Central Detroit Christian CDC strengthens its equitable housing efforts for low-income residentsThe Nonprofit Journal Project

Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC) will be 28 years old this year. My husband and I founded this organization after living and working with the youth in this neighborhood for many years. When that opportunity ended, we were already very committed to our community, and to the kids, especially. We didn’t feel God calling us to leave, so we stayed. We "wandered in the wilderness" for a couple of years until he showed us what he wanted, which was to open this CDC.

In 1994, we began by offering youth and family programs. I’m an attorney by profession, but once you’ve worked with youth, you always will. Today, we’re a very comprehensive CDC, serving a community of about 30,000 residents living in the zip codes 48202, 48206, and a bit of 48211. Along with our youth and family programs, we provide employment training and placement, job readiness, GED training, financial literacy and housing counseling. We have a preschool, and a medical clinic in partnership with Wayne State University. We’ve started 17 different businesses that are all profitable, as of last year. Good things are happening, despite this pandemic.

A huge challenge to our city is the lack of affordable housing. We've developed over $32 million in truly affordable housing, and are in the process of developing 100 units more. We manage all 240 of our properties through one of our businesses. Everything we do at CDC needs to revolve around children. In our community, 61% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty. That’s the key indicator we’re addressing. We do affordable housing so kids have a safe, stable place to live, and so they're not uprooted from their home five times during the school year. We're raising up a community of kids whose outcomes aren't dictated by their zip code.

I currently serve as both the executive director and housing director here. With succession planning in my heart and head, I stepped down as executive director at the beginning of 2021. I took on the role to develop our housing department, and I’m proud to say that during the pandemic, our housing staff and department has grown by 69%. We’ve also brought on a community advocate who advocates on behalf of our residents in the various issues their facing, legal, and otherwise. The number one call we get at CDC is from residents who need help fixing their houses. We do home repair through a few different entities, including MSHDA, and are gearing up for the Senior home repair program with the city of Detroit. Total Health Care Foundation is enabling us to do roofs for people as well. That's exciting because its such a major expense, and a huge investment when you're on a fixed income. 

We’re also excited about the Gilbert Family Foundation’s big announcement for a $20 million fund to help Detroiters with home repairs. Our CDC will be among the first group of nonprofit providers doing repair projects for low-income residents through this funding, with a preference to those who qualify for the Homeowners Property Exemption (HOPE) program. A lot of folks lost their homes because they were overtaxed. No one tells people living in poverty that they don’t have to pay property taxes. Bernadette Atuahene has spearheaded something phenomenal to make us all aware of this. We’re going to make sure this never happens again.

When it comes to truly affordable housing, our city is greatly underserved. Developers are creating “affordable housing” units at 80% AMI, at the city's requirement. But that AMI includes Wayne County suburbs with higher income levels. Detroit is not a market rate city, and needs its own Area Median Income. Our CDC is very committed to what residents at the lower end of the spectrum can afford to pay. We're co-developing projects, like a 42-unit with Develop Detroit, that'll provide permanent, supportive apartment housing for chronically homeless people. We’re building affordable single-family homes, as well. We're focused on helping people become homeowners, because that's a great tool in pathways out of poverty. 

I think we've been able to grow our housing during COVID-19 because people are finally paying attention to the disparities that've existed racially and socially for low-income families, in regard to housing. We’re seeing this in funders, and with the city of Detroit. There are some great people working there, now. Our biggest overarching challenge is dealing with the bureaucracy of the city in so many different ways. It’s very, very heavy. I keep a list on my desk of seven issues I'm dealing with that involve city and bureaucracy, and to have one of those knocked off is huge. 

One of my stress points throughout the pandemic specifically, was that children and families were isolated in homes that have serious safety issues. In our neighborhood, 27% of the children have elevated lead levels. That just led to sleepless nights for me. We’re in the process of becoming a lead intake center, which means if families go to the doctor, and find they have elevated blood lead levels, they can come here to get help dealing with the lead at home. We do lead abatement in all of our properties, and it's not a complicated process. We want families to know we’re here for them in this, as well. 

At the end of March, I stepped back into the role of executive director. It’s a tiring time, but I’m prepared for our organization to take this time to find the right person to lead CDC forward. Our team continually gives me hope. When one of us grows weary, there’s always someone who can hold up your arms on those tough days. I'm also encouraged by the community members we’re employing, the kids who spend their childhoods at our CDC, the families who are empowering themselves through financial literacy, the healthy cooking classes our youth are taking, and the 250 kids who’ve already signed up for our summer employment program. We’re continuing to grow, and find new ways to be innovative and creative, to reach our community, to be a voice for affordable housing, for children being educated, and seeking the peace and prosperity of our city.

Lisa Johanon is the executive director and housing director at Central Detroit Christian CDC. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.