As a Detroiter in her late 50’s, Rita Dorsey had never held the deed to a house.
But, like a duck to water, she made the seamless transition from renter to owner almost 10 years ago when her daughter bought her a single-family home on the east side.
“Rental is a very different mindset than home ownership,” says Dorsey’s daughter, Fifth Third Bank Senior Vice President Byna Elliott.
Dorsey “flipped her renter mentality to a homeowner mentality that quick,” Elliott says, snapping her fingers. Planting flowers and becoming vigilant about activity at the empty house next door were some of the habits she adopted.
There’ll be a lot more flower planting at Detroit’s houses if Elliott and other corporate and city leaders have their way. A convergence of low mortgage interest rates, low-cost properties and new incentives like Detroit Home Mortgage, has made permanent local addresses a greater possibility for many residents.
Not only is the city looking to repopulate districts suffering from large house vacancy rates and blight, smart money’s being shifted into mortgage notes. Nationwide, the cost of home ownership is less than renting, says Elliott, who is also Fifth Third’s director of community development in Detroit.
A 4 percent average interest loan rate represents “the cheapest money for the longest term,” she says.
“It’s really important, from a financial institution’s perspective, that we educate people about the timing of home ownership,” she adds.
“I think we’re at a tipping point around hope and possibilities in the neighborhood.”
Fifth Third’s home ownership grant program has targeted areas surrounding Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, McNichols Road and Meyers, and the Osborn community, among others, to add density to subdivisions. The program partnered with the non-profit Life Remodeled to rehab houses for occupancy as recently as last year.
“By doing that we give the neighborhood a facelift, and the houses that are for sale get snatched up,” says Elliott.
Another initiative to retain current residents and lure new ones to the 313 area code is Detroit Home Mortgage. It is a partnership led by the Community Reinvestment Fund USA, Kresge and Ford Foundations, City of Detroit, Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and various non-profits and investors. Participating banks include Huntington, Flagstar, Talmer, Liberty and First Merit.
Detroit Home Mortgage was designed to help close the dollar gap between properties of lower value and loan amounts needed to make them livable by providing both mortgage and renovation costs.
The Detroit Land Bank has also become a key repository for low-cost property in need of various levels of rehab that can be purchased and prepared for the market or occupation.
While opportunities abound, the challenge of qualifying remains a barrier for many Detroiters who’d love to stop paying landlords and join the ranks of homeowners, like Elliott’s mom. Cash is common for rehab only purchases like those in the Land Bank, but finished houses in neighborhoods on the rise, like East English Village, University District, and Ewald Circle, typically come with lender expectations.
“Credit is still king in home ownership or small business,” adds Elliott.
To help those whose number trail dips below minimum mortgage qualifications Fifth Third recommends coaches who aid customers in boosting financial literacy at Operation Hope centers throughout the community. At least 70 people, beyond the projected 25, have joined the “700 club,” improving their credit scores to 700 since their tutorials began, Elliott says.
Bank investment in Detroit, combined with those of other institutions and philanthropic agencies, has helped make the city a focal point among national corporations and community alliances.
“We’re all excited and lobbying hard about the possibilities and future of Detroit,” Elliott says. “Three years ago they would have laughed me out of the room. Now they say, ‘Tell us what you need.’”
— Photos by Paul Engstrom