Drive north on Alter Road away from Jefferson Avenue and most of the homes you’ll see are bungalows and cottages. A few art deco apartment buildings dot the landscape and some show their age more than others. But a little past Mack Avenue, some townhomes stand out for how simple and seemingly out of place they are. The homes are, in a word, suburban. They look new and are covered in plain vinyl siding. Their boxy forms have no detailing. A simple driveway leads to a detached garage. 

These homes, called Morningside Commons, were part of a late 1990s trend in the city that lasted for the next decade. Detroit saw a proliferation of suburban-style developments targeting renters and buyers across the economic spectrum. Some developments offered deeply affordable rental units and others, large McMansions in gated communities on the river.

two-story house with grey siding, garage and flat roof
A single-family home at the Morningside Commons development. Photo credit: Aaron Mondry

The design was intentional, according to Linda Smith, executive director of nonprofit developer U-SNAP-BAC, which built Morningside Commons. Prior to the townhomes on Alter, they built simple, “suburban” single-family homes on Wayburn one street over. 

“The frame of the house, how many bedrooms, what it looks like — that was done through meeting with the community for over a year,” said Smith. “We thought it would help give the street a family feel.”

The blocks are densely filled with homes and families where previously they were mostly vacant lots. The 64 homes were popular enough that U-SNAP-BAC built the for-rent townhomes in a similar style. 

Suburban-style homes, which are defined primarily by their plain appearance, stand out among Detroit’s residential architecture where 82% of homes were built before 1960. Homes from the first half of the 20th century tend to have hardwood floors, thick wood molding, brick or cement accents, ornate hardware on the doors or windows and an overall higher quality of craftsmanship. Suburban homes tend to have the boxy look of a colonial with a simple gable roof, clapboard siding made of vinyl and double-hung windows. They might also sit within a planned subdivision which are sometimes gated. 

The upside of these homes might not be aesthetic, but economic. 

“The style of homes in Detroit’s historic neighborhoods are much more grand, and the details are much more rich,” said Brian Hurttienne, a principal architect with Christian Hurttienne Architects. “You don’t find them in the suburbs because as time went on materials got more expensive. The quality of construction continues to get lower and lower due to cost.”

A Morningside Commons townhome. Photo credit: Aaron Mondry

Developers could pass off those savings onto buyers or renters. The Detroit Housing Commission got more than $110 million in the mid-90s to construct hundreds suburban-style homes in low-income communities throughout Detroit. 

The 1,400-square-foot homes at Morningside Commons cost $120,000 to buy, but low-income buyers got down payment assistance of up to $60,000 through federal HOME funds. The 67 townhomes were built with Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and they rent to people who make 60% or less than the area median income. Smith said rents are set based on income and can be less than $300 a month.

The subdivision style wasn’t just limited to affordable projects. Big developments were built along the river full of larger homes with access to the Detroit River. One 5,000-square-foot home in the Morgan Waterfront Estates listed for almost $2.5 million just a few years ago. 

Jerome Huez, realtor and owner of The Loft Warehouse, says it can be tricky to market newer homes in a city like Detroit with historic housing stock and unique architecture that appeals to many buyers.

“The design at these homes isn’t always very thoughtful,” he said. “Sometimes we have to work around those deficiencies.”

When his company represents sellers of these homes, they’ll often tout their improved energy efficiency compared to older homes. And some buyers simply want to live in newer homes with a garage in quiet gated communities. 

“Some people just want a clean, safe, nice place to live,” Hurttienne said. “And they don’t want or need anything really fancy.”

Homes from this era are also in need of work, despite being newer than most of the city’s housing. 

“These homes often have very dated kitchens and bathrooms with laminate floorings and countertops,” Huez said. 

Smith said U-SNAP-BAC is committed to the upkeep of these homes. The developer was able to renew the tax credits for the Morningside Commons townhomes to unlock additional funding for renovations, including new roofs, appliances and more. It aims to have the work done by the end of the year. 

In Detroit, the market for homes in subdivisions is nearly as hot as the rest of the market. Morningside Commons currently has no availability. Suburban homes regularly hit the market for $400,000 or more. 

Hurttienne thinks there will always be a market for this style. His firm worked on a scattered-site development in the North End with Develop Detroit a few years ago and designed the homes “in a traditional style, but modern in form.” They mimic a lot of the home features you’d find in the suburbs — gabled roof, clapboard siding — but with a sleeker aesthetic. 

“There’s a market for almost anything,” he said. “if you do it well.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Sign up to receive it.