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Attention Would-Be Urban Homesteaders: Think Before You Buy

Attention Would-Be Urban Homesteaders: Think Before You Buy

By Gordon Young

The national media, no doubt conditioned by the exorbitant cost of living on the two coasts, loves tales of houses in flyover country selling for the price of a crappy used car and the plucky urban homesteaders who buy them. So does the public. A recent BuzzFeed story by Drew Philip about his Herculean efforts to restore a $500 house in Detroit attracted more than 1.4 million views. “The city is filled with these structures, houses whose yellowy eyes seem to follow you,” Philip wrote. “It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home.”

civicpark

Photo courtesy of the author.

Commendable? You bet. Inspiring? Absolutely. But Philip’s reclamation project should also serve as a warning for anyone who has ever fantasized about snapping up a house on eBay for three figures in a Rust Belt city like Cleveland, Youngstown, or Saginaw. It’s easy to envision yourself in a pair of Carhartts and a flannel shirt sanding hardwood floors, modernizing the kitchen, and planting apple trees in the front yard. But as Philip illustrates, you should also be prepared for the less savory tasks, like spending frigid winters without heat, removing every imaginable form of debris (including “literal piles of human shit”), buying a shotgun, and being prepared to use it.

If you’re not financially stable, committed to years of hard work, and willing to deal with the frustrations that come with life in a city that used to build things, your psyche and your bank account will take a big hit. And you might end up hurting the very place you were trying to help when you call it quits and walk away.

I found this out for myself when I returned to my hometown of Flint, Michigan, to buy a house in the summer of 2009 after living in San Francisco for more than a decade. The chance to rediscover a simpler life and help spur the revival of America’s industrial heartland pulled me like a magnet back to the Vehicle City. I longed to escape a toxic mortgage and do my part to help the town where four generations of my family lived, and I enjoyed a happy childhood in the seventies and eighties, despite Flint’s socio-economic swan dive. But my three-year quest, fueled by good intentions, nostalgia, and delusional thinking, didn’t go quite as planned.

It’s easy to envision yourself in a pair of Carhartts and a flannel shirt sanding hardwood floors, modernizing the kitchen, and planting apple trees in the front yard.

I quickly discovered that you get what you pay for, even in Flint. The city is infamous for crime and blight. It’s labeled the most dangerous city in America, based on FBI statistics, and approximately one-third is abandoned. Michael Moore’s unexpectedly popular documentary Roger & Me chronicled the devastating impact of General Motors layoffs on the city. But that doesn’t mean there are no vibrant, well-maintained neighborhoods. Areas like Mott Park and Woodcroft Estates have great houses ranging from the quaint to the palatial. A friend in Flint recently bought a Cape Cod in the sylvan College Cultural area. It’s a handsome, 75-year-old wood-shingled specimen with five bedrooms, three full baths, and a paneled library where Sherlock Holmes would feel comfortable. Birch trees dot the backyard. The price? Just $70,000, a steal by big-city standards, but hardly the stuff of pocket-change dreams.

In more humble neighborhoods, homes have inevitably been feasted upon by scrappers in search of any metal they can sell. Strips of aluminum siding have been peeled off, copper plumbing and wiring ripped out, water heaters and fixtures absconded with. Even doorknobs aren’t safe. Materials and labor for home improvement projects are market rate, so the cost of restoring a run-down American Foursquare in a struggling area is comparable to fixing one up in a more prosperous location. If you don’t have serious do-it-yourself skills, you could go broke fast. A few replacement windows could easily top the purchase price of a house.

Sherman McCathern, pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church in Civic Park, is on the front line of the rebuilding in his the neighborhood.

Sherman McCathern, pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church in Civic Park, is on the front line of the rebuilding in his neighborhood. Courtesy of author.

Oh, don’t forget that trying to fix up the house while living somewhere else is a bad idea. An unguarded house in the process of restoration is the dream of enterprising scrappers. Once you start major repairs, you better be camping inside or living nearby. A part-time vanity project this ain’t.

Then there are the hidden costs and drawbacks of owning a fixer-upper in a depopulating city with double-digit unemployment. Taxes and fees are higher to offset declining local revenues. Detroit, for example, has the highest property taxes in the country. And Flint’s emergency manager—granted control of the city by the governor to deal with a burgeoning budget deficit—recently hiked water, sewer, and garbage collection rates, and imposed a new fee to pay for streetlights. Home and auto insurance policies also tend to be more expensive. The same goes for utilities.

The prospect of these low-cost houses appreciating in value anytime soon is hardly a sure thing. These are often older residences with small rooms and a single bath. Local schools are underfunded and underperforming. Municipal and state budget cuts result in reduced city services like police and fire protection. Sure, you could get lucky and land in a neighborhood that stages a turnaround, but if you expect to resell at a profit after lovingly restoring your home, a trip to Vegas may be a better bet. I hear blackjack has the best odds.

It took me a few years of fruitless house hunting, back-of-the-envelope financial calculations, and some real soul searching to realize that I had no business purchasing a house in Flint. 

Thankfully, cities recognize that the purchase price is just the first step in transforming an abandoned house into a real home. In the Rust Belt and beyond, there are local initiatives offering property for less-than the cost of a gym membership. Gary, Indiana, with its 10,000 abandoned homes, has a lottery to sell houses for $1 to residents who meet certain financial and residency requirements in an effort to reinvigorate a city crushed by deindustrialization. “My target would be to sell 50 houses a year,” Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson told The New York Times. “We’re getting these people to contribute as taxpayers. They can be part of the group that moves out, or they can be part of the group that invests.”

But the program wisely demands a minimum income of $35,250 for individuals, at least $1,000 in savings, and the demonstrated ability to rehabilitate the house. Gary’s mayor estimates that each home in the lottery needs $20,000 to $50,000 in renovations. In other words, that first dollar is just the start of an extended financial commitment.

P-nut is a resident of Civic Park who is currently renovating a house.

P-nut is a resident of Civic Park who is currently renovating a house. Courtesy of author.

It took me a few years of fruitless house hunting, back-of-the-envelope financial calculations, and some real soul searching to realize that I had no business purchasing a house in Flint. The last thing the city needed was another financially challenged homeowner, even one whose heart was in the right place. This wasn’t some lark. The residents I met in Flint restoring old homes were hardcore. They were in it for the long haul and willing to part with tens of thousands of dollars to stake their claim to this troubled spot on the Michigan map. I also met well-meaning folks who couldn’t hack it. They gave up on their renovation dreams, leaving empty houses behind. This was clearly not the stuff of fantasy.

While it lacks the emotional appeal of stories about the young idealists who venture back to these struggling cities, land banks are a more far-reaching and clear-eyed attempt to help places like Flint. They don’t focus on getting residents into abandoned housing; instead, they concentrate on eliminating empty structures.

Admittedly, the land-bank approach appeals more to the head than the heart. It requires cities to let go of the past and admit they might never regain the growing populations, thriving economies, and broad middle-class prosperity of the post-war boom. Though it’s not an economic plan that will generate new jobs, it is a logical step toward stabilization and it lays the groundwork for the future. It wasn’t very satisfying, but at one point I thought that paying to tear down a land-bank house in Flint would be the best way to give back to my hometown. There was one problem; I couldn’t afford it. Demolition costs $9,000 a pop.

Land banks and other initiatives to demolish the structures that no one wants will have a far greater impact. It’s something that people on the front lines like Pastor McCathern understand, even as they fight to save their neighborhoods.

In the end, I was fortunate enough to help Flint in my own small way. I befriended a man named Sherman McCathern, the energetic pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church, located in my old neighborhood of Civic Park. He battles crime, house flippers, and the forces of economic decline while ministering to a flock beset by unemployment and heartache. Not long after I reluctantly gave up my quest for home ownership, he told me that someone had donated a house to the church. The pastor, in turn, had given it to a church member nicknamed P-Nut, a young guy with a family who was trying to rebuild his life after a stint in jail. But the house needed work and there was no way to pay for it. The solution seemed obvious. I donated the money I had saved for a Flint house to help with the renovations.

There’s no silver bullet that will solve the problem of abandoned houses in America’s shrinking cities. Well-meaning Rust Belt expatriates like me can lend a hand. Dedicated urban homesteaders can save some houses with money, carpentry skills, and sheer force of will. Innovative projects like Detroit’s Write A House, which gives a renovated home to writers who move to the Motor City, can play a role in stabilizing neighborhoods. But the staggering number of empty houses means that these laudable efforts are only a small part of the solution. Land banks and other initiatives to demolish the structures that no one wants will have a far greater impact. It’s something that people on the front lines like Pastor McCathern understand, even as they fight to save their neighborhoods.

“I accept that we’re going to have to tear down some of these houses,” he told me on a hot summer day as we stood in the parking lot of his church. “It’s like we have to purge Civic Park before we can bring it back.”

Gordon Young is the creator of Flint Expatriates: A blog for the long-lost residents of the Vehicle City and the author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, recently named a Michigan Notable Book for 2014.

“Attention Would-Be Urban Homesteaders: Think Before You Buy” by Gordon Young appears in Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: http://bit.ly/BestOfBelt

16 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 04, 2014

    In Cleveland and its older suburbs, a terrific low-cost loan and technical assistance program is offered. http://www.clevelandrestoration.org/homeowner/

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 04, 2014

    I think you mean urban pioneers, not urban homesteaders. They’re not the same thing.

    The term urban homesteader usually refers to people who grow food in cities, or do a lot of DIY projects like sewing, canning etc. I identify with that term myself, being a city dweller who has a vegetable garden, keeps chickens, and dabbles in food preservation.

    Urban pioneers are relatively privileged people who move into depressed areas of cities to fix up houses or to rent cheap apartments, and pave the way for other people in their socioeconomic class to follow them. A Wikipedia article on urban pioneers redirects to the Gentrification article.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 04, 2014

      Vcmcguire, thanks for the comment. As you point out, these terms are loaded with various meanings, some positive and some negative. I thought about this when writing the article. I did a very unscientific survey with numerous friends and colleagues to see how they defined the various terms, as well as research on how the terms are used in the media these days. I decided that many people, especially those with a more casual knowledge of the trends, now equate “urban homesteaders” with what you identify as “urban pioneers.” Not that it’s the ultimate source, but the wiki entry for urban homesteading reflects this shifting, more inclusive definition: “Urban homesteading can refer to several different things: programs by local, state, and federal agencies in the USA who work to help get people into city homes, squatting, practicing urban agriculture, or practicing sustainable living techniques.”

      I wanted to avoid a paragraph or two on the various terms because, well, that’s not the point of this piece. And people write books on these issues. And I felt that the article made it clear what activity I was talking about. (This is about people rehabbing houses. No mention of the things my friend Novella Carpenter is doing in East Oakland: http://ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com/)

      But again, thanks for the comment, because I feel that the shifts in the meaning of these terms reflects a lot of the big issues I didn’t have space to address: race, gentrification, and who truly has a right to lay claim to a neighborhood.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        March 18, 2014

        “Homesteading” seems like a perfectly accurate term. It refers to the U.S. Homestead Act, which gave free land in Midwest and West that was undesirable (at the time) to people willing to move there and cultivate it. The people who took the land were homesteaders, and also pioneers. I don’t think either term refers one way or the other to socioeconomic status. Though it’s actually possible that the original homesteaders were people of lesser means, since they were risking a lot to move west and get free land.

        Very interesting article. While feelgood articles on people moving to shrinking cities abound, it is good to be reminded of the huge problems that these cities face, problems having to do with the core of U.S. and global capitalism.. Until we grapple with how our nation is going to handle shrinking cities on a federal level, the good intentions of urban homesteaders–or pioneers, if you prefer–will have little to no effect. The good news is that the U.S., as the richest nation in the world, has the resources to tackle the problem (I have been told that you could tear down all the abandoned houses in Flint for the cost of just a couple of days of waging the Iraq war, for instance). Whether we have the political resources….well, that’s probably the bad news, but theoretically possible. But we are not furthered toward that goal by parsing words like “homesteader” and “pioneer” and scolding well-intentioned and well-informed articles like this one.

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      • Avatar
        March 29, 2014

        That green and white house looks exactly like my cousin’s old house on Lawndale. We have such great memories of Civic Park!

        Reply

  3. Avatar
    March 04, 2014

    Great piece. I feel that these primed-and-polished home decorating and renovation shows also make it seem like a glamorous and relatively uncomplicated task. Easy to get swept up in the “great deal!” economics, even when the receipts start mounting.
    I’m curious about your decision to donate the money you’d saved to P-nut’s rehab house. That’s a magnanimous act for someone you don’t know. What made you decide to do that (as opposed to a number of other choices)?

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 04, 2014

      Ladiletta, I’d become friends with Pastor McCathern and gotten to know some of the members of his congregation at Joy Tabernacle, so even though I didn’t know P-Nut directly I felt like I had a connection with him. I’ve since gotten to know him better.

      And his house was one I’d passed hundreds of time growing up just a couple blocks away. It happened to be the home of Ben Hamper, author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, and I went to school with Ben’s Younger siblings. I’d actually been inside it a few times. So I had strong memories of that particular house.

      I also really wanted to help the Civic Park neighborhood in particular because that’s where I was raised. I know every inch of that area. It still feels like home to me, despite all the changes. So in the end it wasn’t such a stretch to make the donation. I felt like I was helping a guy who wasn’t much older than I was when I lived in the nabe. I’m old Civic Park and he’s new Civic Park.

      Reply

  4. Avatar
    March 04, 2014

    A deep renovation is a crapshoot no matter where no matter when. I’m sitting in the kitchen of the 1926 bungalow my wife and I slaved more than 10 years to rehab in what is now a tony corner of D.C. We bought this wreck not out of fashion but financial necessity — we couldn’t afford a house in town otherwise. Many times we heard we were nuts — until we started hearing how “lucky” we had been to find a ruin that ruled our lives, turned our snot black, and left the undersides of our eyelids feeling like 32-grit sandpaper. Fortunately and perversely, we enjoyed the rigors of renovation, a factor that is the sine qua non of the DIY life. I salute my former City Paper colleague for his wisdom and generosity, and recommend that he and his ilk keep searching for a residence to bring back to life.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 05, 2014

      Oh yes, I’ve had the black snot experience with my 700 sq. ft. house in San Francisco built in 1904. I particularly enjoyed scrubbing mold off the bedroom walls and discovering that half the front of the house was rotting from the ground up. Good times! I haven’t given up on doing it all again, but I need to save some money first.

      Is this Michael Willrich, by chance?

      Reply

  5. Avatar
    March 06, 2014

    Young Mr. Young needs to reassess. I have several family members who have renovated homes and found it to be rewarding — physically, psychologically, and monetarily draining but still very emotionally rewarding. Mr. Young seems to skirt around a key issue we have in America: out-of-town real estate speculators. People who watch a late-night infomercial or go to a half-day seminar that teaches them how to buy foreclosed property else where in an attempt to buy low and flip high are really undermining our communities and our country. Why doesn’t Mr. Young address that? I am thrilled that Gary, Indiana, is holding a lottery to get urban homesteaders into foreclosed homes — yes, they may be small piece of turning around the economy of their community but they are still making a positive difference (and I applaud that). We need to give Rev. Sherman McCathern a medal for what he’s doing in Flint, Michigan, we need more people like him. And why aren’t we nominating Congressman Dan Kildee for president because his Land Bank idea is aggressive, realistic and an actionable strategy that is improving many Midwestern cities — that’s a bold man with bold ideas. I wish Mr. Young weren’t trying to throw cold water on the hopes of people who want to have the adventure of renovating a home in a city they love. It’s not a sin to love your hometown or your adopted town. I wish Mr. Young would have identified the key economic culprits: absentee real estate investors and landlords. (Also, I really dig Belt, thanks for doing this online publication and encouraging these discussions and debates.)

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 07, 2014

      Mick, I’m not disagreeing, but that would be a very long article. Someone should write a book about those topics. Oh, wait, I already did. (www.teardownbook.com). And happy to go in with you on a medal for Pastor McCathern. He deserves it. Thanks for the comment.

      Mr. Young

      Reply

  6. Avatar
    March 07, 2014

    Great article, the reality of all the hard work and expense required to bring a house back is overwhelming. Being raised on a farm and now living in Flint, it reminds me of when people romanticize farming and owning gardens. Tread lightly, lest you bite off way more than you can chew, when it comes to matters agricultural. The housing stock in Flint is old, the blight regrettable. But people and organizations, neighborhoods and businesses are attacking the problem. While the citizenry in Flint is left holding the bag, we are strong and resilient and a brighter future is ahead. Flint just finished its master plan, crime is on the decline, and with quiet determination the health of our city is improving. Visionary leadership and liberation from the old ways are having an effect. Thank you, Mr. Young, for your effort and for not throwing Flint under the bus.

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  7. Avatar
    March 10, 2014

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. As a Michigander with roots in Flint I often wonder how we can make the difficult choices to put these cities on a sustainable trajectory while at the same time preserving the unique character of the cities and not making things worse for disadvantaged residents who have been there the whole time. This article is a step towards capturing that complex dynamic.

    One benefit of having an influx of privileged white would-be gentrifiers is that they tend to be the proverbial “squeaky wheels” which I think would help address the key problem with urban areas in Michigan and beyond: municipal governance.

    So I’d conclude by expressing my hope that the “homesteaders” avoid the temptation of indulging in libertarian fantasies of urban recovery by the bootstraps and instead become engaged citizens of their new communities. The problems that face these cities today stemmed in part from economic forces beyond anyone’s control, but the local governments and other actors also played an important role. If these communities are to recover, the local governments and other actors will need to play a similarly important role.

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    March 18, 2014

    Very good article. As a Realtor, and former “soft -core” rehabber, I have seen many sides of these complex issues. I disagree with the notion that these cautionary tales are “throwing cold water” on people’s dreams. For every one truly qualified person that I encounter looking to purchase and rehab a Bank Owned and or ram shackled old house, I encounter ten to twenty more that have no clue what they may be getting into. Unfortunately I am often the one pouring the cold water over the heads of well intentioned people who have fallen victim to media sound bites about “get rich” real estate schemes. Maybe I am being a Buzz Killinton, but I think not.. Not to say all are looking to necessarily get rich; some just want a nice home for their family and their intentions may be noble. But as a professional that is not just looking to make a sale and move on, I feel it is my moral obligation to try to point out potential pitfalls against jumping into the deep end without first making sure that they know how to swim. I see this article as just trying to do the same, and I applaud it for that reason.

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  9. Avatar
    July 05, 2014

    Yeah….Even though I grew up in southern Genesee Co., I am familier with Civic Park. Gorgeous homes w/ state roofs, and beveled glass window porch entrys. Not any more. I have heard people say that the beginning of the end of it being a nice middle-class family neighborhood was the 1970’s. Right in line with the decline of the U.S. auto industry. I dated a girl in the summer of 1989 that lived on Dartmouth, 3 houses east of Forest Hill. They were renters and the home’s exterior needed painting. The house on one side was a rental. The house on the other side was owned by this kindly old grandmotherly type. But it was For Sale. The house at the s.e. corner of Forest Hill & Dartmouth was vacant, but in decent shape. The neighborhood was pretty bad by then. My GF had her 10-speed bike stolen off the front proch. They didn’t have an alarm, so they would keep the TV on when they were gone to give the appearence of someone being home. Its only anchor was the school. Once that closed. that was it. Such a shame for a historic neighborhood with a unique history and architecture! I like the idea of what Mayor Mike Duggen is doing in Detriot, which his home auction program. Rehab and invest in the neighborhoods. NO FLIPPING ALLOWED!!!!

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