Detroit group rallies to convert historic townhouses from crime haven to community hub

This slice of Detroit’s North Corktown neighborhood once enjoyed pleasant streets and good neighbors – that is, until a townhouse complex took a wrong turn and jeopardized the safety of the entire community.

So says Jon Koller, who took it upon himself to turn around Spaulding Court and, by extension, the neighborhood it serves.

Koller, a 27-year-old structural engineer, said that just two years ago Spaulding Court, a 100-year-old historic townhouse complex on Rosa Parks Boulevard, was a criminal hub. Exterior doors were kept in use by people running in and out to buy drugs; gunfire was a nightly occurrence. Neighbors were threatened as drug dealers’ clients broke into homes and stripped properties to trade for drugs.

“It was a really rowdy place. The guys who lived in the front sold guns and drugs, the guys who lived in the middle sold women, and some guys in the back sold more drugs,” said Koller, who has lived in the neighborhood for years. “If they didn’t have money, they would go grab something out of the yard or sometimes go into somebody’s house and grab something if they were a little bit more daring.”

Joe Harris, 26, who lived in one of the townhouses for 10 years, said Spaulding Court wasn’t always a trouble spot.

“When we first came it was a decent place. There were a lot of people here. We were like one big family. But it took a big dive and things got a little corrupt in 2007,” said Harris. “Eventually it got too hectic and everybody left. My mom grew up around here. She didn’t want to move.”

At the end of 2009, things started to change for the 20-unit complex when Koller and a few others who lived in area boarded up the structure after the property was seized by Wayne County. The group then started a nonprofit organization -- Friends of Spaulding, which Koller calls “not much more than a block club” -- to buy the complex and turn it around.

“The bottom had fallen out of the financial housing market. At the time people were saying you’re crazy,” said Koller. “This is not going to work. This place is burned down and full of drug dealers. It’s not a good idea.”

Koller, who serves as president of Friends of Spaulding, couldn’t quite explain why he felt the need to take on this project. The price tag -- $1,000 – was low, but the challenge -- leaky roofs, fire damage, sparking electrical meters and burst water pipes – was not.

Clearing the first hurdle: permission

The first order of business for the group was the permit fees.

“We were trying to raise $50,000 to build a couple of units and we were looking at the budget for them and permits cost like 10 percent. We were like, this is a big cost, maybe the city will be willing to finance it and we will pay them back once we generate some income,” said Koller.

The Buildings and Safety Engineering Department approved Friends of Spaulding’s request to defer payment of the fees for a time, but when the group asked if the department could extend the break to all in the city, it was shot down.

Jon Koller, who heads the Friends of Spaulding Court, applies some elbow grease to one of the myriad repair jobs at the dilapidated, but reviving, apartment complex. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

“If you told other people they didn’t have to pay for the permit up front, a lot of people would fix up their places,” said Koller. “But they didn’t want to do that. It was a little disappointing and since then we just stopped trying to push forward change at the city level.” (Bridge left messages with the city of Detroit’s Building Department, but they were not returned.)

With grant money, donations, fundraisers, loans from individuals and many volunteers, Friends of Spaulding was able to repair most of the major problems at Spaulding and attract tenants.

“We went from two units being occupied to five. We went from leaky roof to brand new roof. We went from crazy power to really top of the line power,” said Koller. “The units we have are insulated. We have this kind of cool community mesh network that’s spreading beyond Spaulding Court and hooks up with a couple different organizations in the neighborhood.”

Harris, who is also a member of Friends of Spaulding, said he just had to get involved with “bringing Spaulding Court back to life.

“They have a lot of vision towards this place. It’s better than it was. But the process is just pretty slow. Usually when people purchase buildings, they knock them out pretty quick, and get them up and running. It’s a group of us and everyone has to be on the same page. I just think we should be going faster.”

When Bridge visited, five of the 20 units were occupied. Almost all units offer three bedrooms, with a typical rent of $1,200. However, Friends of Spaulding developed a model that is flexible enough to work with all of the tenants.

“If you don’t have a car, we give you a $450 a month discount. The car thing we did kind of to acknowledge that more than 40 percent of households in Detroit don’t have access to a private car,” said Koller. “If we give you a roughed-out unit and you do all the finish work, then you get another $300 off.”

The organization employs one unit as a community space where people can live for free if they perform certain “handyman and maintenance work.”

Besides fixing up Spaulding, Friends of Spaulding also hosted many weekly fundraisers like Soup at Spaulding. Friends of Spaulding won a little over $1,000 in a November Detroit SOUP competition.

Although Koller said he believes all of the units will be occupied in about 5 years, he doesn’t think the project will ever be completed:

“What we all realize is it’s a little sliver of the city and it’s always going to be changing. It’s always going to be growing. There’s always more to do.”

Taylor Trammell is the 2012-13 Center for Michigan journalism student fellow. She is pursuing a journalism degree at Wayne State University.

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Mon, 01/21/2013 - 4:15pm
This is fantastic, but one thing that isn't mentioned at all, and something that really needs to be discussed is: How did you deal with the drugs, drug dealers, prostitution, and other dangerous criminal activity? It seems a little glossed over in this article. Other attempts at neighborhood revitalization have met with violent resistance (such as FireWeed UniverseCity on Goldengate)... drug dealers don't normally like being run out, and intrusion into their territory is often met with gunfire. Was this an issue? Did the drug dealers just "evaporate"? They had to go somewhere... I can't imagine that kicking them out was exactly a "handshake" sort of deal. I'd be fascinated to hear that side of the story, because it's a very real and valid concern to others who want to revitalize distressed properties and neighborhoods.
william headley
Mon, 01/21/2013 - 9:15pm
I would like an Email address so I could contact Joe Keller relative to just what kind of help they could use to and see if our mission group could be of any help in the project. John Headley