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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How the philosophy behind the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center could solve the world’s problems

A bold headline perhaps, but hey, it’s true. In June, I visited the CIADC to learn more about the new nonprofit arts center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was blown away by the facilities and philosophy behind the Center. What resonated most was the founder’s focus on not having prescriptive end products in the classes. It seems there is considerably less room and encouragement than there was in past decades, even in realms that are supposedly promoting these efforts, to make original work via trial and error and creative problem solving.

Last year, there was some criticism (that I very much agree with) of Legos (gasp!), drawing attention to the fact that these building blocks are not quite the creativity-inspired units they once were. Instead, we purchase pre-made kits that direct us to follow instructions with every brick having a predetermined location. This does not exactly build skills that lead to brilliant discoveries. Beyond this, the kits even tell you what girls can build vs. what boys can build, which should drive any self-respecting human insane. I don’t understand how innovation has a gender, do you? How exactly are these projects contributing to our/our kids learning process?

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Beautiful, non-gendered, monstrous creation that will never be made twice (left) vs. a prescribed, cutesy end product with only the exact pieces needed to make the same prepackaged item every time (right).

Of course, this isn’t only a Lego phenomenon, not by a longshot. I took a painting class with my nieces a while back and everyone had to paint the exact same image–every kid was looking around to make sure they were doing it “right.” The paintings were still adorable, sure, but I found the process to be anxiety producing because we had to focus on recreating an expected end goal (the teacher’s example painting), instead of focusing on playing with color and space and creating something out of our imaginations, which can never be “wrong.” This isn’t about being touchy feely, it’s about not correcting a Picasso when he paints something a different way. As a society, we mass manufacture, buy wholesale, feel pressured to keep up with norms, and are called out on all of our choices on social media to keep us in check. If we all do everything the same way, how on earth will we ever progress, solve the problems of the world, push the boundaries of the arts, etc.? How will we ever do anything great?

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CIADC Member, Natalie, forging steel belt buckles by heating the steel round stock and hammering into shape with the 24oz Craftsman ball-pein hammer.

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The hammer and anvil are a classic combination for metal makers.

But I digress…the point is simply to remember the spirit of creativity and the benefits it reaps.  I believe this spirit is captured at the CIADC. None of the projects shown were for classes that specifically taught belt making or frame fabricating or, lord knows, bike trailer manufacturing. They simply evolved as the process unfolded. Methods changed, mediums changed. This is encouraged, not frowned upon.

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When you want ultimate control of the fastening torque, nothing beats a good old manual phillips head screwdriver. Laura, the CIADC Woodworking Department Manager, is assembling a plywood cross-cut box for the table saw.

Basically, classes at the Center teach you about a specific medium and you decide the trajectory. If you decide that you want to work with metal and wood simultaneously to complete a project you dream up, all the better. The idea is not to limit but to expand options and methods. As someone who works in various architectural fields, I can’t tell you how useful it would be if architects, engineers, and contractors would cross-collaborate!

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CIADCs founder and Metalworking Department Manager, Matt, shows students the Craftsman aviator sheet metal snips while cutting 18ga steel to be bent into an open-faced box. Snips are great for cutting both geometric and organic forms from sheet metal.

The man behind the initiative, Matt Runfola, was kind enough to send some pictures of the CIADC students and members in action. You don’t have to be a member to take classes, by the way, but members do have additional privileges such as discounted classes.

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Long-time CIADC student, Jeremy, demonstrates an outside-the-box use of the Craftsman 24” Carpenter Square. Here, he uses it to set a parallel fence to cut perfect sizes on our metal cutting band saw. Jeremy is working on a bicycle cargo trailer at CIADC.

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Having the right tools on hand make the tasks safer and easier. New CIADC student, Shelly, adjusts the miter gauge for the table saw with combination wrenches. Shelly was cutting beautiful mitered wood frames for her 2D art.

The best part about tools is that they can be used in many different ways for many different things–this is but a tiny sampling of how the CIADC will use the tools we shipped from Craftsman. For more information on the wide range of class options and the philosophy that guides the Center, please check out their website. Tools help us to make our world more functional, interesting, and beautiful, but of course the most versatile tool of all is our noggin. Use it. Explore. Have fun out there!

Deconstruction Pioneers: Rebuilding Homes and Hope at the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse

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Some of the workforce training crew in a victory pose post-Craftsman donation. From left to right: Red, Doug, Lou, Eugene, and Brett. Lou opened the warehouse just three years ago and is incredibly dedicated to the trainees and expanding the program.

The Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Lou Dickson, a retired general contractor who was fed up with all of the construction debris clogging up the landfills. Working in Chicago and in the North Shore suburbs, there was a neverending supply of perfectly good (often very high end) building materials being trashed due to a lack of alternatives and education for both contractors and homeowners. She began trying to change legislation and stockpiling materials from her jobs until she happened to notice some available warehouse space near her home and pulled the trigger. She has essentially created a mini empire since that first lease was signed, and has already expanded the space twice. Believe me, she could fill up the state of Texas with amazing architectural saves if given the chance. Lou, though petite and ever-smiling and polite with a British accent, is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can't find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can’t find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them. Mind you, this is only one aisle in this ever-expanding 13,000 sf warehouse.

There are nonprofits with a noble mission and then there are NONPROFITS WITH A NOBLE MISSION. I mean, there are so many missions at this place that you pretty much go straight to heaven if you buy a used bucket sink. Here’s what this now 13,000 SF warehouse space has accomplished since it began just 3 years ago:

  • Over 13,000 volunteer hours logged
  • Over 700 memberships
  • Hundreds of tons of building materials diverted from landfills
  • 7 paid staff members and 4 paid workforce trainers
  • 5 workforce training programs with 27 trainees, 5 currently in the program and 3 more joining next month (yes, all trainees are also paid, and paid above minimum wage)
  • 25 educational programming workshops for professionals and homeowners
  • Deconstruction projects throughout the county
  • First workforce training for Deconstruction certification in the county and a new training model in the U.S. that incorporates life skills such as tutoring in English, math, computer literacy, fiscal literacy, and nutrition, in addition to teaching the hard skills needed for certification
The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors who Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot...people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot…people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The workforce training classes have focused on adults who are formerly or presently homeless, low-income, or ex-offenders having a difficult time reintegrating into the workforce. By addressing their behavioral, educational, and physical health challenges, those who complete the 7-month program have a very high success rate finding jobs and a level of economic and social stability. Other trainees have just been disappointed with the low-paying jobs and lack of meaningful work available after high school or college, and wanted to do some hard work that would eventually pay off both financially and ethically. All are welcome, and the retention rate has been exceptional.

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Dave, who started as a trainee and is not an Assistant Trainer, pulling nails on some historic wood flooring. The reclaimed flooring sells so quickly it sometimes doesn’t even make it to the warehouse floor before being claimed by a customer.

The warehouse sells an insane amount of architectural artifacts, tubs, sinks, toilets, flooring, plumbing fixtures, and whatever else was able to be diverted from the waste stream and all staff and overhead is paid for by the sale of these items. The workforce training, on the other hand, relies heavily on grant funding. Things like tools are obviously top priority, so ToolMade put together a list of items they use most often on the site and Craftsman delivered big time. Deconstruction is one of those wonderful jobs where someone can literally start a business with just a good tool bag of what they need. This is the tool bag we put together for each of the workforce trainees, based on what they need most to take apart homes:

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Most of the loot. With these tools, each workforce trainee can show up on a job site after completing their certification with the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse and be taken seriously.

Any contractor will tell you that you never want to show up on a job site without tools. Even if you’re hired for a quick job and are more than competent, it unfortunately lessens your credibility with others on the job, and other times can prevent you from getting work in the first place. The 2014-15 graduates will literally leave the program like deconstruction superstars, saving incredible building materials with a full arsenal of both incredible and appropriate skills and tools. Lemme tell you, that makes a difference.

It costs almost $17,000 for each trainee to go through the program. Well worth it, certainly, but please consider a donation to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse. Every cent will go towards workforce training because staff and overhead is covered by sales at the warehouse, but there is not a surplus. See how you can help here: http://evanstonrebuildingwarehouse.org/donate/

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Checking Back with Historic Green in New Orleans

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

Last month, we were able to donate a kickin’ little arsenal of tools to Historic Green, including:

These tools were based on the needs of this nonprofit, which is 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 in both Kansas City and New Orleans. For more on Historic Green, check out last month’s post here.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

I caught up with the crew after their most recent New Orleans trip, which, appropriately, overlapped with GreenBuild this year. According to Jeremy Knoll, the architect who pioneered the Historic Green nonprofit, they have done an astonishing amount of work in New Orleans, especially on the “Center” project. For this project, they have helped the CSED (Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development of New Orleans) with a wide variety of initiatives over the years, including:

  • 50+ home renovations/weatherizations
  • Playground construction/restoration
  • Community centers
  • Rain gardens
  • Community gardens
  • Supporting garden education spaces
  • Bayou access and restoration projects, and
  • Several design-build projects. Wow.
Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

The affordable retrofit demonstration house — the house they are working on in these pictures — represents the culmination of a lot of their efforts over the past several years. It will act as a new center for their operations where they can stage project materials, train and manage volunteers, and demonstrate affordable home renovation and green living strategies to area families through ongoing programs.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

For this house, Historic Green helped them to clear the lot of overgrowth, build a new roof (deck to shingle), deconstructed the bathroom, re-built the garage/shed, installed a rain-garden, re-structured and decked the front porch, re-built portions of the floor, removed the non-historic car-port, provided LEED Certification advisors, helped to develop an insulation strategy, and did research about the history of this (originally) 1880’s cottage in the Lower 9th Ward to help with permitting and decision-making about what elements to restore or ignore. One of their Board Members also helped them to put together and launch this a kickstarter campaign, which (if successful) will complete the construction budget for the project.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Obviously, this is, er, not a lazy crew. So, if you’re up for supporting these efforts and undoubtedly more, please consider donating to Historic Green’s efforts. These nonprofits are what stabilize neighborhoods and foster stewardship in the most meaningful and immediate ways, truly.

If you've ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

If you’ve ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important and happy-making this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)