Model D lauds Southwest Housing as "Talk of the Town"

February 17th, 2009
Whitdel apartment building in southwest Detroit

Solutions for Southwest Detroit: Nonprofit Developer Gets It Right

Rodd Monts | Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Model D

When you pull up in front of the Whitdel Building, it’s hard not to think back to the 1950s. The pristine masonry of the massive 32-unit apartment building is impressive. The inviting entryway, accented by a covered walk complete with wood eaves in immaculate condition, leads to a small courtyard.

The atmosphere feels vintage, but the Whitdel is far more progressive than that.

The recently renovated 80-year old apartment building represents considerable progress, and it’s just one of the innovative redevelopment projects brought to you by Southwest Solutions.

There area many community development corporations, known as CDCs, doing business in Detroit these days. Southwest Solutions is the talk of the town, as the team there recently picked up an award from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, naming it “CDC of the Year” for 2008.

Its projects, including the Whitdel redevelopment, are important for the city, too, because they represent possibilities for the revitalization of other Detroit neighborhoods.

The Whitdel example

The Whitdel is innovative in the sense that it is about more than renovation. It is about jump-starting new opportunity and creating a sense of place.

It took $5.5 million and nearly two years to complete, but today the Whitdel is home to tenants who pay anywhere from about $300 a month to $600, depending on whether they want units in the 350- to 1,000-square-foot range, says Bob O’Brien, vice president for development for Southwest Solutions.

What makes the Whitdel stand out, however, is its connection to the arts and community.

The building’s innovations include a basement area designed as a workshop and gallery for artists — called the Ladybug Gallery — where community arts programs are hosted. About a dozen artists live in the building, too, says Steve Palackdharry, communications manager for Southwest Solutions.

The Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit will bring in four artists this spring to conduct workshops in the Ladybug Gallery. The Matrix Theatre will also bring in its members to offer theater workshops. Organizers expect a schedule of workshops about three nights a week.

“This is the first of our apartment buildings that is really focused on getting neighborhood people involved,” says O’Brien. “We’re planning this in every building now, we’re starting to plan and see how we can meet a need in the community based on the common space.”

New starts

One of the artists using the space at Whitdel is a formerly homeless man. Palackdharry says Freddie Harris had been living underneath a local freeway overpass. He has been a Whitdel resident now for about four months.

Harris’ experience, however, is an illustration of the impact that Southwest Solutions can have on a community. Its Southwest Housing arm builds residential spaces, but the organization also provides other opportunities, too.

Southwest Solutions began providing mental health services three decades ago. The organization’s leadership understands that to be successful its mission must go far beyond bricks and mortar projects.

In just a few months, Harris — who is getting counseling and health care assistance, as well — has risen from unknown member of the city’s homeless population to fledgling artist.

“Freddie was homeless, living on the streets, but a very talented artist,” Palackdharry says. Now he, and his art, have a place.

He has drawn praise for his drawings, a half-dozen of which hang the basement gallery at the Whitdel. He is self-taught, and has an incredible gift for drawing characters, most of which he creates himself, using simple tools — ballpoint pens, pencils, notebook paper. He also does great abstract designs. “I just come up with ideas on putting designs together, or trying to form a shape or design into some work of art, and that’s how I’ve been doing it,” he says.

Next steps

The Southwest Solutions strategy has been about creating community service hubs to offer affordable, quality housing for residents while addressing any issues that might prevent people from keeping their families together, maintaining jobs, or staying in their homes. It’s a simple but effective formula for creating stability, and it is helping Southwest build a strong foundation in the community.

Southwest Housing Solutions was formed in 1979, and since then has renovated 24 buildings in southwest Detroit. That includes both residential and commercial units, and represents an investment of more than $100 million in the city. It also has helped hundreds of local families acquire first homes, stave off foreclosure or fix up deteriorating houses.

Not only has its recent work been recognized by LISC, with an award by MASCO, the Charter One Foundation last month named Southwest Housing its Housing Hero for 2008. The group nabbed a $25,000 grant in the process. Charter One hailed the organization’s work on the Springwells Partners IV development, which included 50 affordable rental housing units in two revamped historic buildings at Woodmere and Michigan.

For taking home the CDC of the Year award, Southwest Housing received a $5,000 donation from MASCO that it will, undoubtedly, pump back into redevelopment.

The organization has been looking to expand its scope, too, moving beyond its main targeted areas into other parts of Southwest Detroit. “The future is to look for other areas that are underdeveloped in Southwest Detroit where we can replicate what we’ve done in these two areas,” O’Brien says.

By building homes and community, Southwest Solutions will remain one to watch in Detroit.

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