Taking Back Detroit

Taking Back Detroit

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Renea, a single mother living with her four children and ailing father finally won her home after living without water for six months. She is a first time homeowner who rented this house for seven years from a slumlord who didn’t pay the taxes. She wanted to stay in this home because it’s her only chance for ownership, and she isn’t afraid of the hard work – she’s grateful to have a path to make her investment pay off in the long term. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

Sometimes, the hardest part of being a homeowner isn’t coming up with the funds to buy a place, but ensuring that once you own it, the roof actually works and the electrical wiring doesn’t barbecue your belongings. There are tens of thousands of vacant and neglected properties across the U.S., and at least as many people in need of stable housing — many simply need help navigating the challenges of acquiring and fixing up these places.

Brick + Beam Detroit and the Tricycle Collective are two organizations helping folks in need of safe, stable living situations by helping them become first time homeowners with the skills and resources they’ll need. Last month, The ToolMade Project and Craftsman jumped in to help put some tools into these new homeowners’ hands.

Kits full of "homeowner tool essentials" were given to six families in Detroit. Skip to the end of this article to see a guide I put together with Emilie Evans of Brick + Beam Detroit to give some overall tips to these homeowners. They have a lot of work ahead of them, but are beyond excited to get to it!

Kits full of homeowner tool essentials were given to six families in Detroit. Skip to the end of this article to see a list of the tools and a guide I put together with Emilie Evans of Brick + Beam Detroit to give some overall tips. These homeowners have a lot of work ahead of them, but are beyond excited to get to it. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

Let’s be real — nobody is born knowing how to sand and seal floors, repair wooden windows, and ensure that their adorable toddler isn’t ingesting lead paint chips like they’re Corn Flakes. That said, with an extensive and creative support system (full of people who can laugh and vent about the occasional catastrophes that come with rehabbing a home), anybody can learn.

The founders of Brick + Beam Detroit have created a community for building rehabbers of every skill and income level by hosting events, creating an extensive online platform, and sharing resources, stories, and whatever else is needed to help people to make their homes safe and comfortable. If homeowners are taught how to improve inexpensive, well-built, yet rundown properties, then the owners, the neighbors, the city…well, really, everybody wins.

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Charmelle lives with her mother and her 2-year-old boy. Her mom owned the house, but struggled to pay her property taxes and eventually lost it. The Tricycle Collective is now working to help Charmelle get her family house back so they can all stay together in the community they call home. The Craftsman tools and support from Brick + Beam Detroit will help to fix up and maintain their investment. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

For this project, Brick + Beam partnered with the Tricycle Collective to target families who were recently able to buy their own homes—homes that needed a lot of TLC. The Tricycle Collective works to help people renting from delinquent landlords to buy the properties they are currently inhabiting. There is a huge problem with absent landlords neglecting to pay the necessary taxes and bills, leaving their renters without basic services or security.

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Cassandra and Alex have three children and live across the street from Alex’s mom. They rented this home for years, and were thrilled to be able to finally buy it and have control over their space. And, of course, the kids love being across the street from grandma. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

In Detroit, renters have the option to buy their homes—for less than the cost of their rent—if the home goes to auction due to tax foreclosure. As Michele Oberholtzer, founder of the volunteer-run Tricycle Collective explains:

“People are often forced out of the city they’ve always lived in and it doesn’t need to be that way. A lot of Detroiters are caught in a cycle of eviction and deferred maintenance because of neglectful landlords. They have little stability as a result. On top of that, the actual houses deteriorate every time someone moves and it’s left vacant because houses often get scrapped. We spend more money demolishing homes when they’re vacant than we would just paying back taxes. It’s maddening. Homes without people and people without homes. There is an alternate fate if [these renters] just have a little more information.”

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Tiffany, a single mother of four, lives with her children and mother. The house has a leaky roof and needs a lot of work, but they are happy to have their own place, some stability, and numerous resources to help them fix up their home. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

In addition to helping renters navigate this process, the Tricycle Collective has fundraisers to help raise the actual funds needed to buy the auctioned homes, which often only cost around $500. Yes, a mere $500, combined with free rehab resources like those offered through Brick + Beam, and some elbow grease can end a cycle of instability and potential homelessness for thousands of families and individuals. Inspiring stuff.

Crystal- I think she's a single mother but I've never directly asked. has two sons. 1st time homeowner. Was paying rent to someone who didn't pay the taxes (a common theme) and was able to buy her home for $500- one month's rent. She works for the city and is a great woman.

Crystal is a first time homeowner who works for the City of Detroit and has two sons. She was paying rent to a landlord who neglected the property and didn’t pay the taxes. Once her landlord lost the property, Crystal was able to buy her home for just $500 – the cost of a single month’s rent. This has freed up finances and allowed her to take matters into her own hands. Photo by Emilie Evans.

To read more about Brick + Beam Detroit’s unique and powerful rehab community, check out the article I wrote about them last month here, and visit their website. For more information about the families impacted by the heroic work of the Tricycle Collective, click here.

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On-site with unCommon Construction

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Aaron Frumin (R) and Desmond, one of unCommon Construction’s apprentices. Photo courtesy of Gigsy.

A couple of months ago, we introduced you to Aaron Frumin and unCommon Construction(uCC), a New Orleans-based nonprofit teaching high school students hands-on construction skills. The students have to apply and interview to be accepted into the program, which trains them to be collaborative, hard working leaders who know how to problem solve. They earn class credit and are paid for all this hard work, as they should be – they construct an entire house in just four months. uCC is just over a year old, but has already taken off with grants, accolades, and expanded programming, and it’s been incredible to watch.

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De’Shaun giving the cordless circular saw a workout. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

The bottom line is that construction-based trades are on the short list of jobs that provide stability and permanence nowadays – they can’t be outsourced and will always be in demand on a local level. uCC is working to destigmatize vocational education and to provide a career path for high demand, high wage jobs. And, should these apprentices decide they don’t want to go into construction trades down the road, no problem, they’ve learned a tremendous amount of transferable skills and they’ve proven themselves to be leaders who can easily point to their accomplishments.

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Apprentice Destinee in the forefront of this pic, making some dust. These apprentices build an entire house in a semester. I know. Photo courtesy of Gigsy.

The ToolMade Project worked with Craftsman to donate a bunch of tools to the crew (see the end of the blog post for the list), and Aaron checked in earlier this week with some updates on how they were working out:

“We’ve been putting the tools to good use over the last month or so, and they don’t look nearly as shiny as they did when they first arrived. The nail gun has been especially awesome for baseboards and other interior trim…no more tripping over those pesky air hoses! And, the gun even shoots through the tough, cementitious Hardi Trim we used on the exterior…something our pneumatic guns even have trouble doing!”

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This is what a job site should look like: BUSY. Photo courtesy of Gigsy

The apprentices also seemed pretty happy with the loot. Here are some of their reactions when asked about the donation:

-“[The Cordless Circular Saw] is super light – I like it a lot more for plywood ’cause it’s easier to control. or, for a quick cut so you don’t need to mess with all the cords.” – Destinee, 12th Grade, 5-1/2″ circular saw (part of a combo kit)

-“Dang! That’s strong.” Noel, 11th Grade, using the brad nailer

– “It’s tight that they all work together so easy – you can use the alternate batteries & they last a while so you don’t have to wait for them to charge…The nail gun’s definitely the best one ’cause you can just make all your cuts, and then – really fast – just go through and shoot everything in without it getting too complicated.” Tahj, 10th grade, using the brad nailer

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Idallis on the circular saw. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

Another reason this program is unique is that while the students’ project is, er, rather ambitious (AN ENTIRE HOUSE), that project is only seen as the tool used to get to the real end goal: well trained, well equipped apprentices. They are the end product that uCC uses to measure its success.

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Noel, nailing it. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

For more updates on unCommon Construction – and there a whole lot of them nowadays – check out their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Please note that GiveNOLA Day is coming up on May 3rd, so please consider supporting this amazing crew as part of that event. Or, if you’re so inspired that you can’t wait until May 3rd, you can always give your time or some green!

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Photo courtesy of Gigsy

Tools donated to uCC:

The Rise of the Shecanics

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Patrice Banks, founder of the Girls Auto Clinic, teaching car maintenance to a group of women in her home town of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Girls Auto Clinic.

Last year, I learned to change my own brake pads. I posted pics of the process and made one my profile picture because I felt like a HERO. I’m a generally handy person but working on cars intimidates me, in part because there are so many electrical components in newer cars, and, in part because it seems like it may be pretty easy to die if I don’t put things back together correctly. I know I’m not the only person out there blindly trusting in their mechanic, but it’s pretty obvious that women disproportionately shy away from maintaining their own vehicles. What may not be as obvious is that in this country, there are more female than male drivers and women are the #1 consumers of cars.

In 2013, 25.4% of jobs in the Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing industry were held by women. However, women made up only 1.5% of automotive body and related repairers and 1.8% of automotive service technicians and mechanics. So why is the number so high? Because almost 57% of the industry's female workers are doing office and clerical work.

In 2013, 25.4% of jobs in the Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing industry were held by women. However, women made up only 1.5% of automotive body and related repairers and 1.8% of automotive service technicians and mechanics. So where does the 25.4% stat come from? Check out that looooong green line. Almost 57% of the industry’s female workers are doing office and clerical work.

To find out why there was such a discrepancy, and to see who may be working to remedy this, I decided to Google around for programs training women to become mechanics, or, to at least teach basic maintenance skills. Unsurprisingly, only a handful of programs exist in the U.S. It’s always tougher to find women doing hands-on trades work, but the auto industry seems to be especially lacking in this respect.

The first woman my search turned up is Patrice Banks, a Philadelphian who is “working on disrupting the auto industry by catering to women.” How do you not click on that link? Patrice was working as a materials engineer for DuPont until she realized she knew nothing about cars despite spending a tremendous amount of money on them, couldn’t find other women who knew about cars, and couldn’t find a single female mechanic to work on her car. So, she decided to take classes, work for free at a garage on the weekends, and became a mechanic herself. And then she went even further and started the Girls Auto Clinic.

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The clinics have received a tremendous amount of press and women asking if there are clinics available in their cities. This is a clip pulled from CBS This Morning, but the clinics have also been featured on Fox News, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and numerous other outlets.

The Girls Auto Clinic “strives to be a visionary leader in the automotive industry by changing the way the industry views and markets to women while also changing the beliefs women have towards the industry through education and niche marketing.” Basically, the auto industry doesn’t reflect the needs, wants, and views of it’s #1 customer. Patrice also recognized that because women spend the most money on cars, they have real power to change the industry through education, and should be a part of the process from concept and design to maintenance and repair.

To help remedy this disconnect, Patrice teaches free classes for women each month, created an online forum for women to talk about cars, wrote the Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide, and even sells clothing merch for “Shecanics.” She is also working around the clock to open her own shop and expand the mission, so we’re sending her a bunch of Craftsman tools to help with that.

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In June, Patrice lead a free clinic for high school girls who drive. Fantastic. Shop classes have been cut from a majority of high schools across the country, but even when they did exist, only boys seemed to register.

The Girls Auto Clinic logo, language and images are hyper feminized, but because of this, classes reach a large and especially disempowered (in this arena) portion of women. Basically, Patrice takes the damsel in distress archetype and turns it on its head. I wear Doc Martens work boots when I’m in a shop. Patrice wears some serious heels when she’s teaching classes in a garage. It’s strange to see but also makes me think, “good lord, is there anything women can’t do, even in restrictive garb?”

Patrice’s classes appeal in a meaningful way to a whole lot of women who could never imagine themselves lifting up their car hood until now. While she is adamant that “all are welcome,” the mistreatment and underrepresentation of women in the auto industry is clearly what drives her passion for increased education and equality. This passion has not gone unnoticed. Girls Auto Clinic has garnered a ton of press and Patrice was even asked to do a Ted Talk about her work last year. Currently, less than 2% of mechanics are women. That is clearly going to change soon. Pictures from the Girls Auto Clinic November classes will be posted on ToolMade, so stay tuned!

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Patrice, still kicking ass in heels. Photo courtesy of Girls Auto Clinic.

Keepin’ it Clean in Detroit: The Americorps Urban Safety Project’s Global Youth Service Day

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Many hands make lighter work while boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties in this Southwest Detroit school zone.

In case you didn’t catch the first story about the masterfully collaborative and successful AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project (AMUS), this organization recruits and activates neighborhood volunteers to tackle blight and safety issues on their block. Volunteers organize themselves into neighborhood groups that become watchdogs for their neighborhood, working with a number of different partners and sponsors, and these volunteers also work to put on large-scale neighborhood clean-ups. In April, AMUS had their Global Youth Safety Day, so before the event I connected them with Craftsman, who donated hedge clippers (action bypass loppers), mechanics tools, a wheelbarrow, a weed wacker (volt line trimmers), a hand vac, drill and impact drivers and a few other helpful things to have on site.

This “Safe Pathways” board up event targeted the Southwest Detroit neighborhood surrounding Neinas Elementary School. Citizen volunteers of all ages joined Neinas students in boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties of blight and debris to make their neighborhood safer. The Detroit Police Force, dozens of pizzas, and a boatload of tools were there to help this crew get through a long day of (the best kind of) dirty work.

For more about this organization and the staggering amount of work they do to keep their city safe and engaged, visit www.amusdetroit.org. All photos courtesy of AMUS Detroit.

Historic Green: Sustainable skill-building from New Orleans to Missouri

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri.

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

I have a major soft spot for historic buildings and community outreach initiatives. These two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yin and yang. Captain & Tennille. Yep. A colleague recently pointed me to a group in Kansas City, Missouri that understands this perfect union all too well and has taken it to a level that very much deserves to be recognized, celebrated, and supported.

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Yes, there was much work to be done. Some challenges are larger than others, but hey, somebody’s gotta just pick up the tools and get to it. In this case, people are doing it for free, which should, assuming you’re not a cyborg, make your heart explode.

Historic Green is a nonprofit dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability. They started up in 2007 as a response to Hurricane Katrina. More than 85% of New Orleans’ existing homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, homes with rich histories and deep cultural significance, and the need for help and environmentally responsible action was too great to ignore. They started “Spring Greening,” an annual greening event in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood, a neighborhood I’ve been lucky to work in quite a few times myself with the same goal of making the neighborhood viable and sustainable. Here is a draft video recently completed as the first part of a series of videos they are producing around the New Orleans project.

Fixing brick piers, 2012 (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Repointing brick piers. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Now, to be clear, “sustainability” has become such a buzzword that it has become woefully detached from its intended meaning. The term can be downright cringe-worthy because people now use it interchangeably with unsustainable practices and materials in an effort to market these things as being environmentally-friendly for one reason or another. In the case of Historic Green, the term really does have chops. Historic Green is focused on making utility costs affordable, making buildings healthier, and teaching those who are living in these places how to maintain their buildings and act as stewards to the community at large. Sustainability is about how to realistically keep people in buildings so they don’t end up abandoned and it’s also about educating a population on how to care for these buildings so they will last. Sustainability is about people — it has little to do with recycled content and green gizmos that don’t even function properly without an education component.

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Restoring original wood sashes. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Obviously, it was a no-brainer to reach out and ask if they needed some tools — naturally, they did. The crews are currently working in both New Orleans and in their home city of Kansas City, in its Green Impact Zone. Both projects involve an historic home being fully renovated using affordable and replicable methods, and will feature restoration of historic detailing and carefully measured energy efficiency improvements. Swoon.

So…the tools have been shipped! Stay tuned for updates on what tools are most useful and how they are used in a project focused on restoration, efficiency, and community. I’m very much hoping to carve out time to drive down there and get my hands dirty with this crew. Yep, it’s gonna happen. 

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. Look at those piers!!! (Picture taken by Historic Green)