive things we’ll look back on years from now and be proud about. But I personally feel inspired by the fact that when we started investing in this neighborhood and laid out our vision to folks, they couldn’t believe that a house could sell for even $60,000. They’d been there 40 to 50 years, seen the best of what the neighborhood could be when there was no vacancy, filled with families and children. They had this positive image of the neighborhood and still struggled to imagine it returning to that status. To go from that uncertainty to homes selling for over $100,000, from feeling pessimistic to feeling inspired and wanting to own equity in that neighborhood, so they could sell or get a reappraisal or rent it to family. I’m really proud of that transformation. That didn’t happen overnight — it couldn’t happen overnight. It took time and it took intention.
The other reason residents weren’t able to see meaningful price appreciation is because traditional banks didn’t provide mortgages in those neighborhoods. A house could be worth $30,000, but if you don’t have $30,000 in cash, it might as well be worth $1 million. Getting good, traditional bank mortgages with little down payment is hard, but we had folks pay $1,000 to buy a $100,000 house. We worked with banks to get these mortgage products and created meaningful wealth.
What’s next for Century Partners?
Colom: Our initial goals when we moved to Detroit six years ago was not to do 100 homes in two years. It was actually to put together a plan for residents and developers to work together and develop land to advantage people of color. We’ll continue to raise equity to do multifamily development throughout Detroit. But one of our next big things is working to formalize that plan and make it so that Detroit’s neighborhoods are revitalized by community members in a way that ensures developers aren’t some outside landlord, but your neighbor.
Alade: Detroit has an incredible amount of talent: building talent, creative talent. But it struggles to recognize that talent and provide adequate funding to unlock it. We want to help to organize those talented developers in a more formalized ecosystem so together we can recognize the decades of great work Black developers have done and also access the right types of financing. We want to promote development, if not as a career path, then at least a path to true wealth building. It’s a business where apprenticeship goes a long way — the way you learn is seeing folks do it up close. That’s our next big goal: formalizing the ecosystem, both seeding developers and giving that group resources to facilitate talent.