Students in the Better Buildings, Better Blocks classes learn how to carve out Courtesy of Better Buildings, Better Blocks

A new program gives locals the skills to launch businesses and dictate how their city is expanding.

Entrepreneurs and companies alike have described Detroit’s emerging real estate and investment landscape as an “unsettled America,” invoking imagery of the American West in the 19th century. Given the availability of land, Detroit residents don’t face the same threats of displacement seen in other major metro areas. Still, the “urban pioneering” ethos largely ignores the city’s 672,795 residents, both in goals and profits. Given that much of the city’s recent growth has been fueled by private investment—evidenced by the QLINE partially funded by Dan Gilbert, the Ilitch family’s investment in the Red Wings’ stadium and surrounding area, or the Sugar Hill Arts District development—instead of radical urban planning, deviation from this trajectory seems unlikely anytime soon.

However, a new program hopes to make an important intervention in the private development sphere by promoting equity in Detroit’s real estate market. Better Buildings, Better Blocks, which launched June 3 and runs until August 19, is a neighborhood-based real-estate class that provides education and resources to residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. It was recently selected as one of the 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, which will provide three years of funding for the class. Individuals who take the course learn firsthand how to invest in properties, focusing on acquisition, financing, and project management for small-scale projects. The goal of the program is to create a network that ensures that communities can sustainably rehabilitate residential and commercial spaces and that Detroiters can finally articulate how their city is remade.

“When a developer comes into a neighborhood, often the idea of culture is not one that is taken into account. This could be a way to preserve that,“ says Chase Cantrell, the program's founder.

Cantrell’s classes are skill-boosting lessons for locals hoping to have more say over how their neighborhoods change. (Courtesy of Better Buildings, Better Blocks)

A native Detroiter, Cantrell graduated from the University of Michigan before joining some of the city’s biggest real estate firms as a corporate lawyer. Cantrell had turned down opportunities in other cities because he wanted to be part of Detroit’s renewal. But he soon found that the projects he was working on were only benefiting a small pocket of already wealthy investors, while the neighborhoods where his family members resided stayed the same. Unlike Woodward, other central corridors (like Grand River, Gratiot, and 6 Mile, where Cantrell grew up) lack the small businesses that keep neighborhoods vibrant. After “some soul searching,” as Cantrell calls it, he assessed how his knowledge and experience could be best used in the city.   

Cantrell then plunged himself into conversations about the city’s growth and started a nonprofit, Building Community Value, which focuses on promoting entrepreneurship and dialogue in property development. He often leads events at the Urban Consulate, which facilitates conversations about Detroit-specific issues. Cantrell is also part of a project, led by Andrew Colom and David Alade of Century Partners, which aims its efforts at the Fitzgerald neighborhood in Northwest Detroit. The project, Fitz Forward, will rehab nearly 100 houses and develop a quarter-square-mile mix of rental and for-sale housing that residents can invest in. It will create a homeowners’ association that will feature a community kitchen and a farmers’ market, and the HOA will also oversee walking and biking paths. Unlike other Detroit developments, the project has also maintained a low scale, restricting the constructions to multifamily units, and has involved community members in every step of the planning process.

One criticism of Detroit’s redevelopment is that much, including the new QLINE, is concentrated along a few central corridors. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

With his class, Cantrell hopes to follow a similar development philosophy. “He’s being very responsive to needs in the community and the need for redevelopment. We don’t have a set of community members from Detroit who have these skills,” says Katy Locker, Detroit Program Director at the Knight Foundation.

The program adapts curriculum from a course developed and taught by Peter Allen of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, which was previously piloted by U-M’s School of Social Work Technical Assistance Center. These sessions will be taught by Dietrich Knoer, President and CEO of The Platform, a Detroit-based real estate firm. Participants apply directly through the program and are not required to have any experience in development. The course fee is $100 and applications are judged to ensure a certain degree of geographic and experiential diversity. When the class is over, students will have resource partners they can turn to, including traditional banks and community development financial institutions (such as Capital Impact Partners and Invest Detroit). The program is also awarding the best project a small fund to get a student’s development idea off the ground.

The hope is to put people of color in the driver’s seat so that the growth of the city reflects the needs of native Detroiters. Instead of radical redevelopments that flip entire neighborhoods, Cantrell hopes smaller projects will be woven into already existing neighborhoods. Then, local investors—who are sensitive to community needs, given that they have a personal and monetary investment there—will prioritize equitable growth and maintain the fabric of the neighborhood. Cantrell acknowledges that this type of project can’t ensure affordability of future real estate, but it can put the reins in the hands of community members instead of outside developers.

This collaboration between a local nonprofit, for-profit enterprise, and academic institution provides a distinctive model for community-based training in other cities that are living through similar changes. Though Cantrell’s project is just in its beginning stages, it’s an exciting example that could also usher in a new era of participatory redevelopment in areas that need it most.

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