Years ago, the second floors of many two-story commercial buildings in Detroit served as living quarters for their downstairs shopkeepers or were divided into apartments for housing residential tenants.
Over time those dwellings emptied out, leaving the upstairs as storage space or simply empty.
Now a business group in southwest Detroit is using $8,500 matching grants to encourage building owners to renovate their vacant second floors and reopen the spaces as reasonably priced market-rate apartments.
The first batch of 12 apartments is nearly ready for occupants. And based on the early interest from property owners and prospective tenants, the Southwest Detroit Business Association is looking to expand its second-floor apartments program to more buildings, and perhaps inspire similar renovation efforts across the city.
“This is an easy program that can be replicated,” said Michael Odom, the business association’s board chairman.
“The benefit of this program is not big investors coming into our neighborhoods and buying up property and then making it unaffordable to our area,” he said. “We want to support our neighbors, and we don’t want folks to be priced out or pushed out.”
The program was funded with a $135,000 grant from The Kresge Foundation and is believed to be one of the first of its kind in Detroit. It got its start two years ago when the business association took an inventory of properties along West Vernor Highway and Springwells (between Clark and Woodmere streets.)
That review identified more than 80 buildings with vacant second floors that could potentially be renovated into apartments, said Theresa Zajac, the association’s vice president.
The initial 12 apartments are spread across three buildings and will provide more neighborhood housing options, more customers for nearby businesses and more revenue for building owners, Zajac said.
“Our main target audience is people who live here, but maybe don’t want to live with Mom and Dad anymore and are looking for some quality housing,” she said. “Or maybe some of the seniors who moved out to the suburbs years ago, and now are thinking ‘Hey, maybe I’d like to move back into the old neighborhood.’ ”
The $8,500 per-apartment grants did not cover the full cost of renovations, which ranged from about $80,000 to $120,000 in each building. But the money encouraged building owners to make the necessary investments.
The program also provided general contractors for assessing the upstairs spaces and offering cost estimates.
“As you get closer to Corktown, some market forces may take over and incentivize the owners enough to do it on their own,” said Greg Mangan, who advises the Southwest Detroit Business Association on real estate matters. “But over here, I think you still need some of that extra assistance.”
One-bedrooms at $750
Property owner Jamahl Makled, 47, renovated six upstairs apartments in his 100-year-old building at 7830 W. Vernor Highway through the program. The old apartments hadn’t been used since years before he bought the building in the early 2000s.
Makled put a new roof on his building and installed new flooring, plumbing and electrical work in each apartment. He was able to refurbish the apartments’ existing cabinetry, bathrooms sinks and tiling, which helped to keep costs low.
He said he plans to start leasing the one-bedroom units for about $750 per month. And he doesn’t anticipate any trouble in finding tenants.
“I had about four people already approach me,” said Makled, who owns a Boost Mobile store on the building’s ground floor.
The business association hopes to land more foundation grants and expand the second-floor apartments initiative to additional buildings, Zajac said.