An urban revival has to begin somewhere, and in the case of Detroit, that place has been downtown.
A handful of real estate developers invested heavily in a bid to entice corporate employers with the Great Recession—and, more recently, condo buyers and business travelers —back to the center of the city. That theme has met with irregular criticism that most efforts are designed to make Detroit more appealing to outsiders.
One way, perhaps, to address the problem: help the city’s long-time residents learn to make their own bets on commercial real estate.
That’s the basic idea behind Better Blocks, Better Buildings, a low-cost program (the three-month seminar costs USD100) designed to train local residents to invest in property and work in real estate. The project, run by a real estate lawyer named Chase Cantrell, was one of 33 projects awarded funding today through the Knight Cities Challenge, an annual competition that finds ideas to make cities “more vibrant places to live and work.” Other winners of this year’s contest, which is administered annually by the Knight Foundation, contains the strategy to turn bike paths in Grand Forks, N.D., into ice-skating paths in the winter, and a closed freeway in Akron, Ohio, into a public park.
Cantrell, a Detroit native himself, left a job practicing law to redevelop vacant commercial property in Detroit’s overlooked neighborhoods and teach others to do the same. The course was the brainchild of a University of Michigan business school lecturer named Peter Allen, who wanted to arm Detroiters with the skills to take advantage of the city’s rebirth. It is designed to aid students to identify investments, write a business plan, and approach banks and other real estate specialists. By the end of the course, students are likely to produce a plan they could take to a bank for a commercial mortgage.
Now, the project is armed with USD150,000 from the Knight Foundation, enough to operate at least through the end of next year and to award small stipends to the best proposals that come out of each course.
One thing Cantrell’s students have going for them is that there’s abundance of property to buy, including tens of thousands of vacant homes and commercial properties that can sometimes be purchased for as little as USD1,000. One recent graduate of the program is a young Teach for America veteran who bought a duplex so she could live in one-half and rent the other. Another grad bought a house he intends to flip and two commercial properties he plans to fix up and rent. There’s no limit on how much or how little students in the program plan to spend on their investments, but somewhere between USD40,000 and USD70,000 is typical, Cantrell said.
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