Rethinking and revamping Ypsi's public housing

The Ypsilanti Housing Commission's housing complexes have made a dramatic transformation over the past five years as they've transitioned from traditional public housing to affordable housing.


The forthcoming completion of the New Parkridge complex will mark the final step in that transition, made possible by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. The switch allows the Housing Commission to pursue private investment and funding sources previously available only to private developers, specifically low-income housing tax credits, in order to provide higher-quality housing and services to residents. The Housing Commission had previously been getting only about $1,000 per unit every year from the federal government to address housing maintenance issues.


"The problem with public housing in general has been that it’s old and underfunded, so there was never enough capital improvement money coming in to keep up with capital needs for the site," says Zac Fosler, executive director of the Housing Commission.


But with the affordable housing model, the Housing Commission has been able to renovate or redevelop units and provide additional resources and amenities to residents at its Hamilton Crossing, Deborah Strong Housing, and New Parkridge developments. The Housing Commission believes these properties have gone from eyesores to assets.


"Our vision for our sites [is] somewhere that residents feel proud to live and that the community is proud to have in the city, because both of those things were not true prior," Fosler says. "Now I feel that people are proud of where they live and that these are really nice homes. We went from having the worst rental housing in the city to having the best rental housing in the city."


The Housing Commission transitions


Hamilton Crossing, 596 S. Hamilton St. in Ypsi, was the Housing Commission's first venture into redevelopment. The site, formerly known as Parkview Apartments and managed by the federal government, fell into disrepair and near-complete abandonment by the time its last 20 or so residents sued HUD to force the property into foreclosure in 2010. It was then taken over by the Housing Commission.


Renovations to Hamilton Crossing began in 2012 and were completed in 2013. The development consists of 144 units, 70 of which are subsidized with project-based Section 8 funding and are the main focus of the site’s Family Empowerment Program (FEP), which seeks to help families become self-sufficient in employment, education, health, and wellness. The other 74 units are tax credit-funded, so they’re affordable but don’t have a subsidy attached to them.


Deborah Strong Housing was the result of a rehabilitation of existing public housing units when the project wrapped up in late 2016. It consists of 112 units spread amongst 12 sites, including Hollow Creek, Sauk Trail Pointe, and Towner Apartments.


New Parkridge replaces the Parkridge Homes complex designed by African-American architect Hilyard Robinson, built in 1943, and demolished in July 2016. The development consists of 86 units including duplexes and townhouses. Nearly 50 units at New Parkridge have already been completed and occupied, and the rest of the units will be complete and fully occupied by the end of the year.


Most residents living in Housing Commission developments pay income-based rent, meaning their rent fluctuates with their income. Many of them pay about 30 percent of their income towards rent either completely on their own or with the help of a tenant-based housing choice voucher.


About 1,400 people submitted applications to live in Deborah Strong Housing and New Parkridge, but only about 200 people had the opportunity to move in. The fact that more than 1,000 people weren't able to obtain affordable housing highlights the need for more of it in Ypsi.


"Hardly a day goes by that someone isn't dropping by or calling our office in search of affordable housing and, unfortunately, we are unable to meet that immediate need," Fosler says.


At New Parkridge, 75 percent of the units are occupied by residents who were put on a waiting list after being randomly selected in a lottery since the Housing Commission received so many applications. The other 25 percent of the units are permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and individuals or families experiencing recurring issues with homelessness, who came from Housing Access of Washtenaw County's community housing prioritization list.


Building New Parkridge


The Housing Commission hosted meetings with Parkridge Homes residents to ensure they were on board with the project and to get their input about what kind of amenities they would like to have in their new units at New Parkridge. Some residents' wishes, like air conditioning, a dishwasher, and a washer and dryer in every unit, were fulfilled. But some of the other requests, like swimming pools, were unattainable.
Each development has an office building with spaces for leasing, management, maintenance, and social or case workers, as well as a community room, a computer lab, and a kitchen. Those office buildings serve as their communities' centers for community-building activities, educational opportunities, and resource connections.


Safety was one of the main concerns that cropped up during the planning process, so New Parkridge's duplexes and townhouses are laid out in a way that makes the area safer. The new development addresses some design flaws that contributed to crime at Parkridge Homes, such as communal courtyards where non-residents would congregate and dark spots behind complexes where police had a hard time monitoring. Most of the New Parkridge units have their own front and back yards so residents have a clearly defined area they can take ownership of. The Housing Commission is now able to provide private security to keep watch over New Parkridge, as well as Hamilton Crossing and Deborah Strong Housing, since it's been able to pursue additional funding sources.


"It’s such a stark change from where we were at before, and we really listened to our residents about what kinds of things they wanted at this site and what the issues were at the previous site, so we could be thoughtful about how we designed this property," Fosler says.


Amelia Reese initially sought housing through the Housing Commission several years ago, when she was homeless. She ended up living in Parkridge Homes, which she says was in disrepair and full of pests like mice and cockroaches, for about four years until the redevelopment project started.


Like all residents who were still living at Parkridge Homes before the demolition, Reese was relocated to Deborah Strong Housing and then given the choice of staying there or moving into New Parkridge. She lived at Hollow Creek for less than a year while New Parkridge was under construction and then decided to move into New Parkridge because she likes its location and wanted to live in a brand-new space. She moved into her duplex in New Parkridge at the end of July.


"I just really hope that people can see that [the Housing Commission] worked hard for all of our wishes for so long, and I just hope that people can come together as a community to keep it nice as long as we can," Reese says.


Family Empowerment Program


Eastern Michigan University's FEP was initially launched at Hamilton Crossing with the goal of fulfilling a HUD requirement to offer self-sufficiency programming for the community's 70 Section 8 families. The program helps to connect families to health and educational resources, as well as sponsoring a variety of community events. The FEP is supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation. It has since been expanded to all three of the Housing Commission's developments with additional help from the Kresge Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


FEP director Marquan Jackson started off as the only social worker serving 70 families at Hamilton Crossing. But now he serves in more of a management role, while two other social workers work in more hands-on roles with the individuals and families at Hamilton Crossing and Deborah Strong Housing. Jackson's office will be located at New Parkridge once it's completed and he hopes to eventually hire a third social worker to serve the population at that development.


Residents who participate in the program sit down with a social worker for one-on-one meetings to address their personal goals. They're also encouraged to participate in the developments' monthly workshops designed to address community needs.


"We really provide support and provide resources to eliminate barriers, so that families are successful in becoming self-sufficient," Jackson says. "In a normal public housing or low-income housing [development], there’s no social worker on staff to really hold people accountable and help advocate, so we really just help remove the barriers that our residents face so they’re able to reach whatever goals it is that they see fit."


Moving out and up


Marissa Williams has lived at Hamilton Crossing for about five years. Since she has a steady job as an administrative assistant in the dental office at Hope Clinic, she doesn't take advantage of Housing Commission programs geared towards residents with greater need.


But she recently took advantage of an FEP program that could eventually help her move out of Hamilton Crossing. The Individual Development Account program, funded through FEP, allocates a set amount of savings from the paychecks of participating residents and then matches those funds with the stipulation that they go towards buying a home, starting a business, or pursuing higher education.


Williams says she appreciates Hamilton Crossing's cleanliness, as well as the access it offers to a computer lab, tutoring sessions, and a community center. But she wants to raise her 5-year-old son in a home where they can each have their own space and not worry about living in such close proximity to neighbors.


“[The Individual Development Account program] means a lot for the people who use it because these are people who are actually trying to leave," she says. "These are people who see that this is not the kind of environment or the type of place that you would want to raise successful children. ... This is not the environment that I would like to raise my son in because this is not the type of environment that I was raised in.”


Reese is also planning to set up an Individual Development Account so she can save up to buy a house. She's currently studying pharmacy technology at Washtenaw Community College and hopes to begin making plans to move once she graduates in April and becomes stable in her new career.


"It gives people the opportunity to grow and to do better instead of just feeling like, ‘Oh, well we’re low-income and we just have to stay here forever,'" Reese says.


Many of the resources provided to residents living at Housing Commision developments, including the Individual Development Account program, aim to help them get on their feet. The hope is to enable residents to become self-sufficient so they no longer have to rely on affordable housing.


"If we can reduce a non-elderly, able-bodied resident's need for government subsidies, whether that be housing assistance, cash assistance, or something else, we see this as a success," Fosler says. "Ultimately, our goal for these residents is for them to reach a level of self-sufficiency that allows them to provide for themselves and their families without government assistance."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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