Saint Rita apartments reopen for veterans, homeless in Detroit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — For years vacant and uninhabitable, the Saint Rita apartments in the North End neighborhood is now set to provide permanent housing to homeless Detroiters.

And that is just the beginning for one Midtown nonprofit.

On Wednesday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Central City Integrated Health Inc., a Midtown group that provides primary health care in efforts to improve health disparities, marked the reopening of the 1916-built, six-story Georgian Revival red brick apartment building at 35 Owen St. just off Woodward Avenue.

The $7.2 million redevelopment project has created 26 one-bedroom, 750-square-feet affordable apartments for veterans, homeless individuals and Detroiters with special needs. It is another milestone as the city of Detroit moves toward a permanent supportive housing model for homeless people, Duggan said.

"On any given night, there is enough shelter beds for anyone on the street," Duggan said. "But what a shelter does is keep you warm and safe for the night and puts you back on the street the next day. It's not a solution for changing your life. ... Let's move them into a center where you've got your own key, you've got your own place."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, left, and resident Jonathon Fisher, right, stand in Fisher's future living room at the Saint Rita Apartments. He is a former U.S. Air Force Crew Chief with the Tactical Air Command.

For 32 hours a week, a Central City staffer will be on site to create community in the Saint Rita residence and connect residents with continuing educational, career, medical and counseling resources as needed.

"The population we serve are very vulnerable, folks who may have experienced homelessness, folks who may be having behavioral health, sometimes there is substance abuse issues," said Curtis Smith, Central City's chief housing development officer. "It's designed to provide a support mechanism to keep people housed. We want people to be the best to be."

And for the residents, moving in means being able to resume living their lives, said Nathaniel Smith, a 60-year-old, six-year U.S. Army veteran with an autoimmune disease who was connected to project nonprofit Volunteers of America.

"It's being independent again," he said of his new home. "It's having your own place again. It's important."

Apartments are furnished with stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors and granite countertops. The building also has a community room, computer lab, library and common laundry room.

"They're beautiful," said Jonathon Fisher, 52, a 10-year U.S. Air Force veteran who has been staying in temporary housing with the Michigan Veterans Foundation. "It's been a long time since I've had my own place. I'm so thankful."

Central City plans to continue its efforts to provide affordable housing, CEO Ryan Lepper said. It is looking to make further investments in the North End neighborhood, and Lepper announced its next project is an approximately $5 million redevelopment of the 70-unit Peterboro Place at 8 Peterboro St. about three blocks from Little Caesars Arena in Midtown.

Lepper said the affordable housing project is an attempt at "reverse gentrification."

"It's where developers are buying and building high-end property and people are being shifted out," Lepper said. "We're going to re-do those 70 units, but we're not going to tell them to leave. We're going to invite them back into their units."

The Saint Rita redevelopment received $5.5 million in low-income housing and historic tax credits from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The city of Detroit's home funds contributed $1.5 million and the Home Depot Foundation gave $250,000. Central City contributed $176,638.

The group bought the Saint Rita apartments in 2015 and construction began in 2017.

The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is recognizable by terra cotta ornamentation along its roofline, began as 24 luxury apartments but were converted into subsidized housing by 1990. The building closed in 2005, and a fire damaged the interior shortly thereafter. The city placed it on the demolition list in 2008.

The Rev. Jim Holly of nearby Little Rock Baptist Church brought the building to Duggan's attention, concerned about safety for children walking by. An assessor found the building to be structurally sound, and the idea for it become the next permanent supportive housing project was raised.

"We felt like it was going to be a hopeless situation," said Holly, who hopes to minister to the residents. "This is going to be a big spark for this community, North End."

Central City also opened permanent supportive housing at the Charlotte apartments at 644 Charlotte St. near the Masonic Temple in Midtown. That project garnered national attention and a visit from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

"Ben Carson came and told us that was arguably the nicest affordable housing in the country," Lepper said. "This building puts that one to shame."