Photo of The Villages at Parkside housing complex on Detroit's east side.
Conditions at The Villages at Parkside, at the intersection of East Warren Avenue and Conner Street, are dire. Units at the Villages have boarded up windows and doors. The village closest to Dickerson Avenue and Frankfort Street is nearly vacant. Photo credit: Rukiya Colvin

Detroit’s Parkside Homes was the first federally funded public housing project in Michigan and Detroit when it opened in the 1930s. Back then, it was only available to white residents. (Brewster-Douglass was the first federally funded housing available to Black residents.)

Now called The Villages at Parkside, most of the 276 units in the development are vacant or in disrepair despite the significant need for affordable housing in the city. Units at the Villages are deeply affordable, renting for amounts based on 30% of a tenant’s income. They are reserved for people who qualify for low-income to moderate-income public housing.

Last year, the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) announced plans to assume ownership of the struggling complex from its private owners to rehabilitate it. The future of the Villages seemed bright for the first time in decades.

I began writing this article thinking I would find a story about eager residents and the revitalization of the oldest housing complex in Michigan. But through fact-checking and an evasive DHC, I found something different. 

The DHC has said it is now taking complete ownership of the complex, but its statements about its past stake in the project have been misleading. In public meetings and statements, it cast itself as simply a passthrough for public funding since the 1990s. But the DHC has been a managing member of Parkside for decades, along with PH Venture Partners, a private firm, according to records at the Register of Deeds. 

DHC said it is retaining the same property management firm that oversaw the Villages’ decline in recent years. The DHC’s own history of administration has been spotty — the commission went into federal receivership in 2005 due in part to lack of upkeep at its properties. 

For weeks, I tried to get representatives at the DHC to talk on the record about its ownership history and plans for the complex. 

After my initial inquiries went unanswered, I visited DHC’s Jefferson Avenue office, and waited at the employee entrance for a few minutes before being greeted by someone. Their offices are currently closed to the public and their provided phone number sends callers to an automated message. 

I also went through traditional media channels and despite multiple requests over several weeks for an interview with or comment from DHC Executive Director Sandra Henriquez, the commission responded by email after The Dig’s deadline but did not answer my questions.

Waiting for answers

Conditions at the complex, at the intersection of East Warren Avenue and Conner Street, are dire. Units at the Villages have boarded up windows and doors. The village closest to Dickerson Avenue and Frankfort Street is nearly vacant.

At an August 2021 board meeting of the Detroit Housing Commission, one resident submitted a public comment saying that even though her ceiling was caving in, she was scared to relocate to other parts of the development she considered even more dangerous.

Zachary Rowe, a multi-generational resident of Parkside, said “It was just a great property, a great place to live and move your kids to. But over the years, Parkside has not lived up to the vision or the promise. … We’re now at a situation where there’s some conversation about tearing Parkside down and rebuilding it.”

Rowe is also a second generation executive director of Friends of Parkside, founded by his mother, Catherine Rowe, along with five other Parkside residents. Friends of Parkside, formed shortly after the homes were redeveloped in the 1990s, is “by the people, for the people,” he said.

The group organizes biweekly food box giveaways, senior bingo, social events and hosting community meetings. Henriquez, the DHC executive director, joined a meeting last fall to address resident concerns about the redevelopment.

“The first thing we identified to do was to get the investors out,” Henriquez said at the meeting

Complicated history, uncertain future

In the 1990s, the Villages was privatized. But the deal was complicated and it wasn’t always clear who was accountable to residents for what.

“It’s the most complicated deal I’ve ever seen,” Henriquez said at the November meeting with residents. “I have to ask people sometimes to actually draw me a diagram of how the entities fit together and who has responsibility for what.” 

Fourmidable Group is the current property management company. During its watch, the Villages’ occupancy rates have dropped to 83% and 33% for each of the two complexes. 

Tom Nutt-Powell, president of Capital Needs Unlimited, worked as the planning consultant on the redevelopment in the late ’90s. He said DHC didn’t provide necessary oversight to make sure the buildings were being managed properly.

“The agency that administers the public housing operating subsidy — which is big money — has to understand that when they do a mixed-finance deal, their job involves serious oversight,” he said.

Henriquez said DHC’s current administration has been working to create a better rapport with people in the properties they manage.

According to Zachary Rowe, tenants can’t even participate in community activities because of the conditions of the complex. 

“They can’t really engage with us if they have a leaky ceiling or they have a hole in the floor or they’re dealing with pests or they have no heat, no water,” he said. “It just makes you so worried and stressed about your basic needs, you really can’t focus on anything else.”

While Henriquez has said the DHC still plans to rely on Fourmidable, the current property management company, despite their track record, DHC acknowledged at the November meeting that it believes increased oversight from the public housing authority will improve management.

DHC holds a total of approximately $6 million in capital which could be used for repairs. 

“We may have to make the decision that we spend all $6 million knowing that we’re going to demolish where we spent it,” Henriquez said at the November meeting. 

Glenda Jackson, a Parkside resident since 1972, believes that some units, particularly the ones with brick exteriors, are salvageable.

The property managers have worked in recent months to decrease the number of units in disrepair. In October 2021 there were 350 work order tickets for 276 units between both villages. By February 2022 the number of work orders was 105. 

Despite all its issues, and its uncertain future, Rowe and other longtime residents remain dedicated for the long-term. 

“What’s gonna happen to Parkside now and in the future? It’s hard for residents to think about five to 10 years from now, but that’s how long it’s gonna take to redevelop Parkside,” he said. 

Rukiya Colvin is usually enjoying her introverted, cozy bubble she calls home. But sometimes, she likes to be social. Catch her on Twitter, or email her at rukiya.colvin@gmail.com if you ever want to chat.