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Community Development and Community Engagement in Southwest Detroit

While a new line of development projects in Detroit could mean business opportunities for residents, hese opportunities for participation could just as easily evaporate and the subsequent development in all of its richness could inadvertently serve to marginalize people of the community.

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Over the past several years there have been numerous physical development projects occurring across Southwest Detroit. Currently the neighborhood is host to a new line-up of development projects, community planning initiatives, and opportunities to shape the social and physical landscape of the neighborhood for the future, creating a considerable opportunity for community building and engagement. However, these opportunities for participation could just as easily evaporate and the subsequent development in all of its richness could inadvertently serve to marginalize people of the community.

Development Without Engagement As A Social Justice Issue

In the Vernor and Springwells neighborhood over the last nine years Southwest Housing Solutions, a local community non-profit organization with a long standing history of work in the community, has invested over $20 million dollars in commercial and housing development projects that did not include any type of community-level engagement or participatory design process. In fact, on occasion even remedial information about the development projects before and during their implementation were difficult to come by.

One community resident choosing not to be named who lives near Lawndale and Vernor indicated having never received any information in the mail or by flyers from Southwest Housing Solutions in the 5 years they have lived only several houses behind a major housing and commercial development of theirs. Last year the resident attended a fundraiser with the organization and now receives regular mailings from the organization with updates and contact information for the agency. This highlights missed opportunities in communication and outreach for our mission-driven non-profit corporations who are responsible for developments that affect thousands of residents’ daily lives and routines.

These development initiatives look great on paper (and in pictures) as they rejuvenate highly visible spaces by improving visual real estate, providing alternative housing options, increasing density, bringing increased economic/ethnic diversification of community blocks and neighborhoods and opportunities for innovative, high quality property management and resident services.

They are made to look even more promising with the prospect of community non-profits with strong histories and commitment to mission driving these projects as the developer and property manager. But in reality, the wonderful opportunities inherent in the magnitude of physical development also have the potential to marginalize rather than empower portions of the community population.

From Lawndale To West Grand Boulevard Along Vernor

Residents across Southwest Detroit, especially on streets where these developments exist, have expressed strong opinions and possess bases of local knowledge regarding their community and multi-unit apartment complexes. However, in many cases with recent development projects, neighbors are completely unaware of what is going on right next-door or down the street from their homes. There are residents who have reportedly attempted to communicate with them and have been made promises that were broken or even been ignored.

In the Hubbard Farms neighborhood, near West Grand Boulevard and Vernor, local residents recently experienced these lapses in communication and cooperation. Though the residents in that community have a history of partnership and communication with Southwest Housing Solutions they were shocked to learn of the organization’s plan to develop the Broderick-Murray, another large apartment complex on Vinewood and Shady Lane. They learned this by mail in a mandatory notification of re-zoning sent by the City of Detroit. It wasn’t until they inquired further that they learned of the organization’s plans. This took place while residents were still trying to sort out issues they have been having with multiple properties developed, owned, and managed by the same organization in the same neighborhood.

It is worth mention that connected to each development is significant incentive for the completion of development projects, regardless of property management performance. The dollars invested in the development itself come from public tax credits and loans and not from the investment of the organization’s capital. Southwest Housing Solutions’ investment in the properties does not include the dollars that the organization receives upon completion of the development. But the organization’s capital increases with each development.

Community residents learned from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) that the currently proposed development should yield the organization $1.2 million in revenue for unrestricted use.

Despite ongoing requests, there is currently no public master plan for Southwest Housing Solutions’ ongoing development in the neighborhood. Additionally there is no publicly communicated strategy for meeting the organizational or financial burden of providing adequate property management for the already developed properties across the community. Yet numerous issues loom and new developments are on the horizon.

Informal community hearings held by residents of Southwest Detroit in 2011 and 2012 temporarily yielded the organization’s attention. For several months the organization appeared assertive about meeting with select concerned parties, steering the narrative about the organization, and even meeting with and expressing a desire to establish renewed commitments to community organizations and partnerships.

In a specific instance SWHS director John Van Camp agreed to sitting down with small groups of invited stakeholders to field questions and concerns as well as for the organization to state their ongoing commitment to the community. Eventually the hearing and subsequent community meetings with residents, organizations, and partnerships led to the establishing of a new position of Community Engagement Director to which they appointed Southwest Detroit native Ozzie Rivera and added the position to the core leadership team of the organization. Ironically in the wake of the SWHS announcement of their new position, as the outside pressure subsided, communication between the organization and the community again dwindled. Recent violent incidents connected to Southwest Housing Solutions’ apartments as well as newly announced developments have re-energized community residents and organizations to again seek out opportunities to communicate and plan with SWHS.

Michael, a former Southwest Housing Solutions resident who asked his last name not be shared, said that, “All around the building right here where I live… you got the three kids that were shot and (two were) killed right here outside my door. Then the other ones that got shot right around the corner in front of their other building a few months back. Then, my apartment has been broken in to three times. People aren’t supposed to be able to get in to our buildings, but they can. Southwest Solutions says you have to get the police report and then give it to them but they still do not do anything. They’re even saying I have to pay to fix my own door even though it wasn’t working correctly for over a year before it was broke in to and I was locked out of my apartment. Now I don’t even have anything inside my apartment. Its empty pretty much. Just something to sleep on. ”

Another former resident of Southwest Housing Solutions, Kadeem Whitehead, highlighted that “When we first moved in it seemed real nice. The kept everything real clean inside and out… the carpet, everything. Then when something would happen we just couldn’t get anyone to do anything like maintenance work and the heat not working, and there were bedbugs all over the building real bad. I have a child. They wouldn’t do anything to help us with that. Everybody had bed bugs. The whole building was affected. When we would try to contact Southwest Housing Solutions about the problems they told us we had to call a number that would always send us to a voicemail and we wouldn’t get followed up with.”

Engaging Community In Development Enlists Local Wisdom In The Development And Management Of Projects That Will Affect The Community

Without an appropriate sampling of the community involved and sharing insights, the renewed bricks and mortar of buildings that exist on blocks with deep histories of gang and drug culture become weapons against the healthy development of people and place in the community. For example, concentrated poverty, mental illness, and addiction in areas of the community where there are strong and viable drug markets may be a potential risk worth considering in strategies for development and property management.

As community non-profits fill gaps in civic services that a cash-strapped city cannot provide we need them to remain healthy and supportive of their mission to promote the development of people and places in the community.

Efforts to incorporate community engagement from the start of a project increases awareness, the frequency and quality of communication between decision-makers and residents, and feelings of community pride and ownership. Community residents require a strong voice at the table to be heard over the traditional power structure that hears dollars over participants in design processes. Community engagement and participatory process in community development can provide a jury of resident voice and public opinion.