Growing up in Detroit was a badge of pride for Sonya S. Mays.
Not only did she feel nurtured and supported, she was gratified to call herself the product of a predominantly black community in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“I grew up in a rich, warm, loving, incredibly nurturing environment, and I don’t just mean at home,” says Mays. “I’m a public school kid. All my teachers were black.”
“I didn’t understand that I was a ‘minority,’” she adds. “Growing up here, I thought it was a gift. When I left I didn’t have this chip on my shoulder about what I could and couldn’t do.”
As CEO of the Develop Detroit housing revitalization organization, Mays is equally passionate about contributing to future residents’ sense of empowerment. By creating greater equity through affordable living, Develop Detroit plans a role for itself in making the community sustainable for long-time residents and their families.
“For me, as a black person, this was a great place to grow, and it breaks my heart that I don’t know if some of the younger generation is getting that same gift,” she says.
While the organization won’t have a racial focus, Mays says Develop Detroit will join efforts already underway to ensure Detroiters in long-established neighborhoods maintain a community stake, including housing for their children and grandchildren.
Formed a year ago, Develop Detroit plans to announce its first projects this month, two mixed-income apartments of 50 or more housing units. Mays says specific locations and details are forthcoming, but the properties will strategically open in areas currently simmering on the revitalization front.
“These two, in particular, are located in places where if you closed your eyes and looked five years from now, you’d get some of these downtown developers who’d be looking to turn them into high-end properties,” she says. “I try to avoid using the word gentrification, but they’re ripe for that type of conversion.”
Develop Detroit is buying the buildings from two private owners, renovating and adding to the units, and will ensure some of the units are designated as affordable, among market rates, Mays adds.
“We are a startup organization that’s really trying to jump out there and start answering the question, ‘What about Detroit’s neighborhoods?’” she says.
Areas like northwest Detroit where her parents live have hit the organization’s radar, due to their potential sustainability, despite “tipping point” characteristics that could push their neighborhoods toward blight, says Mays. Her parents’ block includes 55 houses, only two of which are vacant.
“This is an area that made Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles so interesting to me,” she says. “We all suspected that the Six Mile-Livernois area could support a sit-down family restaurant, and then you get Kuzzo’s out there to really prove it.”
Develop Detroit has identified a handful of areas for initial investment, generally where other community stakeholders and revitalization incentives are ongoing.
“The key for us is to pool resources and work with like-minded organizations. So when we think about where to go, that’s huge for us,” says Mays. “They don’t necessarily have to be doing housing per se, but they can be doing really great work with schools, or there might be some business development.”
A myth Mays hopes to discredit is that affordable housing in Detroit is an issue of the greatest concern to single, black mothers.
“As I’ve gotten deeper into this work I think most people would be surprised if they stepped back and really looked at just how many sectors of the country are affected by the lack of really affordable housing options,” she says. “I think that stereotype does a disservice to just how serious the affordability problem here is.”
David Alade, co-founder Century Partners, which buys and develops vacant homes in Detroit’s historic districts, expects Develop Detroit to make valuable community contributions.
“Sonya, with her wealth of experience growing up in Detroit, living here, knowing the people here, and understanding how development impacts the future of Detroit, she’s sort of the perfect person to help determine what will go into the neighborhoods that need it most,” Alade says. “There are tons of neighborhoods that have their unique histories and flavors, and I’m really excited about the prospect that folks like Sonya are delivering resources outside downtown and Midtown.”
Having worked in both the corporate sector and as an advisor to Kevyn Orr, the city’s former emergency financial manager, Mays understands the importance of current and future Develop Detroit collaborations.
“I’d like to just reiterate how important partners are to us,” says Mays. “We’re not doing this work in a vacuum and, if we’re in neighborhoods, we’re working alongside the other people who’ve been here, through and through.”