February 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Detroit church's housing initiative still fills void in Midtown

The Rev. Nicholas Hood II led the effort to create one of the first church-built, HUD-financed housing developments in the country. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

The Rev. Nicholas Hood II recalled recently the view in 1963 outside the Midtown church he had led for the previous five years.

"A slum," the retired pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ says. "It was dilapidated enough to qualify for total clearance by the government, but many people still lived there."

Reflecting on Black History Month, Hood says it was then that he decided it was time for change.

"I had picked up the morning paper and read of a 400-acre Urban Renewal project that would clear the area in which my church was located, but nowhere on the map did I see my church or any of the other black churches in the area (surviving)," Hood says.

Hood, who had left Louisiana to come to Plymouth, asked the Detroit City Council to allow his church to construct housing that people in the neighborhood could afford.

And, even though U.S. law at the time didn't yet allow churches to use federal funds to build housing, Hood started a nonprofit housing corporation in June 1963 with $500 donated by the church. After the law changed, his Plymouth Non Profit Housing Corporation broke ground on what is now the Medical Center Courts Apartments and Townhomes, a $3-million, 230-unit, low-to-moderate income housing development at St. Antoine near Mack. It was one of the first church-built, HUD-financed housing developments in the country.

"The project was as relevant to Detroit then as it is now," says Mike Whitty, a University of Detroit Mercy College of Business Administration adjunct professor. "It was a template for other churches to follow to bootstrap themselves up to solve housing problems for low-income people."

The church's ties to the housing development are still strong, says Beverly Silk, who has managed the complex for 30 years.

Plymouth provides children from the area a free week at Camp Talahi in Howell, turkey dinners for Thanksgiving and a variety of gifts costing $50 or less for Christmas. In addition, students who achieve a 3.0 average in school receive a free computer and printer.

"We never have to advertise, because our apartments are always near 100 percent occupancy," Hood says.

The apartments are grouped into seven buildings connected by sidewalks that meander across berms made of leftover construction material and dirt. In 1967, that was a new feature most city housing didn't offer.

"As a kid, I would toboggan or ride sleds down them in the wintertime," says jazz singer Shahida Nurullah, 53, who moved into the apartments with her mother and father in 1968. "It was just an unusual thing to have."

Each building has a court captain, who meets with management to iron out complaints.

"It was something different at the time," says Clarence White, 73, a Plymouth member who managed the complex for 10 years. "Thefts and break-ins were very low. People respected each other there."

Lucy Pierce, 92, another Plymouth member and one of its original tenants, says the complex was a safe haven. "We got along with each other and we helped each other," she says.

Hood, who was a city council member for 28 years, would later lead his church into building an adjacent 26-acre community that includes mixed-income apartments, townhouses, a senior citizens building, a school, a day-care center, a training center and housing for mentally retarded youth and a new Plymouth church building. He also was instrumental in getting a shopping center built within walking distance of the development.

Black History Month

This is the first in a series of Tuesday stories focusing on the impact of the church on the Metro Detroit black community.

Chrysler and Leland in the 1960s, before Medical Center Courts was built. (Courtesy of Plymouth United Church of Christ)