People

There may be land in Detroit, but a room can be hard to find

It’s been a couple months.

You call, but they don’t call back. They say they’re available, but they’re really not. I could be talking about a desperate person trying to hold onto a relationship, but alas, I’m not.

What this is is the story of the trials and tribulations of trying to find a place in the city proper, specifically in Greater Downtown Detroit or nearby. Now, don’t get me wrong … there’s investment happening, but not enough. There are too many vacant structures still and it seems plenty of demand. After all, areas in Greater Downtown (like Midtown) are 96% occupied.

So let’s be honest … how many of the coveted “young professionals” can afford the high end – about $1500 a month before utilities – on their own? Or even as a young couple?

On the other side, there’s a whole cadre of property owners who won’t return your call unless they know you’ve got a section 8 voucher in hand (that’s a guaranteed money from the government paid straight to the landlord), or the places they do have are nowhere near what was advertised or move-in ready. One of our team members was told that a doorless pantry was a bedroom and they’d put a “vinyl curtain” between it and the kitchen if they wanted. Another we talked to from the New Center area who asked not to be named made over 30 phone calls before getting one returned.

And buying? Not everyone is ready to make that commitment yet. Frankly, not everyone has the ability or desire to pour hours of time into rehabilitating a place (God bless those who do), which most of the housing stock today seems to need.

Looking at the streets, it’s easy to see progress in some areas, but the city still needs more. Much, much more. There are plenty of storefronts and vacant lots, but how do we get from vacancy to construction of the right kind of housing to building our community back up? Detroit, more than any other city, should understand the power of having the middle class here. In order to have the urban streetscape teaming with life, it’s going to take all comers. Old, young, single, families, couples and all economic classes. In order for that to happen, they need places to stay.

Is it time for a true, dense, reasonably-priced residential building boom in Detroit?

Historically, we’ve not had very much in the way of apartment buildings compared to other cities. Racial politics, dating back to the turn of the century had a lot to do with those types of structures not being built (many at the time felt they attracted minorities). It’s a part of why we’re not as physically dense. After all, freeways changed the face of their regions too.

Those policies are also part of why we have so many abandoned houses today. Because housing for all of these workers still had to be created, thousands upon thousands of matchstick (i.e. cheaply built) homes covered the city which had no chance of surviving the test of time even in the best circumstances. I’ve witnessed how poorly they were built through the hand demolition of a few of them I’ve helped with … not to mention, a 700-800 sq. ft. home is simply not desirable by today’s standards.

So the question is … are all of these people I affectionately call “Yahoos” Josh Linkner and others want to attract to Detroit … going to work in the city during the day but lay their heads in the suburbs?

Those who come from Chicago and San Francisco would be leaving cities with working mass transit and street food … would they want to head out on the freeway and give street life to other areas? Royal Oak and Ferndale are beautiful communities, and it seems like places like that are the ones that are going to benefit the most. That’s fine and excellent for the region, but Detroit should set itself up in short order so it gets a share of the pie.

The Broderick Tower Is Being Restored

But for now, what is a prospective resident to do? Here are a few tips we’ve found, talking to residents.

Be prepared to have a little bit of a wait for your perfect place. Mike Han, founder of StreetCultureMash, shared that he “spent about half a year seriously looking for the ‘perfect place’ to live and work.”

Both Han and Woodbridge resident Alex Briggs agreed that word of mouth is the best way to find places. Many of the places available are simply not listed. “I biked and walked for a month to find the right place,” said Briggs.

Make sure you’re not out of your depth as far as costs. A general rule of thumb is landlords will be very hesitant to rent to you if your monthly income (you and spouse, you and roommate on the lease or yourself) is less than 2.5x your monthly rent. Being house poor with no money to enjoy your neighborhood is no fun and never works out well.

Use the right search terms. Although many places aren’t listed online, when you look at sites like Craigslist consider putting “New Center,” “Midtown,” “Woodbridge,” “CBD,” “Downtown” or whichever Detroit neighborhood you’re looking at. Just putting in “Detroit” will end up with too many results and many of the neighborhood-focused listings seem not to mention “Detroit” in them or feature it at all.

Another place to look is on http://www.dhive.org – it has a listings page that might be a good place to get a start with an online search as well as other resources.

Hopefully, these issues can get sorted out soon. We’re in a unique window and time is of the essence to capitalize on this wave of interest and investment in the city, or this opportunity will pass.

One comment on “There may be land in Detroit, but a room can be hard to find

  1. Affordable is the key word here. Those $1,500 a month rentals (which seem to be the norm) don't include your utilities or your parking space, typically $75-$100 a month per space.

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