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Rehabbers helping restore Detroit neighborhood step by step


A handsome 100-year-old, two-flat in North Corktown for under $1,000 looked like such a deal at a Wayne County tax auction Jon Zemke couldn’t resist buying it on the spot. He was a third-generation home-rehabber and landlord, already flush with six properties in his Detroit portfolio. What could possibly go wrong?

Practically everything, he says on the eve of handing over keys to the property to a pair of new tenants.

On that fateful day back in 2012, Zemke, 38, slapped a $600 cashier’s check down to acquire the Wayne County tax-foreclosed property and 1.5 vacant lots adjoining it. The Cochrane Street house had five bedrooms and four porches, not to mention a determination to weather another 100 years of tenants.

If the structure looked a little rough around the edges, it has almost as much space as a farm in Imlay city. It is plopped in an urban prairie where Barnaby the pig and a hundred pheasants scamper around. It is surrounded by 10 vacant lots and a couple empty parcels. Zemke dubbed it the Pheasants Republic of Detroit and created a Facebook page to detail progress on the house.

“I was leery of this project,” says his wife, Kristin Lukowski, 36, the digital marketing officer of Madonna University in Livonia. She suggested strongly her husband shouldn’t quit his day job as a news editor for the online Model D.

Jon and Kristin Zemke

Jon Zemke and Kristin Lukowski

Besides sloppy squatters, over the next four years, Zemke and Lukowski would face paint bombers, city fines for tagging they didn’t originate, repeat visits from city inspections and a price tag more than $100,000 for renovations by licensed contractors. “Well over $100,000,” he says, rolling his eyes.

He and his wife put an offer on a condo in Midtown Detroit the same day then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted. The mayor eventually went to jail but their neighborhood flourished and the price of their unit has quadrupled Once bit by the real estate bug, Zemke bought more and put the Chochrane house renovation on hold.

When he got back to it, he discovered there were a lot of things he needed to add to his “to do” list.

“We had to start anew,” Zemke says when he assessed all the needs in this old house. He assembled a team of contractors to replace rotten porches, unstable foundations, the kitchen, furnaces, air-conditioning, water heaters, pumps, ductwork and roofing.

A teenager from the neighborhood joined the rehab team because he liked seeing an eyesore rejuvenated. He also wanted some cash.

“We tore off the front porch, propped up the foundation, found bricks to match the old columns and made the entrance look welcoming,” says Zemke. “We fixed decades of bad renovation decisions made by previous owners.”

Zemke and Lukowski did this all on their own dime and scrambled to raise money in chunks to pay contractors, tackling the electrical system one month, the drywall the next until the house shaped up. They financed the multitude of repairs with credit cards and family loans.

Free rain barrel installation thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the Detroit Sierra Club

Free rain barrel installation thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the Detroit Sierra Club

As if that wasn’t enough, they bought wood from Reclaim Detroit to replace the hardwood floors, just a month before the giant facility in Highland Park went up in smoke. There was no going back.

The paint bombers tagged the north side of the building several times and the city hit him with a $100 fine each a house defaced.

So he commissioned Nicole Macdonald, a muralist who paints Detroit heroes all over the city, to paint a tribute to his great aunt, Mary Ellen Riordan, the unstoppable president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers from 1960 to 1981.

“Aunt MER was the first person who really introduced Kristin and I to Detroit when we were first looking at moving here,” Zemke says. “She showed us around and invited us to her church (Sts. Peter & Paul Jesuit downtown) where we became members and got married a few years later. We are still active members there. Aunt MER went there until she died and had her funeral there.”

People stop along Martin Luther King Blvd. to photograph the mural and share it on Facebook. A decrepit house became a conversation starter.


Zemke commissioned this mural as attribute to his great aunt, Mary Ellen Riordan, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers from 1960 to 1981

Rehabbing a home in Detroit can be a challenge and so is the timetable. Craig Fahle, director of the Detroit Land Bank, says purchasers are encouraged to bring a house up to code in six months, but the Land Bank works with people who face more difficulties with cash flows and monumental repairs. Rounding up money isn’t easy.

“We didn’t get a mortgage until a year ago,” Zemke says.

It all paid off.

When Zemke put the finishing touches on his property he had more than two dozen queries on Craigslist and Zillow, and selected people with a strong urban conscience and a steady income.

Best news? Zemke can pay down his bills and start anew on the next project. Fahle cheers such investments. He notes the largest number of home purchasers of Land Bank properties are Detroit renters and neighbors who want a stake in the city.

– Lead picture and picture of Jon Zemke and Kristin Lukowski hold the flag by Paul Engstrom

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17 comments on “Rehabbers helping restore Detroit neighborhood step by step

  1. I have been following this rehab since its beginning because I am a friend and fan of Jon's work. His attention to quality and detail have turned a very unhappy place into a "proud to be here" addition to its neighborhood.

  2. Do you have a Youtube channel as well with this kind of content on it? I would love to see this post turned into a longer video if possible. Maybe I can share on it on my website.

  3. Hey, I'm a long time fan and reader of your blog, first time commenter. Just wanted to say this post really hit home with the stuff I've been looking into. Thanks man

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  5. Thank you. You can get our posts in your email. Please scroll down on the right-hand side of our site, enter your email and sign up. 

  6. Congratulations, you literally wrote probably one of the best posts I've seen in this space in forever. If your blog isn't already rocking it, it definitely will if you keep making sweet posts like these.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this. I think this really puts things into a different light. I mean, I have read about this stuff before but the way you write just makes it clearer. If that makes sense

  8. I'm lovin' it! I actually just read like three of your posts today. So that means you better keep writing more, because I am going through these like they're going out of style.

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