Model D: Could you tell us a bit about your organization, Woodbridge Neighborhood Development?
Angie Gaabo: Woodbridge Neighborhood Development was established in 2002. It is a resident-run organization. Residents make up the majority of board and staff members and community members to run it all. We focus on a few key segments: public space acquisitions, resident programming, and resident resources. We organize programs in our parks and try to collaborate with people who provide opportunities for young and old people in the region. We do minor home repairs and foreclosure prevention work to keep people in their homes. then real estate development, property redevelopment and vacant land stewardship. We are a small organization; we only have three full-time employees. But we are small and mighty.
Model D: The way development at Woodbridge seems to concern you. What can you tell me about the context of what is happening in the neighborhood right now?
AG: The neighborhood is kind of at the crossroads of a lot of things going on right now. And the development is always on the lips of residents who want to be in aWoodbridge Mural position where they have a voice. Historically, they have had quite an important role. In the 1960s, 70s and early 80s this area saw urban renewal – or removal as many say – many of the housing demolitions that were driven by the city and Wayne State to make way to bigger projects. Wayne State Athletics Field once housed housing in the eastern part of Woodbridge. And farther west, a lot of housing was cleared for what was to be a Detroit Public School athletics campus, which never happened.
During this time the residents really took notice and became active and formed our Citizens Council and pushed back against any further take up or development without input from the residents. Then for many years there really wasn’t any new activity in that regard until about five, six or seven years ago when there was a lot going on downtown and in the area of Cass Corridor. And we saw that there was an interest from the private development community to take a look at the neighborhood and the vacant lots that exist here.
So the neighbors got energized again to be really intentional about planning for ourselves what we would like to see happen here. So in 2019 and 2020 we did a lot of land planning where we raised philanthropic funds to drive a process here that involved hundreds of people and stakeholders. Now we have a community development plan and as an organization we have also partnered with Cinnaire Solutions, a community development finance institution, to acquire some of this vacant land and some of the derelict buildings here and to start a way of the community itself actually controlling what would happen here.
Ensuring that the neighborhood remains a multi-generational, mixed-income community seems to be a very important goal for WND. Why is this such a priority for you?
AG: We believe that it is the historical nature of [Woodbridge]. The eccentricity, the diversity of the people who live here—age, race, income—it’s very mixed. We do a lot of door-to-door here, and you really see that when you’re on Development at Woodbridgepeople’s porches. Due to the proximity to the university, there has always been a student population and an artistic community and a lot of musicians here, but also a lot of long-time residents who have always been here. And those who are in older homes that need repairs, if they don’t know how to stay here, they leave and things can change quickly. So there is [a desire] to preserve this diversity which makes the district unique.
At the moment in this district, it is difficult to reduce staff. if you can’t climb all those stairs anymore, you have to leave the neighborhood, because we have no choice. We don’t have small houses. We do not have buildings with elevators where you can have smaller or more affordable accommodation. Likewise, if you’re a student renter here and you’re like, “OK, I think I want to buy my first house,” you can’t find a house you can afford, because we have the two extremes. We have rent-restricted apartments and other market-priced apartments, and then we have very expensive single-family homes. And the prices have gotten out of control on that side. So there is nothing in the middle that will help us keep all kinds of residents present and part of the fabric of the neighborhood. So that’s where we put our energy [into figuring] how to create what they call intermediate housing [or] accessible housing, [which has] different sizes and different prices for people at all stages of life.
Model D: What kind of actions do you plan to take to preserve or promote this?
AG: On the one hand, we worked on preserving housing stability. We help people with direct grants for home repairs with one-on-one tax foreclosure assistance and other foreclosure prevention. It’s about keeping people housed who might otherwise leave the neighborhood. Then, on the development side, we areWND-Cinnaire redevelopment project try to work with Cinnaire Solutions and other development partners who share this passion for finding a type of housing that is perhaps a different size. We are not talking about small houses. It’s just a good-sized home, house or townhouse that, because it’s smaller, is naturally more affordable.
Have been [also looking into] providing grants or philanthropic dollars. And now the state has a new fund for what he calls intermediate housing or labor housing. [We’re interested in] ways to get these units built, so that there are more options for people. And some of that could happen on vacant lots that our organization controls with Cinnaire Solutions that have been planned by residents, because those are some of the things that residents have said they want.
It’s really difficult because if it’s left to market devices, it’s going to be high-priced luxury no matter what. But on the other hand, there is a well-developed system of housing construction for low-income people, which uses tax credits for low-income housing. You can go that route, but what lies in between is trickier.
Model D: Do you have any advice for other groups in town who might be interested in this type of work?
AG: As for other organizations that try to talk to us, we want to partner. We want to hear from others who are thinking about this and any ideas they have or collaborations. The more momentum we can build around this, the better. [it will be for] either by instigating policy change or by raising funds. I would also say always talk to people in the neighborhood for support. Listen to what people are saying. In our neighborhood, people want affordable housing for people of all stages: housing for the most vulnerable on the lowest incomes, until they can buy a home at market price. There is broad support, broad support, for people at all stages. We also take a look at other cities and see what they are trying to do. We are not the only ones facing this problem.
Template D: Anything else you want people to know about the neighborhood or the work you do.
AG: They can go see our website. We follow the development in the neighborhood. We update this regularly. We also do all kinds of programs and fun things that everyone is welcome to come to this summer. We have a concert day on the porch in October. We have all kinds of fun things in the park for the kids. So go check it all out!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It is made possible thanks to funding from the Kresge Foundation.