One woman’s tale of two Detroits

Sarah Alvarez
Special to The Detroit News

Dawn Wilson-Clark talks a lot about what she calls “the two Detroits.” One Detroit is where she lives. The place where the two most reliable pathways to the American dream — education and homeownership — are so clogged with obstacles it is almost impossible for a family like hers to actually find financial stability.

The other Detroit is the one sold to outsiders as the perfect refuge for gritty dreamers.

Wilson-Clark has done her best to organize and push her family and neighbors into that second Detroit. Professionally, her battle has been fighting for higher quality public education in Detroit. It’s a fight where she’s had some success. Personally, the battle has been for affordable homeownership in the city. On that front, she hasn’t done as well.

The Army veteran was working as a professional clown when her drive to get a good education for her five young children led her to be recruited as a full-time education advocate at Detroit’s 482Forward. The children were enrolled and driven to 22 different schools to compensate for school closures and poor performance.

Molly Sweney, the organizing director at 482Forward who has worked with Wilson-Clark since 2013, described her colleague.

“When we found Dawn it was because of her work in her neighborhood,” Sweney said. “Everyone told us, ‘You have to talk to Dawn if you’re talking about education.’ Of all the parents we met she was one of the most determined. ... She has done everything possible to make a difference for her children and for her neighborhood.”

Wilson-Clark was active in the efforts leading to the abolition of the Education Achievement Authority and the return of an elected school board in Detroit. Her emphasis for education has influenced her oldest son to build a career in urban agriculture and her next oldest daughter is off to college this year.

But when it comes to her own chances for opportunity and financial stability, Wilson-Clark refers to one of her favorite “two Detroit” stories.

It starts with a recent trip she and her husband Jonathon made to housing court for what she is pretty sure is the 33rd or 34th time in a continuing fight with their landlord over the years about home repairs.

The trip was demoralizing. Although the landlord would finally have to replace their carpet, the couple was ordered to pay a few hundred dollars in court costs. Financially, it was a draw. But Johnathon was fed up.

“He was like, ‘F--- Detroit, we’re leaving!’ ” Dawn said. “Then when we get home we see this video on YouTube called, ‘Ten cities that will pay you to move there!’ ” She pauses for dramatic effect although it’s clear where the story is going. “Detroit is at the top of the list!” she yells.

“If you’re moving here you can get grants or tax credits or stuff like that,” she continues. “If you’re here already, you’re not getting anything.”

Wilson-Clark moved to Brightmoor 17 years ago, following a friend to a new rent-to-own 50-home development in the edgier neighborhood from the more stable northwest side of the city.

“I wanted to be a part of the change,” Wilson-Clark said. “I thought in 10 years this neighborhood is going to be different, and I’m going to be a part of it.”

The rent-to-own program has yet to convert any of its tenants into homeowners.

Wilson-Clark said that in the 17 years, she has paid more than $110,000 in rent for her modest three-bedroom house though the average house in her neighborhood sells for less than a quarter that amount. The friend who moved to Brightmoor with her left for the suburbs years ago, and Wilson-Clark is still seeking answers about why the program failed and why she is not a homeowner.

“I just want somebody to be held accountable,” she said. “What’s wrong is wrong and what’s right is right. And I want what’s right.”

When she moved in, Wilson-Clark understood she would start out renting and move into homeownership over time.

Wilson-Clark, like other residents, was following a dream of homeownership proposed by a nonprofit developer called Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development (NDND) and supported by the Low Income Support Corp. (LISC), a national organization that brought investors into the deal. The homes were financed with a mix of federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits backed by the state and city along with traditional bank financing.

Looking back, Wilson-Clark admits the details of the program were vague, but at the time, she had no doubts. Yet, the homes were never turned over.

John O’Brien, the former CEO of NDND said: “The goal was better quality housing obviously. But, it also was aimed at working toward an affordable home ownership model.”

O’Brien said the situation “ended up being a real fiasco.”

“There was no way to foretell the 2008 collapse and the complexity,” he said. “It’s become a lot more complicated than we wanted to pursue.”

The developer was hoping the housing market in Detroit would get stronger and at the end of the 15-year rental term Wilson-Clark would be able to get a mortgage and pay off any remaining debt on the home.

But that remaining debt would prove significant. A regulatory agreement between the state and the developer requires tenants to be responsible for a proportionate share of all the debt left on the entire project when they try to purchase their homes. A few months ago and with the help of a lawyer Wilson-Clark learned that her share amounted to $59,000, meaning she would end up paying about $170,000 for the home.

“That price for Brightmoor!” says Wilson-Clark as she rolls her eyes.

Tenants were never told the details of the funding formulas or how tenants would get no preferential treatment when trying to buy their homes, Wilson-Clark said.

“If I would have known that,” says Wilson Clark, “there is no way I would have endured all of this!”

Joe Heaphy, president of Detroit based development firm Ethos Development Partners, said that while the project seemed like a good idea at the time, “Let’s just say I don’t think that project would ever happen today.”

Andrew Martin, director of development at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority who monitors affordable housing developments, saw some positives in the Brightmoor project.

“The idea of this program was that there was a potential for homeownership,” he said. “And there is still that potential.” Even if none of those homes end up being sold to the original renters, Martin said the fact that they are stable and well maintained benefits the community.

“We view that as a success,” he said. Even so, the state no longer uses that tax-credit program to support similar developments.

Officials at the city Department of Housing and Revitalization said they are working with NDND “to preserve the units as affordable as well as provide affordable homeownership opportunities to tenants where feasible.”

Wilson-Clark said she’s been hearing that for years and doesn’t believe the city really wants to deal with the homeownership crisis for lower income families like hers and refers back to the two Detroit scenario.

While she thinks the city should be applauding her for her investment in the home, she said she’s continually being drawn into landlord-tenant court for basic disputes. During one recent appearance when she brought up the rent-to-own deal, the judge said: “You could have chosen to move but you stayed.”

Wilson-Clark said she hears that kind of thing “all the time.” In her mind, the fact that she hasn’t left Brightmoor or Detroit is what makes her valuable to this city. Instead, Wilson-Clark feels like she’s being called a fool for staying.

“I love my neighborhood,” she says. “I live right down the street from my church and all of my children’s birthdays have been in that house! ... I got married in the community butterfly garden I helped plant with my daughters!”

“The city owes her a chance at homeownership and a piece of the city coming back,” Sweney said. “Most people don’t have the determination she has to stick it out this long.

“I wish the city would understand that she is an asset and you will lose her. If you can’t keep a family like Dawn’s you can’t keep this city going.”