Austin Black II returned to Detroit to become a next-generation player and a fixture in the city's ongoing Midtown real estate revival. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and wife Lori sold their Palmer Woods house this week and moved to the official mansion in the Berry subdivision — now rebranded as the Manoogian “residence.”
The city’s first couple handed off the Palmer Woods house keys Tuesday to Wayne S. Brown, the recently named president and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre, and his wife.
The transaction was seamless and discreet: The 5,000-square-foot house, one of Palmer Woods’ elegant gems, was never listed. Few even knew the Duggans intended to move.
But at least one real estate agent was paying close attention to the word on the street. Austin Black II, the 33-year-old founder of City Living Inc., closed the deal on his own. Savvy, serious and low-key, Black has quietly become a next-generation player and a fixture in Detroit’s ongoing Midtown real estate revival. He’s also a member of a generation of young professionals who grew up in the suburbs, but have returned to the city to stake out the city’s future and its own.
"Austin is an exceptionally talented entrepreneur with an unwavering commitment to the city, region, and state. The good news is that he's here doing great work. The eve better news is that there are a growing number of young entrepreneurs just like him playing a pivotal role in the revitalization of Detroit," says Benjamin Kennedy, a Kresge Foundation expert on Detroit entrepreneurship.
Ivy League educated (Cornell), politically connected (his mother, Rochelle Black, is an Oakland University vice president and former Gov. John Engler appointee), Black lived in Detroit until he was 10, when his family moved to Okemos and then Troy. Always fascinated by urban architecture and design, he majored in urban planning in college. On a summer break, he walked into the Sterling Group offices downtown, where real estate developer Gary Torgow hired him as an intern “on the spot.”
“He was a very fine and impressive young man,” Torgow recalls.
That job fueled an interest in real estate and the viability of Detroit. “I thought I could come to a place where I could make a mark,” he says. After being laid off from a job with real estate developer David Johnson, he started “City Living” as a bus tour company, gradually moving into real estate.
To outlast the worst recession in 80 years wasn’t easy: He networked and stuck it out. What he didn’t have in dollars, he invested in civic-mindedness, sponsoring concerts in Palmer Park area homes, joining the boards of the Bolle YMCA and other downtown groups.
Despite the city’s bankruptcy, Black benefits from the city’s growth and change, as more young professionals move in and change the profile of its residents.
“When I first came to the city, I used to go to the suburbs to buy things,” he says. “Now I don’t have to do that. I make a point of shopping in the city, whether it’s for groceries or for office supplies at Staples.”
In 2008, his firm began selling Willys Overland Lofts, once a Jeep service center, in the heart of Midtown. He and six agents are headquartered in Midtown, next to the Avalon bakery. Recently, he’s seen sales improve throughout Detroit’s best neighborhoods, from Palmer Woods to the University District to Indian Village.
The MOT’s Brown, who didn’t know Austin Black, was attracted by what he learned about Black before he hired him as his broker. “I did some research and liked that he was involved in the community. That was obvious.”
When Black took the new opera CEO through the Duggans’ house, he talked about the home as a place to live, not as a celebrity residence. “He didn’t tell me the new mayor lived there before we were inside. That really impressed me,” says Brown. “It’s really important to have individuals in the community who are bright, young, energetic and committed to the spirit of the city.”