Planting new roots

Apr 6, 2005 at 12:00 am

For nearly 30 years, Marlon and Jeanette Booth lived in a brick bungalow on Detroit’s East Side. As with many of the city’s neighborhoods, the area around their Hamburg Street home deteriorated over time. Houses around them fell into disrepair and were abandoned. Crime increased. In a single year, the couple experienced three break-ins.

“The neighborhood had changed, and we wanted something better,” says 53-year-old Marlon Booth, a retired city sanitation worker. But instead of joining the 10,000 people fleeing Detroit every year, the Booths became part of a growing number of people investing in the city’s future. The 362 building permits for single-family homes issued by the city in 2004 is the highest number since 1972. Jefferson Village — a development near the intersection of East Jefferson and St. Jean where the Booths recently purchased the house they plan to spend their retirement years in — is part of that surge.

The Booths are among 16 new homeowners already living in the community. Another 50 homes are under construction with owners waiting to move in as soon as they are completed. A total of 326 homes are planned for the subdivision when it is completed three years from now.

Initiated during Mayor Dennis Archer’s administration, Jefferson Village is the result of a concerted effort by the city to revive Detroit’s housing market. The city began acquiring the 80 acres where Jefferson Village is now located in 1998. Abandoned homes in the then-blighted neighborhood were condemned; homes still inhabited were purchased and demolished. The entire cost to Detroit was $25 million. The property was then sold to the developer for $1.4 million. The city considered the deal a long-term investment, with Jefferson Village expected to generate $1 million annually once the homes are completed.

Now, instead of tumbledown eyesores, two-story colonials and one-story ranches are springing up, ranging in price from $200,000 to $300,000. Despite the city’s well-publicized problems — chief among them a burgeoning fiscal crisis and a troubled school system locked in turmoil — the market for new housing is strong, developers say.

“There’s certainly a new demand for single-family housing in Detroit,” says Erich Crain, vice president of Crosswinds Communities Inc., the Novi-based developer building Jefferson Village.

Offering proof of this demand are at least four other new subdivisions— which will offer a total of more than 280 homes — all within three miles of Jefferson Village. The concentration of development is not happenstance.

“What we’ve been trying to do is link up one community with the other,” says Henry Hagood, director of development activities for Detroit’s Planning and Development Department.

The new projects offer prospective buyers a housing option that has been scarce in Detroit for decades. Until recently, most homebuyers had only older homes to choose from. With these developments, they can move into the kind of up-to-date homes with modern amenities that are drawing metro Detroiters to outlying areas of the region.

“It greatly differs from a lot of Detroit in that the housing stock is suburban — and that’s what attracts people,” says Chris Garland, program director for the Jefferson East Business Association. Along with providing the types of new homes typically found in growing communities outside the city, Jefferson Village also offers easy access to the Detroit River, several large parks, an adjacent shopping plaza, plus a nearby post office and police station. Because it is in an enterprise zone designed to spur economic development, homeowners receive a 50 percent reduction in property taxes for the first 12 years. All that, plus easy access to downtown jobs combines to make developments such as this a viable alternative to Detroiters otherwise considering a move to the suburbs.

Despite these advantages, however, projects such as Jefferson Village are failing to attract significant numbers of people living outside Detroit.

Of the homes sold at Jefferson Village, Crain says 90 percent have been bought by people who are already Detroit residents.

Like the Booths, Gwendolyn Johnson-Fleming decided to keep her future in Detroit.

“I was born here and raised here and I was ecstatic that we were going to live in a nice neighborhood,” says Johnson-Fleming, a teacher at the nearby Breithaupt Vocational-Technical Center.

Initially, Johnson-Fleming, her husband and their son were planning a move to Farmington Hills after living many years on Virginia Park Street on Detroit’s West Side. But the prospect of a revitalized Detroit changed their minds.

“To me, this is a brand-new, fresh start,” Johnson-Fleming says, “I feel like we have a real community here.”

Mark Thornton says that, as a city employee, he knew about Jefferson Village before construction began. Signing up for a two-story colonial home, he says, is a decision he’s more than happy with.

“This is one of the areas I’ve kept my eye on,” says the 45-year-old, noting that he was 24th on a list of prospective buyers that has since swelled to 800.

“I’m loyal to the city, and I believe in the city,” Thornton says. “We have our shortcomings, but staying here is the way you bring about change.”

Then there are the practical aspects of life in Jefferson Village. A nearby shopping plaza includes, among other businesses, the largest Farmer Jack store in the state at 65,000 square feet. And his commute is the envy of suburbanites who consistently find themselves stuck in traffic jams as they make their workday treks into the city.

“I’m less than 10 minutes from my job — it is a win-win situation,” Thornton says.

For Martin Jackson, a 54-year-old auto plant worker who lived in the Franklin-Wright condominiums downtown with his wife, Karen, the prospect of a single-family home offered the chance to spread out.

“I needed some more room,” Jackson says.

The couple contemplated moving to Canton or Bloomfield Hills to find that sort of spaciousness, but changed their minds after learning about Jefferson Village. Loyalty to the city held sway.

“I’m a hardcore Detroiter,” he says, standing in front of his two-car garage. Referring to the neighborhood, he adds, “It’s coming back. We needed something like this.”

Stepping outside his new ranch home, 82-year-old Arthur Grady is all smiles as he surveys the construction going on around him.

“I’ve been waiting for this for six years,” he says. “I believe this is going to be a beautiful neighborhood.”

Joseph Kirshke is a Metro Times staff writer. You can reach him at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]