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Detroit — Maria Walkenbach was born in southwest Detroit and lived in the Delray neighborhood her entire life, but when the opportunity arose to leave her beloved home behind this year, she was the first to shoot her hand in the air. 

Ever since the Gordie Howe International Bridge project broke ground in July, Walkenbach said she was making frequent trips to the emergency room to treat her asthma from increased air pollution.

Walkenbach, 59, is among the first to close on a home as part of the city’s Bridging Neighborhoods home-swap program. Her newly renovated, 983-square-foot home is at Ashton and Whitlock in the city's Warrendale neighborhood. The program relocates residents affected by the Gordie Howe bridge to homes in Detroit in exchange for their Delray properties.

Walkenbach celebrated her three-bedroom home Wednesday with her new neighbors and said she can't wait to host Christmas with her son and three grandchildren without worrying about a leaking roof or rats.  

"My grandkids, (ages 2, 4 and 7) are excited to come tomorrow and stay at grandma's house for once," Walkenbach said. "I'm thankful my asthma won't kick in anymore, getting away from all the construction from the trucks on the freeway, and it's going to be nice to get away from the rats."

Walkenbach is a widow and a licensed foster parent. She said her former two-bedroom Delray home was falling apart and couldn't afford to fix it or move.

"My home was probably worth $4,000 at most. To get a brand new home like this for free ... it's indescribable. I can't understand why more people don't do this," she said. "This place is absolutely, positively gorgeous. I can't wait to start decorating, join the gardening club. ... I'm even excited to shovel snow, but especially excited for that additional bedroom to hopefully house more foster children." 

She was among the many surrounding residents in Detroit and Windsor who are concerned about truck traffic, congestion, noise and pollution associated with the bridge project.

The Bridging Neighborhoods Program, approved by the City Council in July 2017, administers the home swap and Interstate 75 environmental mitigation to relocate Delray residents in new homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank throughout the city.

The program is funded to relocate 220 households at a cost of $32.6 million, which is paid for by the city, state of Michigan and Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority, said Heather Zygmontowicz, director of the Bridging Neighborhoods Program.

"There have been so many promises that have been made to the residents of Delray in the past 40 years that haven't come, so we're excited not only to have this program to keep people in the city of Detroit, but to truly deliver on a promise that was made to them," Zygmontowicz said. 

Walkenbach is one of the first three to close on a new home this month. Zygmontowicz said they have 20 people signed up and another 25 residents are still looking into the program. The program is only available to Delray residents who are homeowners and pay their taxes. 

"We don't want people to get to their new homes and be subject to foreclosure. We really want to know when they're coming in that they're going to be here for a while," Zygmontowicz said. "We swap deed for deed and all she'll have to do is pay her taxes."

As for her old home in Delray, it will be demolished. 

"I don't think the entire area of Delray will ever be moved at all. It really is optional," Zygmontowicz said. "We knocked on every single door in the area, and there are plenty of people who say they're happy to stay there and others say 'I'm going to die here,' and that's absolutely what they're willing to do."

Clois Foster, one of the Warrendale community leaders, arrived Wednesday to welcome Walkenbach to the neighborhood and give some gardening tips. 

"Maria came in May for our Motor City Makeover before she was even a resident here, and we knew she'd be a great addition to our community, which has seen lots of change over the last 20 years," said Foster, 61, and resident since 1991.

"Lots of seniors and family live here, and we're happy to welcome people into our neighborhood."

srahal@detroitnews.com
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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