Pastor lifts Detroit neighborhood, rebuilding blocks, one home at a time

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — A decade ago, the stretch of homes along Santa Rosa near Puritan was in rough shape: some houses were boarded up while others were open to the elements, most inviting unsavory activity.

Around the corner, Arric Wilkerson, pastor of Up from the World Ministries on Puritan, wanted to do something about the squatters and drug dealers that were drawn to the derelict block.

Daija Harris, 28, in front of her home on Santa Rosa in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit this month. Members of Up From the World Ministries, a church in the neighborhood, have been methodically rehabbing and occupying a two square block collection of houses in the neighborhood.

“Because we were driving through this community on a daily basis, we saw these homes that were abandoned and some of them were empty and some of them had squatters in them ...” Wilkerson said. "We started renovating them one at a time."

The church bought and fixed up nearly 25 homes, at a cost of about $25,000 each for the renovations, and 15 lots in a two-block area on Santa Rosa and Stoepe. Crews worked on them, lot by lot. A decade later, they've nearly completed the mission.

Pastor Arric Wilkersonon stands in a communal back yard of a series of rehabbed houses on Santa Rosa in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit in February. His team has refurbished some 25 homes.

Before beginning the project, Wilkerson said he asked members of the church if some of them would be willing to move to the community. The ministry set the rents for the homes at $500 a month as an incentive. Some took advantage of the offer, cutting their rent payments in half.

“We give them homes that have been renovated from the top to the bottom,” Wilkerson said. “They’re really nice homes. It’s not like we’re just throwing them together. We’re putting them together really nicely.”

The church bought the homes and lots from the city or from private owners. Some of the worse structures were priced as low as $500 and the lots were $100, he said.

A placard of the "Up From The World Ministries Properties" organization sits on a house on Santa Rosa.

Wilkerson said the project is financially manageable because the homes are paid for and the congregation raised the money to renovate the houses, which leaves only the bill for property taxes.

No government financial incentives, were involved, Wilkerson said.

“Instead of taking the money to the bank every Monday morning, we would bring it to the block …” he said. “It really wasn’t about making money. It was about restoring this community.”

Officials with the Detroit Land Bank Authority commended Wilkerson and the church for their efforts. The church is a participant in the Land Bank's community partner program.

Work crews rehabilitate houses in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit and find renters interested in moving into the neighborhood. “We give them homes that have been renovated from the top to the bottom,” said Pastor Arric Wilkerson of Up from the World Ministries on Puritan.

"It's transformed the neighborhood," said Karla Marshall, manager of economic development and community partners for the Land Bank. "This is a very large footprint. This is how we get the neighborhoods transformed.

"If people could step up like he has, this would make big difference in the areas outside of downtown — Midtown, where you're seeing all the development, those areas where they're left to fend for themselves. It's only up to themselves to transform their own areas, and I think this is excellent work." 

Wilkerson started with the first home in 2010 and did the rehabs moving south on the block, even replacing fencing.

During years of neglect, the houses had been gutted, with kitchens and bathroom fixtures, furnaces and hot water tanks removed. Most of the houses needed new doors, windows, vinyl siding and porches. The structures were solid, though, Wilkerson said.

“When you look at a house like that, you go in the basement and look at the foundation," he said. "If the foundation is good, then you can restore the house.”

On a recent winter day, Wilkerson walked through one of the last three houses the church is renovating. Work had begun in updating the kitchen with new cabinetry and a change in layout. To-do list items included refinishing hardwood floors, repairing the porch and replacing vinyl siding. 

Pastor Arric Wilkersonon in a rehabbed house on Santa Rosa.

Daija Harris and her husband moved their four children moved into one of the renovated homes in October. Her home, like others owned by the church, has a small placard that reads: "Bringing the Neighbor Back to the Hood."

“I love it because everything is family oriented,” said Harris, 28, said adding that her mother has lived on the street for about five years.

Harris said she had lived in a two-bedroom townhouse in downtown Detroit, cramped quarters for a family of six. Their home has five bedrooms.

“We love it,” she said. “We’ve got so much space. Everything is just perfect, to be honest. It’s more than you could ask for.”

Deon Sykes has lived on Santa Rosa for nearly 25 years. He said he remembers a time when the block had only about 10 family-occupied houses.

“The rest of the block was empty or had abandoned houses, and my son wanted us to move because there were no kids on the block,” he said. “Now, things are back to the old neighborhood. You have all kinds of professional people living on the block. We got kids running up and down the street. It’s beautiful. It’s a neighborhood now. People actually look out for each other.”

Three rehabbed houses on Santa Rosa.

A few abandoned homes remain on nearby Pilgrim. According to the Land Bank, one of the structures is slated for demolition; another will be sold through its Own It Now platform within the next few months. 

Wilkerson said he's nearly completed with the work he set out to do. He said he expects the house they're working on to be finished next month for a family already waiting to move in. He also has plans in summer 2021 to create a park on Stoepel, which is mostly lots. 

"When we drive through, we’re not looking at that blight like we were before, so all the drugs are gone, all of the activity that comes with distributing drugs, all that’s gone from these two blocks," he said. "It turned out to be a worthwhile venture.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN