Pontiac was once the urban crown jewel of Oakland County. It was a hub of the automotive industry as well as an arts and entertainment destination.
After years of uncertainty, Pontiac has been taking the steps necessary to recover its luster, including the renovation of a historic building into LEED-certified trendy lofts with ground-floor retail, construction of world-class sports facilities like the Ultimate Soccer Arenas (the largest indoor soccer field in North America) and the Wessen Lawn Tennis Club (a grass court that could become a training site for tournaments like Wimbledon), and the opening of smaller, but no less important, community-focused businesses like the Artist Lounge.
A healthy downtown also needs healthy neighborhoods, and Community Housing Network is focused on the Unity Park neighborhood in southeastern Pontiac, east of Woodward and south of Auburn Road, to create a solid foundation.
“It’s a neighborhood that had quite a bit of investment from Lighthouse of Oakland County and Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” says Kirsten Elliott, Vice President of Development of Community Housing Network.” During that time these organizations rehabilitated some homes for ownership as well as rehabbed some owner-occupied homes and apartment buildings. But, Elliott explains, “The turn of the economy stopped all of that activity.”
In 2010 Unity Park was part of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, round 2, and the city of Pontiac worked with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) to utilize those funds. Community Housing Network was part of a cadre of developers that built 18 new homes for home ownership in Unity Park and demoed 52 more.
“As we were working in the neighborhood we noticed a strong sense of community there,” says Elliott. “It was identified as a tipping point neighborhood and there was still a lot of vacant land, so we designed our Unity Park Rental Phase 1.”
Using low income housing tax credits, CHN is building 32 new rental homes on vacant parcels of land scattered in between occupied homes in the neighborhood. Eight of these homes are designated as permanent supportive housing, and all 32 are lease-to-own at the end of the 15-year tax compliance period. (Elliott says occupants who choose to continue renting will not be forcibly displaced.)
“We are creating long-term investment in the community,” she says. “We are getting the neighborhood ready for long-term home ownership.”
The $9 million Phase 1 is nearing completion with 23 homes already built and occupied.
“We have a waiting list of over 200 people right now,” Elliott says. “We haven’t even done any marketing. People want to live in this neighborhood because of the stability of the neighborhood. Whole blocks have been redone. We specifically targeted vacant lots to build on [in order] to complete whole blocks and also create a mix [of residents].”
CHN has already submitted for Phase 2 tax credits that would build another 30 homes. They continue working with MSHDA on securing NSP funds with the hopes of building eight new homes for immediate ownership, as well as with their equity investor PNC Bank, the Oakland County Treasurer’s Office, Pontiac-based builder West Construction Services, and Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority, the agency providing support to the individuals in the supportive housing units so they can live independently.
In addition to the new construction homes, Community Housing Network has also built a community center where residents and community organizations can hold meetings, classes on nutrition and financial literacy, offer tutoring, and just get to know their neighbors.
“People have pride in where they live and want to get to know their neighbors, so we asked, ‘How can we help facilitate that and create opportunities to have those connections?’ That’s really important for a healthy community. You don’t see that as much anymore.”
CHN hired a community revitalization coordinator who works with all of the people in the neighborhood, not just their own tenants, asking what they need or want to see in their community. They started a community garden, hosted a Ford Volunteer work day to restore one of the community parks, created a community newsletter, are working with community leaders (like church pastors) to restore the once-strong neighborhood association, and are seeking resources for owner-occupied housing rehabilitation for those who already live in the neighborhood.
“We are deeply committed to this neighborhood beyond just building housing,” Elliott says. “We believe housing is the start. A lot of the revitalization efforts happening are concentrated on the core of downtown Pontiac. In order to have strong downtown core you have to have strong neighborhoods. We’re helping to build up those neighborhoods to be part of that holistic whole. It has to happen together, then build off of and leverage each other.”
She says that after the home ownership rate was decimated by the financial and housing crisis, this area is not going to see a flood of investors looking to own homes.
“We’re able to access federal resources and other types of subsidies to be able to create those opportunities,” she says. “Some are short-term, which will help increase property values, but the long-term is also important too.”
Elliott says Community Housing Network has looked at what Phase 3 would be, essentially expanding its footprint, and even a possible Phase 4 on the other side of Auburn. They would like to reach out to other developers about possible mixed-use development along Auburn into downtown Pontiac.
But for now, Elliott says, “We are completely honored to be part of this rebirth of Pontiac. There’s a lot happening, and from the mayor to city council, community leaders really have the best interests of the community in mind. It’s happening.”