Newly opened Freelon apartments offers affordable housing for veterans in Midtown

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Midtown's newest apartment complex opened its doors Thursday, bringing nearly 70 new units to the historic Sugar Hill district, including affordable housing for veterans.

The $38 million mixed-used and mixed-income development Freelon at Sugar Hill was built in a vacant lot across the street from the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center and offers 14 affordable housing units for people in the Veterans Administration Supportive Housing program for homeless veterans.

"We're going to provide housing for homeless veterans and they're going to be in close proximity to where they get their services," said Donald Rencher, group executive of Detroit Planning, Housing and Development.

A studio apartment is fully furnished as seen during a tour of the Freelon at Sugar Hill as 14 of the 68 units are for veterans. The building is named after prominent Black architect Phil Freelon, and was one of the last projects he worked on before his passing in 2019.

In 2021 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that Michigan has about 495 sheltered homeless veterans, or those staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing and other similar programs, on a single night in January. While veterans make up roughly 5% of Michigan's population, according to the 2020 Census, 11-14% of sheltered homeless adults in the state are veterans.

Veterans won't spend more than 30% of their adjusted income on rent, and all veteran apartment units at the Freelon come fully furnished and were designed according to best practices in trauma-informed design by the Interior Designers Coalition for Change.

"That really helps people feel very welcome," said Julie Degraaf, vice president with nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, a co-developer of the Freelon, of the trauma-informed design approach. "Most importantly, it is just to create a warm and welcome space. ... Many of the veterans won't come with their own furniture and they'll actually be able to take this furniture with them if they decide to move."

Trauma-informed design practices can include using warm colors and imagery, blackout curtains to help with light sensitivities and sound buffers to block out loud noises, Degraaf said.

The Freelon has affordable housing units for non-veterans as well. Six of the 68 total units are earmarked as affordable housing for individuals making 30-80% of the average median income (AMI). Detroit At-Large Councilmember Mary Waters said she "absolutely loves that."

"We want to see more AMIs 30 to 50%," Waters said. "We have to look at income-based housing in this city and we have to do that so that we include everyone."

Sonya Mays (from left), president and CEO of Develop Detroit, Nnenna Freelon, wife of architect Phil Freelon, Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and Detroit At-Large Councilwoman Mary Waters cut the ribbon for the Freelon at Sugar Hill.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said the council is "laser focused" on projects like the Freelon, which include people in the very low to the extremely low-income range and are "honoring the true essence of what affordable housing is."

The development is named after Phil Freelon, a prominent Black architect who designed the Detroit development shortly before he died in 2019 from ALS. Freelon's other notable works include the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington and Atlanta's National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Sonya Mays, president and CEO of Develop Detroit and co-developer of the Freelon, said she has always been inspired by Freelon and his wife Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer.

"He (Freelon) wanted building design to be of its place and of its time," Mays said. "And to have a reference back to the culture that is specific and special about that location ... that was Phil's statement on what he thought was necessary or possible with this development. I do think we accomplished that here. I hope that he would agree."

The Sugar Hill neighborhood was known for its thriving entertainment scene until the 1960s and was home to many Black-owned businesses. The entire neighborhood was declared a national and local historic district in 2002.

Nnenna Freelon said her late husband would be very proud of the project in Sugar Hill. Developments like the Freelon that integrate different kinds of people don't happen everywhere, she said.

"My husband was a dream builder," Freelon said. "Before we got the contract signed and the ink dried, before we agreed on concrete and steel and other materials, there were dreams. Dreams that included the least of us. Dreams that included those who do not have a roof over their heads."

Nnenna Freelon, wife of architect Phil Freelon, speaks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Freelon at Sugar Hill.

The Freelon contains 11,900 square feet of retail space, a 160-space parking structure open to residents and the public and new businesses, including a coffee shop. There's also a green alleyway outdoor space adjacent to the building. The outdoor space was developed with Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit that supports economic development in Midtown. The public parking and green space will help support other small businesses in the neighborhood, said Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.

Funding for the project includes a mix of public-private partnerships including from the City of Detroit $2 million in HOME dollars, $2.4 million in community development block grants and a $6.7 million Section 108 loan for the parking structure. The project also received from the state $4 million from Community Revitalization Program and $2.25 million in Michigan Brownfield Tax Credits. 

Other funding includes: $9.8 million in New Market Tax Credit equity from PNC Bank, raised through NMTC allocations from Building America CDE Inc., Michigan Community Capital, Cinnaire and PNC Bank.

Financing includes a $4 million first mortgage from PNC Bank, $5 million through Prudential Financial and $300,000 in social impact financing from the Quicken Loans Community Fund.