Jefferson East Inc. promotes affordable housing in high-rent district

Jefferson East Inc. promotes affordable housing in high-rent district

As she traveled between Detroit and Ghana, contributing her skills to the building of a medical facility in the African nation, Betty Wright noticed something changing.

It was her neighborhood.

The nine years she spent flying across the ocean before the former nurse re-settled in her East Jefferson Avenue condo brought ebbs and flows. Stately homes in historic Indian Village, Wright’s one-time subdivision, began showing the weariness and strain of the nationwide foreclosure crisis. In more recent years, new energy and business start-ups gave life to adjacent West Village, a short stroll away from her building.

But something was missing.

“I think having affordable, quality housing on the river
would be awesome,” she says.


The strategy of mixed-income housing – where people of higher salaries live next door to people who earn low or moderate amounts – is to eliminate concentrated corridors of poverty that dot Detroit’s landscape. In Jefferson East, the city’s prime, riverfront development area, there are plans to rent at market rate most units in a forthcoming development, using profits to offset the lesser cost of those designated affordable (usually 20 percent of the units). The goal is to preserve river living for some who would otherwise be priced out of the opportunity.

Development: River Plaza apartments, a $25 million 111-unit development, including 20 affordable units included under the “Plaza on the Park” umbrella.

Developer: Jefferson East Development Corp. and Shelborne Development

Profit: For-profit. This joint venture will use anticipated for-profit dividends to fund its nonprofit arm.

After 40 years at addresses near and along the water-front, Wright could soon see her wish granted. An innovative plan of the Jefferson East Inc., a. community development organization, aims to break ground on River Plaza apartments, a two-building, mixed-income housing complex, within the next 18 months. The $25 million, 111-unit development is slated to include 22 affordable units, along with market-rate listings.

Wright says efforts like River Plaza can help secure access to real estate on Detroit’s prized “Gold Coast” for future residents, who might otherwise be priced out of comparable housing.

Michelle Lee (left) and Betty Wright look forward to the construction of River Plaza in their long-time Jefferson Avenue neighborhood.

“As a person who has lived in the city for a long time, I am fed up with that kind of thing,” she says.

Wright’s daughter Michelle Lee, housing and neighborhood revitalization leader for Jefferson East, is part of the River Plaza effort under Executive Director Josh Elling.

“We want to help build the city’s tax base, create affordability, and attract residents,” Elling says.

Jefferson East, known for its support to small businesses in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood and crime and safety awareness programs in the East Jefferson corridor, formed the Jefferson East Development Co. last December. The new company is partnering with to pursue River Plaza, which is in the funding phase, along with other ventures that can help support Jefferson East’s non-profit neighborhood work.

Jefferson East Director Josh Ellington reminds stakeholders that, “unless you control the real estate, it’s very difficult to dictate to a private developer what you want them to do.” 

The vision for Jefferson East’s first housing effort in District 5 involves a strategy that includes no public subsidies, relying on the waterfront location to support strong market-rate rental prices to balance the income mix.

In discussing River Plaza with the community, Elling and his team met with homeowner associations, some of whom resisted the idea of its affordable-living component.

“We talked with some of the residents there and they were saying, ‘Oh, we don’t really want affordable,’” Elling recalls. “And then we went into numbers and they said, ‘Oh, wait. That’s us.’”

Maintaining quality homes that meet the needs of eastside residents is a priority for Jefferson East, says Elling. About half his staff, including Lee, live in the neighborhood the organization serves.

Assisting the district has included helping boost its economy through business initiatives, including the recruitment of retail outlets. Acquiring its own land for development will strengthen the Jefferson East mission, Elling says.

“Unless you control the real estate, it’s very difficult to
dictate to a private developer what you want them to do,” he adds.

Jefferson East executive director Joshua Elling at his offices in Stroh River Place, Detroit.

The organization’s long-time emphasis on economic development might have helped slow the pace of displacement farther east on Jefferson, where collaborations with small business owners helped them address what Elling calls “psychological gentrification” that changes a neighborhood’s appearance.

“That was part of why it was so important for us to control retail space in Jefferson-Chalmers,” he says.

The team’s formula for best practices, combined with its vision for developments like River Plaza, are  expected to contribute balance among investments in District 5, such as the trendy, transforming West Village.

“Here, we’re trying to both create and preserve affordable housing,” Elling adds.

Serving an 18.4-square-mile area of about 40,000 residents presents challenges for Jefferson East, but supporting those, like Wright, who have deep roots in the community, is a priority.

“Key to us is helping long-time Detroiters stay in and keep ownership of their homes,” Elling says.

He wants to see greater networking among non-profits and encourages placemaking on behalf of their neighborhoods, in order to attract and leverage investment and attention given to other parts of the city.

Meanwhile, Wright, who might explore River Plaza as an option when the construction is complete, says she was glad to return to her long-time neighborhood. But, while she loves Jefferson Avenue, she stresses that the recent end of her frequent travels abroad had nothing to do with her nearby family members’ growing concerns about her age.

“They were getting older,” Wright says. “I was getting younger.”

Photos by Paul Engstrom

Jefferson Chalmers Main Street Redevelopment Project

Project 1  |  JEI HQ and Retail Incubation

Built in 1926, this 6200 SF former Kresge store will be converted into the new home for Jefferson East, Inc. The building will also house retail incubation and event space. With funding support from the Kresge Foundation, the City of Detroit, MSHDA, the Community Foundation for SE Michigan and IFF, construction will begin in early 2017.

Project 2  |  Norma G’s Caribbean Cuisine

The former headquarters of Jefferson East, Inc. will be transformed into an 80 seat Caribbean restaurant. Owner and Chef of the successful food truck Norma G’s Caribbean Cuisine – Lester Gouvia – will launch his first restaurant at this location. With funding support from the Kresge Foundation, the City of Detroit, Motor City Match, and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, construction is scheduled to begin in early 2017 with an anticipated restaurant opening later in the year.

Project 5  |  Hotel Savarine Redevelopment

Built in 1926, this nine-story former apartment hotel serves as the gateway to the Jefferson Chalmers historic business district. Plans call for the renovation of the building into 80 mixed income apartments (35 market rate and 45 affordable) along with 12,000 SF of commercial space. While Enterprise Community Loan Fund and the Kresge Foundation are providing predevelopment support, JEI and Shelborne Development are working with the City of Detroit to finalize the finance stack on this $17 million project.

Project 6  |  Vanity Ballroom Restoration

Built in 1929 and on the National Register of Historic Places, the Vanity Ballroom is one of the last surviving great ballrooms from the Jazz Era in Detroit. JEI and the city are finalizing a redevelopment plan that will include JEI’s new headquarters, retail and a ballroom/community performance space. Financial support is still being identified. Support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and the National Mainstreet Center have allowed JEI to conduct environmental assessments and some initial stabilization work.

River Plaza Apartments Redevelopment*

The River Plaza redevelopment project rehabilitates two existing vacant apartment structures into 111 residential units, including 22 affordable housing units, along with 20,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail use. A pedestrian promenade will connect the Jefferson Avenue sidewalk with the Detroit River. There will be an urban beach with sand, willow trees and shade umbrellas and a working vineyard onsite at Owen Park. Jefferson East Development Corp. and Shelborne Development are working to assemble private financing for this $25-million project.  (* Project is located outside map range)

See additional coverage from TheHUB:

Introducing “The Map:” TheHUB’s exclusive guide to what and where investment is happening in Detroit

TheHUB launches year-long, in-depth report on neighborhood-specific investments

Development leaders discuss the importance of protecting and investing in Detroit’s neighborhoods

It takes a Village: Woodward Village thrives with families

Ripe market and programs encourage home ownership and investing in Detroit

A ‘Happy,’ HopefulPlace: How developers transformed notorious east side apartments

Jefferson East Inc. promotes affordable housing in high-rent district





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.