When Mario Lemons looks out the front picture-window of his new home he’s likely to see neighbors gardening, cooking on the grill and ensuring trash hasn’t made its way onto the median in the road.
At the grocery store in his Grandmont-Rosedale community, the Detroit Achievement Academy principal often runs into students with their families.
It’s the exact life in Detroit that Lemons pictured when he dreamt of moving back to the city after graduating from Michigan State University. The safe and friendly neighborhood vibe is a lifestyle that he said is not often associated with the city.
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Being a homeowner in his hometown is important to Lemons. He doesn’t take it lightly and said he knows of many others who have felt “left out.”
“I know that some people wish that they had an opportunity to buy a home and to have a position like mine that influences the community,” said Lemons, who purchased his property in Rosedale Park last year. “So I humbly acknowledge that that’s a privilege and I don’t take it lightly at all.”
White flight in Detroit began in the 1950s and many middle-class Black residents followed by moving to suburbs like Southfield, Eastpointe, and Harper Woods. Those who stayed endured tax foreclosure, racist housing systems, decreased property values and a municipal bankruptcy that strained Detroit’s wealth.
As the city’s resurgence becomes more widely known, Black Detroiters who can afford to purchase property here say they are determined to be included with the intent to contribute to their hometown’s success. But myriad hurdles have resulted in lower homeownership rates for Black residents.
Researchers at Detroit Future City have reported Metro Detroit’s homeownership rate declined from 73% to 69% from 2010 to 2017, with Black homeownership rates dropping from 52% to 43% in that time period.
There are approximately 350,000 housing units in Detroit. Of those, 48% are owner-occupied and 11% are vacant, according to Data Driven Detroit. However, of Detroit’s majority-Black population, just 42% of the city’s Black residents are homeowners compared to 78% of white residents.
The seller’s market that spread throughout the nation during the coronavirus pandemic included Detroit. New Detroiters who can afford half-million dollar townhomes crowd the downtown area while longtime residents continue to say they feel left out in neighborhoods with abandoned homes and empty lots and not within walking distance to grocery stores or childcare centers.
According to the Detroit Future City 2021 report, only 5% of Detroiters reside in middle-class neighborhoods. The city and its partners are working to preserve and establish affordable housing, but those longer term goals still require more funding.
A duty to give back
This spring, Lemons greeted guests at his Rosedale Park home to celebrate the one-year anniversary of being a homeowner.
Lemons submitted an offer on the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath house in January 2021, the day before it was listed for sale. He said his realtor encouraged him to include a clause noting that Lemons would up his offer should the seller receive a higher bid. Investors have bought swaths of Detroit homes at low prices through all-cash offers. In Lemons’ neighborhood about 42% of housing units are held through a mortgage.
The property required some renovations that delayed his move-in date to April. The first-time homebuyer worried that the seller was prolonging the process to back out of the deal and re-list the house at a price higher than what Lemons was willing to pay. A second appraisal showed the house was worth $22,000 less than the $207,000 list price.
Finally settled in, Lemons, a recent finalist for the Michigan Charter School Administrator of the Year, said he’s “super proud” of being able to purchase property in Detroit and feels a duty to give back to the community through his work at the school.
While housing in Detroit is cheaper than most major cities, it’s still largely unaffordable for most residents. Detroit’s median income is $32,498 and over half the households that earn $35,000 or less annually spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
Lemons is a graduate of Renaissance High School, which is not far from where he now lives. When he began looking in November 2020 he considered more affluent neighborhoods, like the University District where the median neighborhood income – $89,400 – is nearly twice the citywide rate.
In comparison, the median income is $61,766 in Green Acres; $25,379 for Russell Woods; $60,774 in Rosedale Park; $60,313 in Grandmont 1; $36,563 in Grandmont II; and $31,441 in combined Grandmont-Rosedale.
Lemons said the perception is that so many white people have moved into Detroit that semi-affluent neighborhoods, like University District, no longer serve Black Detroiters. The neighborhood is 74% Black, but the rate of white residents moving in has increased by 116% since the 2010 census, according to Detroit Future City.
As Detroit changes, many see white residents returning or moving into the city for the first time after decades of fleeing. Detroit’s white population was 21% percent in 1990; 12% in 2000; 11% in 2010; and 14% in 2021, according to Data Driven Detroit. However, Detroit neighborhoods remain predominantly Black.
“It stands out because when you think about Detroit and the region as a whole, we’re really segregated,” Lynch said. “There are places in the city where you just don’t see white people.”
Rosalind Hawkes, a Metro Detroit realtor since 2009, said she’s seen broad interest in Detroit, but primarily an uptick in single and married white couples purchasing properties.
Neighborhoods with the greatest interest for purchase, she said, are Bagley, Rosedale, West Village, and downtown Detroit. However, she doesn’t see these homebuyers enrolling their children in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. In 2019, just before coronavirus prevented in-classroom learning for many students, Detroit’s public school district was 98% nonwhite.
Hawkes said she’s seen a “drastic change” in Detroit’s housing market from 2009 to present day.
“People could not refinance because all of the equity in their homes was just gone,” Hawkes said. “A lot of people were underwater because they owed a lot more than what the property was valued for. In today’s market, it’s quite the opposite.”
Now, homebuyers are likely to pay at or over the asking price and in areas with active neighborhood associations. The thought of a “starter home,” she said, is becoming less common as first-time homebuyers opt for properties with remodeled kitchens and updated finishes.
Hawkes said first-time homebuyers in Detroit are often asked to pay above the appraisal value; a dangerous and costly decision when many homes in Detroit need renovations to make them liveable. According to Data Driven Detroit, when the City of Detroit began selling tax-foreclosed homes in 2002, about 90% were bought in bundles by investors. Those homes were refurbished to sell at a higher rate and, as a result, home sale prices in Detroit have consistently increased.
Last year, 46% of Detroit homes listed for sale were off the market in less than two weeks. Homes were on the market a median of 32 days, according to a report by Porch, suggesting those who can afford to move quickly are taking advantage. However, Detroit homes still sold slower than properties in most other major cities. Hawkes said she worries the speed and cost of purchases the last few years will leave Detroit’s lower and middle-class income residents at a disadvantage when entering the market.
And it matters whether Detroit has a viable Black middle-class. Edward Lynch, senior program manager at Detroit Future City, said a city’s middle-class can be an indicator for the state of economic equity. Lynch says about 54% of Metro Detroit’s Black middle-class lives in the suburbs.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s wrapped up in the middle-class. They generally have a level of stability and ability to move day-to-day on basic things and substantial things; the basics being water, electric, internet,” Lynch said. “And in the City of Detroit, where there are fairly low incomes, that has a fairly dramatic effect on the city. Quite a few people struggle to afford relatively inexpensive housing in Detroit.”
In Detroit, the appraised value of homes has been an expensive issue. Long-term Detroiters, and lower to middle-class Detroiters strive to get approved for mortgages as others purchase property in cash.
“When you have those appraisal gaps, that puts folks who need financing in order to purchase a home at a big disadvantage,” said Sherita Smith, vice president of Community Development at Cinnaire, a community development financial organization. “To me, that’s the major issue around appraised properties. They are valued very differently and that’s the major issue in terms of access to capital.”
President Joe Biden created the Interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity to develop actions to root our racial and ethnic bias in home valuation. Earlier this year, the task force put out an action plan that calls for efforts to cultivate an appraiser profession that is well-trained and “looks like the communities it serves.”
DFC has recommended building a more diverse population of property appraisers to help eliminate bias that homebuyers in African American neighborhoods can face. Beyond race, appraisers should be familiar with the nuances of Detroit’s housing market, and how the desirability of housing can dramatically change over the span of a few blocks.
Smith, a longtime Detroiter and the former executive director of the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation, said she has witnessed Detroit’s depressed housing values and its effect on homeowners.
The corporation is a nonprofit operated through grants and donations intended to support five Detroit neighborhoods: North Rosedale Park, Minock Park, Rosedale Park, Grandmont 1, and Grandmont. Realtors have said it’s one of the more desirable areas in Detroit and Smith attributes the area’s economic success to the engaged neighbors who live there.
“They come up with solutions to problems and work together to advance those things,” Smith said. “For example, when foreclosures were hitting communities really hard, Grandmont Rosedale (created) the Vacant Property Taskforce.”
The community has active neighborhood associations and the financial support of the Development Corporation, which is not available to every Detroit neighborhood. The City of Detroit’s $130 million Strategic Neighborhood Fund is similar, but is operated through the government. It aids city neighborhoods through affordable housing projects, parks, and support for local businesses.
An engaged community
Smith has lived in Detroit most of her life and has seen the population change over time. She said she’s not disgruntled about the increase in white residents over the last few years.
“In my mind, that’s not a bad thing, because we still have a net loss in population for the past census and we’ve got 139 square miles to try to fill,” she said. “So in my mind, I don’t have a problem with new folks moving in. I feel like there’s enough room for everyone. The thing that I find challenging is that many of the Detroiters who remain are facing real life challenges and barriers to wealth building.”
Those barriers, she said, could be offset with resources supporting education, job training programs, and higher paying jobs. Smith said economic wealth building in Detroit must be a concentrated effort that is transparent and includes community input. That’s part of why neighborhood associations and community organizations hold such value to residents.
An active and engaged community has been a comfort for those who are buying property in the city. Black Detroiters say connectedness to the community and the potential to give back are the main reasons they want to buy property in the city.
“There’s this mission or passion around wanting to be a part of helping to revive, and revitalize, and restore the city to what it could be for families,” Smith said.
Lemons said he wanted to live and work in the same community where he was raised. His work supports students like his younger self who found safe space in the classroom.
Others, like Aeryn Michelle Williams and her partner, purchased property to be closer to Williams’ family. Williams hopes to build a network that will eventually create jobs for Detroiters.
Darryl Chatham and his wife Tyla, also wanted to purchase a home in Detroit to be closer to family and to ensure Black Detroiters have space in “new” Detroit.
“It’s kind of like being able to come back and play for the hometown team kind of feeling,” Darryl Chatham said.
However, as homes quickly sold in the city and many of their requests for in-person showings went unanswered, the couple expanded their search to meet the bank’s mortgage rate deadline and ultimately moved to the suburbs.
Smith said buying property and living in a predominantly Black area was a priority for her family because it decreased the chances of discrimination.
“One thing is like you’re not ‘other,'” she said. “You know, if you’re a person of color, if you’re a Black person in Detroit, you’re not ‘other,’ right? So there’s this sense of like, belonging.”
Potential for generational wealth
John Ray and his husband, Juwon Harris, said they wanted a community of family and friends when they purchased their house in the Bagley neighborhood in 2018.
“I wanted to participate in my hometown and specifically make sure that other Detroit kids, who grew up in similar circumstances like me, actually have a role model. Despite all the barriers and challenges, something can still be done. You can be successful and you don’t have to be defined by your circumstance or how other people define you,” Ray said.
Ray, who grew up in Detroit, moved away after college. He lived in Texas and the Washington D.C. area before returning in 2017. The couple married in 2018 and debated over spending money on a wedding or buying a house. They decided the house was a better investment.
They lived in Ray’s childhood home and then an apartment downtown until they were able to afford a home of their own. Living in his childhood home was a luxury that Ray said many Detroiters aren’t afforded due to the tax foreclosure crisis. House hunting took eight months, mostly because they wanted two bathrooms and updated finishes, which is difficult to find in Detroit. They were uninterested in living in the suburbs.
“(I said) ‘No, we absolutely have to live in Detroit.’ I was like ‘I don’t want to live in the suburbs,’” Ray said, recounting conversations with Harris and their home buying process. “There’s really no place as special as Detroit.”
Ray said the more Black Detroiters purchase homes in the city, the likelihood of retaining Detroit’s integrity will grow. Ray said that homeownership creates the potential for generational wealth and the ability to pass down property within a family. A luxury that historically, many Black families have not been able to afford. Experts at the Center for American Progress have determined that the median wealth of white households in America is almost eight times as much as Black households.
Ray said he worries that Detroit will see a similar pattern in the future as property taxes across the city continue to rise. He and Harris live in a two-income household, which Ray said is fortunate compared to others, like his neighbors with children, who might not be able to afford increased taxes.
When Ray thinks about how much is paid in taxes each year, he’s disappointed in the return of city services. Detroiters pay the highest estimated tax at 16%. Ray said it wasn’t until he moved away that he realized Detroit’s services and amenities were lacking.
“I am happy to see some changes, like we can recycle now and the (street) lights are consistently on when that wasn’t the case when I was growing up,” he said. “But those are little, basic things that should be covered and everybody should have anyway.”
It’s known as the “Detroit tax,” or higher cost of living within the city limits. Lynch said it’s more expensive due to the limited tax base that the city has to work with. Lower incomes and fewer people equals less income tax, he said.
“That’s very real,” Lynch said. “It’s not just limited affordable housing stock. It’s taxes as well, things like insurance, both car and home, tend to be fairly high.”
Downtown and Midtown are the most walkable areas in the city with growing access to food, transportation, stores, and parks. But those areas are not affordable to many Detroiters.
Like other Black Detroiters buying homes in the city, Ray said he’s hopeful that Detroit will become a hub for innovation. Because when he looks at other cities in the country, they are fraught with racial segregation, widening wealth gaps, and ongoing social disparities while Detroiters are working to decrease and prevent these issues.
Williams is also hopeful for the city’s future.
A screenwriter who left Detroit to attend Syracuse for college, Williams moved to Los Angeles for work. She began looking for a home on the west coast with her partner, but ultimately thought the costs were too high. She grew up on the west side near Warren and Evergreen. Most of her family still resides there. Now that her work is more remote and requires travel to Toronto, she has the flexibility to live where she wants, which means Detroit.
“I wanted to live in the city,” Williams said. “It’s like people get a little bit of money and move to the suburbs, like that’s the thing to do. I did not want to live there (the suburbs).
“And I understand, I’ve seen the city from when I was six years old to 15 years, and now there are drastic changes,” she said. “The neighborhood I grew up in started off as a mixed neighborhood until more Black people moved in and white people went to the suburbs and the resources went with them.”
Williams said she’s excited to “get to know the city as an adult.” She’d like to see a more vibrant LGBTQ scene and, like Ray, more amenities that make Detroit a desirable place to live, work, and play; not just invest.
She intended to purchase a single-family home but she and her partner will only live in the space during a portion of the year, so she bought a condo near Eastern Market instead. Williams wanted a neighborhood with amenities and general safety, but said she also was worried that moving back to Detroit would displace others.
“Now white folks are back and all this revitalization is happening and that’s great, I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “But I have to challenge who that revitalization is for. It was important to me to live in the city and for me to bring my tax dollars and spending dollars to the city and not outside of it.”
Wiliams said in moving back to the city she wanted to make sure she was doing good for the community and the long-term Detroiters who have stayed. She said too often the changes that she has witnessed have served more wealthy, white residents than Black residents.
“The whole thing is a seed of something larger,” she said. “It’s very important to me to try to give back in this very specific way of offering jobs that allow for the people who have lived in Detroit to reap the benefits of the ‘revitalization’ that is happening in Detroit.”
According to Data Driven Detroit’s Turning the Corner Report, neighborhoods with low social advantages that are adjacent to neighborhoods with a high potential for change are vulnerable to displacement. Neighborhoods with high rates of resident turnover also are more likely to see landlords increase rents and drop-in investors who acquire property.
The report shares that a number of conditions can contribute to neighborhood transformation: initiatives tied to commercial corridors; focused investments; perception of safety and actual crime; blight violations; rental properties; properties for sale; vacancies; demolitions; and tax foreclosures.
Even though each of the new, Black homeowners has seen Detroit change over the years, all of them are glad to be here.
“I hope that people are inspired to not give up on the choice to (live in Detroit) and not give in to the hype or the negativity that comes around this idea that it’s too expensive or too gentrified,” Lemons said. “Like, fight for our spot in Detroit.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly states that there are 1.9 million housing units in Detroit. There are approximately 350,000 units in Detroit.