A LifeBUILDERS executive and employee talk about their home rehab work in the Detroit

The nonprofit founded in 2005 is on a mission to revitalize a blighted neighborhood on the city’s east side


Detroit — Marilyn Johnson remembers more than a decade ago when the corner bungalow on Eastburn was a “gun haven” for a gang on the city’s east side.

“They were dealing AK-47s in this house when we moved into the neighborhood,” said the 72-year-old Regent Park resident, standing in a remodeled first-floor bedroom. “I found shell cases all over the house.”

Since then, Johnson and her husband Larry, 69, founded the nonprofit LifeBuilders and rehabbed 30 Regent Park homes as well as offered afterschool programs and summer camps in an area Larry said is known as “Detroit’s most dangerous ZIP code: 48205.”

This spring, the nonprofit is renovating 13 homes, five of which are funded with money from a $500,000 Wayne County grant.

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The couple originally strove to restore 150 blighted homes in the neighborhood by 2020 through grants, donations and their thousands of volunteers. Now, an interested developer has stepped in to speed up the process and help renovate more than 100 homes starting as early as this fall.

“What we originally dreamed was going to take so long to do, we have an opportunity to do it much faster, and it’s very exciting,” Larry said.

In their Detroit headquarters, a satellite map with 100-plus dots covers a table. The green dots represent LifeBuilders’ acquired property; yellow, acquired lots; and red, abandoned properties.

Larry points to a sticker with sports balls, plotted on the shuttered Tracy W. McGregor Elementary School on Edmore.

“That will be the future epicenter of the community,” he said.

The school had been abandoned for over 10 years before LifeBuilders bought the building and adjacent property it will turn into a park with sports fields, picnic pavilions and walking trails. Bringard-Boulder Park is scheduled to open June 10.

LifeBuilders also plans to renovate the closed school into a 16,000-square-foot Head Start facility and host its youth and senior programs — currently held in a former Harper Woods JPMorgan Chase bank branch — in the building.

The Johnsons are making good on a promise they made 12 years ago to invest in Regent Park. Instead of joining the ranks of suburbanites who criticized Detroit, the then-Grosse Pointe residents, who spent decades in the computer business, wanted to take action.

“We decided that we were going to give our lives to doing what we could do to make a difference in Detroit,” Larry said.

He and his wife started organizing Bible studies and church services in a former yoga studio on Kelly. Getting to know the families, Larry said they began to “share in their despair and hopelessness (they felt) as a result of all the blight that had encroached on their lives.”

“Somebody needed to do something about all this,” he added. “And rather than wait for somebody else to do it, we decided that we were going to take on this housing situation and see what we could do.”

They restored their first house on Kelly, buying it for under $20,000 with their savings. Then, they restored another on Eastburn. And another on Collingham. And renovated a 16-unit apartment complex on Kelly.

“As they saw us work here, many people decided that they were going to stay rather than move,” Larry said, “and see this to an end with the hope that the community would be restored to what it once was.”

Decades ago, Detroit police officers, firefighters, teachers and city workers occupied the 2,200 Regent Park homes bounded by Seven Mile, Eight Mile, Kelly and Gratiot. When a 1999 law lifted the requirement for city employees to live in Detroit, residents started packing boxes, Larry said. Then the real estate bubble burst in 2007, exacerbating the number of abandoned homes and foreclosures in the neighborhood.

“Twenty-five percent of the 2,200 homes in our area are in some state of abandonment,” Larry said.

The Johnsons picked Regent Park due its proximity to Grosse Pointe, thinking they’d easily enlist suburban volunteers.

“It didn’t work out as we thought,” Larry said. “People were fearful of coming here and working in the community.”

Eventually, that mentality shifted as the Johnsons moved to the neighborhood and changed the community one house — and person — at a time.

‘Bringing a lot peace’

Crouching on the ground, Kevin Marshall scraped paint off moldy walls in the former gang house on Eastburn. The 23-year-old Detroiter joined LifeBuilders at age 16. He’ll admit, the teen program enticed him with free McDonald’s gift cards.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come all the time,’ ” he laughed.

In the program led by Larry Johnson, Marshall said he gained mentors who were “there for you in a time of need.”

“They made us mature young men,” he added.

Now a LifeBuilders operations manager, he restores houses and does “a little bit of everything.”

“(They’re) bringing a lot peace in the neighborhood and a lot of hope,” he said. “I just wanted to be a part of that.”

Mona Sloan of Detroit felt the same draw. The 61-year-old met Marilyn Johnson at church in 2008.

“She’s my spiritual sister,” Sloan said. “When I came to Detroit, she helped me out a great deal.”

A part-time staffer, Sloan shuttles children in the LifeBuilders bus, mentors teen girls Monday nights and renovated the apartment complex she now lives in.

Over the last eight years, she’s watched the neighborhood transform.

“They’ve gotten rid of so many drug dealers and people squatting, and the renovated houses bring the community back up,” she said in the driver seat after dropping off 20 kids for LifeBuilders’ afterschool program. The youth program started with a few kids, she added. Now, it reaches hundreds, thanks to the Johnsons passing out fliers and talking to kids on the street.

“They give so much of themselves,” Sloan said. “I ask them all the time, ‘How the heck do you do it?’... They said, ‘We eat wheat germ and flaxseed, among other stuff.’ I started eating wheat germ and flaxseed. I’m not kidding.’ ”

Gentrifying Regent Park

Anyone who fills out an application and passes a criminal background check is eligible to rent a LifeBuilders home or apartment. Houses range from $700-$800 and apartments start at $550 a month. Most renters are low-income, but that’s quickly changing as rental rates rise downtown.

Native Detroiter Rosalind Adams, for instance, lives near Lafayette Park. She decided to move after receiving a notice her $1,050 monthly rent would be raised potentially hundreds of dollars to reflect market value rates.

“I work in the Renaissance Center, so (the location) was convenient for my job,” said Adams, 59. “But I’m not going to keep paying all this money just for convenience.”

Her brother moved into a LifeBuilders house after his rent increased, too, and he recommended she check out the neighborhood. After touring a bungalow on Carlisle, she signed the papers to move in June 1.

While she said she liked that LifeBuilders is “looking out for everybody in the community,” she’ll also get more for her buck.

“It has a fenced in back porch, a garage and I can barbecue,” she said of the $800 rental. “There’s a yard my grandkids can play in.”

This month, LifeBuilders will put its first home — a three-bedroom, one-bathroom — on the market starting at $65,000. It’s one step toward increasing real estate values in a neighborhood Marilyn Johnson said hasn’t seen for-sale signs in years.

Austin Black II, owner and broker of the real estate brokerage City Living Detroit, said he thinks the house will have a significant impact on stabilizing values and properties in the neighborhood. He gave an example of a house he put on the market in Fitzgerald — another neighborhood depressed since the Great Recession.

“I listed the home, and we saw a pretty vast increase, not only in the values in the neighborhood, but also we saw people that already lived in the neighborhood starting to fix up their homes,” he said.

Kresge Foundation Detroit Program officer Bryan Hogle said the foundation believes LifeBuilders will have a similar effect on the community.

In April, Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit awarded $75,000 to LifeBuilders for home renovations. The foundation also gave a $150,000 grant to the nonprofit last year to revitalize Bringer-Boulder Park. LifeBuilders represents two of 39 projects Kresge’s Detroit Program has funded the last three years.

Hogle himself has volunteered for cleanup projects and witnessed the Johnsons’ passion.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity for them to turn a place where there was a lot of crime and negativity activity going on that was a burden on the neighborhood, into a place that will be a center for community,” he said.

Down the road, the Johnsons hope to expand their work west toward Gratiot and reach a 98 percent home occupancy rate in Regent Park.

Regent Park isn’t Midtown, Marilyn Johnson stressed. And they don’t want it to be.

“We don’t have wonderful restaurants, we don’t have wonderful stores, we don’t have sports complexes. We’re just neighbors coming together,” she said.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see people from all walks ... working together, living together and liking each other. That’s wonderful gentrification. We didn’t plan that. It just happened.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

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