Leaving Detroit's Delray: A family swaps homes for better life

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Grace Anderson gives daughter Emily, 7, a cooking tip in their Delray neighborhood home in Detroit.

Detroit — The roof sags and steps crumble on the forlorn yellow house in the blighted Delray neighborhood.

Gaping holes in the walls, a garage with missing doors and sidewalks filled with cracks expose years of neglect.

Robert Anderson knows this. 

The 34-year-old stares at the floor and shakes his head inside a grease-stained muffler shop on Fort Street near his house in southwest Detroit. Slowly wiping his hands across his grime-covered overalls, he begins:

“The house we're in needs a lot of repairs. I mean a lot of repairs, from the roof to the foundation, and I'm the one to get them done. But I'm working at this muffler shop six days a week, and there just isn't time."

Putting food on the table trumps repairs for the house built in 1901 still with the original walls in the kitchen, "which are cracked and all messed up.”

Anderson lived for five years in the cramped 900-square-foot house with his wife, Grace, four children, niece, nephew, whom they consider their kids, four cats and a dog. It is a galaxy away from Detroit's much-heralded rebirth.

But last week, their lives dramatically changed after they closed on a 1,600-square-foot home in Detroit's Morningside neighborhood on the east side. It’s not a new house, but it is to the Anderson family, who have lived in Delray most of their lives. The house was owned by the Detroit Land Bank and required work before it was ready to be inhabited.

"It is amazing," Anderson said. "The kids are ecstatic, and we already started putting some things up on the wall."

The Andersons participated in a voluntary house-swap program launched in June 2017. No money exchanges hands. It's a deed-to-deed transaction, explains Bridging Neighborhoods program director Heather Zygmontowicz.

And it is just for those Delray residents who meet certain criteria and want to leave while construction on the nearby $5.7 billion, six-lane Gordie Howe International Bridge continues. When completed, estimated to be by the end of 2024, it will be the largest cable-stayed bridge in North America.

The Canadian government put in $32.6 million for the relocation program in Delray. So far, it's had 21 agreements, and four other families have moved, Zygmontowicz said.

"We're excited to keep residents in the city of Detroit because if they do decide to move, we've kept one more family here," she said.

The home-swap program involves families not in the direct path of the bridge construction. Nearly 350 parcels of land were acquired on the U.S. side of the project by the Michigan Department of Transportation through funds provided by the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority.

The program's budget is $65,000-$75,000 per home renovation. This does not include a $700 stipend for moving expenses. Zygmontowicz said the money used in the renovation budget for the Detroit Land Bank homes comes from the Bridging Neighborhoods program.

"We undertake full-gut rehabs, so the house is literally taken from vacant and blighted, and the (Bridging Neighborhoods) dollars make it a move-in ready home," she said. 

The homes left behind in Delray are boarded up and eventually demolished, she said.

Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority spokesman Mark Butler noted there is no comparable relocation program on the Windsor side of the bridge.

Arthur Jemison, Detroit’s chief of services and infrastructure, said he believes more residents will eventually participate in the home-swap program.

"When it gets going great guns, people will start thinking maybe they will take advantage of it," he said. "One of the main points is that they have a choice, which, at one time, they felt they did not have."

Robert Anderson is pleased with the program, saying he was "ready to go."

Asked whether he will miss the area where relatives on both sides of their family still live, he does not hesitate.

"Most of the houses here are in bad shape, and people can't afford the repairs," said Anderson, who has lived in the area since he was a child and met his wife ice skating at nearby Clark Park when she was 11 and he was 13. "These houses wouldn't sell for anything, so to get something better is a blessing to me."

Robert Anderson arrives Saturday at his new home in Detroit's Morningside neighborhood on the east side after a day's work as manager of Reliable Muffler & Brakes in Delray.

'I'm at home here'

The Andersons’ new brick home features a new round, white door, three new large windows on the first floor in the front and two new upstairs windows facing the front. The solid gray roof matches the gray painted porch.

Inside, the color scheme is soft gray and white. The gray carpeting matches the gray walls, and a white chandelier hangs over the dining room table. Black garbage bags are taped to the windows for privacy until the curtains go up.

On Saturday evening, Grace Anderson is in the open kitchen, preparing pork chops, green beans and barbecue noodles. Some of the children play a video game in the living room while others monitor their phones or sit around the dining room table.

When their dad arrives home from work, he removes his shoes before stepping onto the new carpet, greets the family and grabs a 2-liter bottle of pop from the refrigerator.

Robert Anderson proudly shows off the congratulatory letter from Mayor Mike Duggan with a photo of their new house that he placed in a glass frame to be mounted on the wall.

Asked how he feels about providing a new home for his family, Anderson smiles.

“Happy and excited because of the looks on my kids' faces when they first walked inside,” he said. “I would do it 100 times over just to see those smiles.”

In the new neighborhood, the streets are wider and many of the houses are solid brick. Although there are spots where vacant houses remain, it appears to be well-maintained.

And it’s quiet, compared with where they lived in Delray.

“We’re used to hearing trains all night, so this takes getting used to,” Robert Anderson said.

Grace Anderson said she feels it is a much better environment for her children.

“One of the best things is they can go right out the side door and the school is right there behind our house,” she said.

Ricardo Jimenez, 15, in the ninth grade, said his new house is much better than the old one.

“I feel like I’m at home here,” he said.

The Anderson family proudly poses in their new dining room with a framed letter from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan congratulating them on their new Bridging Neighborhoods home. From left, niece Laura Jimenez, 16, Robert, 9, Faith, 11, Shashana Gutierrez, 14, mother Grace, 32, father Robert, 34, Emily, 7, and nephew Ricardo Jimenez, 15.

Neighborhood in transition

Delray, one of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods, near Zug Island, is marked with burned-out houses, vacant lots and overgrown fields. The 48209 ZIP code was once a gang stronghold. It has a median income of $27,811, and 43 percent of the residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Constañeda-López, who represents District 6, which includes Delray, attributes the neighborhood's deterioration to "decades of disinvestment in Detroit."

"The roads were not maintained, there were empty lots, and then people started moving out with the first mention of the bridge years ago," she said. "Folks who could leave left, and some chose to stay."

Constañeda-López, who voted in favor of the Bridging Neighborhoods program, said that when talk of a new bridge began at least 15 years ago, southwest Detroit residents came together to discuss possible benefits, which evolved into a community advisory group.

"The group was one of the results of negotiation around community benefits," she said. "The intent and original design was great for residents outside of the plaza footprint. It was created for families stuck there with no options. They then would be able to relocate to another part of the city, which would be healthier, cleaner and safer."

But she takes issue that the only houses available for swap are land-bank houses.

“There are not enough land-bank properties where people actually want to live,” she said. “Some people have two, three or more kids, and the land-bank houses usually are small. So I think some people are not applying because the houses don’t meet their needs.”

She added: “All of the houses need work, including some being completely gutted. People also are coming from a tight-knit community and want to have that same sense of community.”

The family of eight lived in this 1901 home  on Melville in the Delray neighborhood of southwest Detroit. “The house we're in needs a lot of repairs," said Robert Anderson. "I mean a lot of repairs, from the roof to the foundation, and I'm the one to get them done. But I'm working at this muffler shop six days a week, and there just isn't time."

The eight Andersons left behind a three-bedroom home and moved into a home with two bedrooms that potentially has space for a third.

Grace Anderson said she initially hesitated on the swap.

"When we got this house, I was so excited," she said of the Delray house while sitting inside the muffler shop her husband manages and where she works as a secretary. She spoke animatedly, gesturing with her bright blue manicured nails. “But we’re surrounded by railroad tracks on both sides, and if there’s a medical emergency, it’s difficult for the ambulance to get to us.”

She said what she’ll miss most is the proximity to her parents.

“They’re getting up in age,” she said. “But I feel all right about leaving, I guess. It’s different.”

What else will she miss?

“Not a thing,” she said.

Grace, who has the names of the six kids tattooed on both ankles, emphasized several times that the children come first.

"I wanted to move to have a different environment for my kids," she said. "When I looked at the new community where we're going, my first thought was, will they be happy? I never think of myself. I always think of my kids first."

Her husband said he won’t miss anything either, especially since he’ll continue managing the muffler shop in the heart of Delray.

Shashana Gutierrez,14, and her brother Robert 'Chuncky' Anderson, 9, play video games in the parents' bedroom.

No deadline for program

Zygmontowicz hopes other residents will seize the opportunity for a fresh start.

The program was created based on a rough estimate of about 60 percent, or 220, of owner-occupied homes relocating, Zygmontowicz said.

"Currently, it's tough to say if that number will be realized or not, as it is expected that increasing bridge construction will be a fact driving households to enroll," Zygmontowicz said.

There is no formal deadline to be met because these homes are outside the bridge's footprint. She said officials indicated three to five years as a baseline but notes residents are informed that the actual deadline is after the funding is fully utilized.

"There's no date set in stone," she said. "Only an estimate as to how long it will take to execute the program if the allocated households all elect to take part." Residents must meet certain criteria before considering relocating.

"They must be owner-occupants to their properties in order to participate," said Zygmontowicz. "Homeowners are required to be up to date on their taxes, and if not current on their water bill, at least in a payment plan."

She said this is to ensure their property is not subject to a lien, "causing other parties to have a legal interest in their home.”

Participants also are required to stay in their new homes at least three years.

"If a home-swap participant chooses to sell their home within three years, they may be subject to a deed restriction requiring partial payback of any profits to the city," she said.

Robert Anderson, 34, explains to his wife Grace, 32, how he fixed the heating system on her van as daughter Emily, 7, listens.

One lifelong Delray resident who moved to the Warrendale neighborhood into a 983-square-foot home before Christmas is glad she left.

“I love it,” said Maria Walkenbach, 59. “I feel like I’ve already lived here for years.”

And while residents decide to pull up stakes or stay, construction on the bridge progresses.

"Significant activity on both sides of the border will continue during 2019," said Butler of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority.

Butler said activities include the advancement of the design to construction-ready, utility surveys and relocations, site clearing, pre-construction activities, installation of test piles and other geotechnical exploration for the bridge foundation "to test for soil conditions."

On the U.S. side, work continues on the Interstate 75 interchange as well as sewer and siphon work.

To learn more about the home-swap program and to view available properties, visit www.bridgingneighborhoods.org.