The players in Detroit’s recovery could be categorized in three groups, those who stayed, those who came in, and those who came back – expatriates drawn to the promise of a city they could help rebuild. For much of the team at the social enterprise Develop Detroit, a nonprofit housing developer, the spirit of the city and the organization’s unique approach were enough to bring them back home.

Being part of the conversation

Senior Associate LaTrice Davis grew up on 6 Mile on the east side of Detroit with her grandparents, who’d moved there from Mississippi in the 1930s. In her grandparents’ day, Detroit was a booming metropolis churning out early automobiles and opportunity, especially for blacks fleeing the rural south during the first Great Migration. Growing up, LaTrice recognized the important contributions of her city to America’s industry and culture, but as a high schooler, it was mostly just the place she grew up. It wasn’t until she’d left Detroit, first for college at Michigan State, then as a force for diversity in the fashion industry in New York, that she started to feel pulled back to her hometown.

By then, Detroit had hit rock bottom, the financial crisis and bankruptcy happened while she was in college, and the city she grew up in had changed. “Going back home, my neighborhood in Detroit didn't look the same,” LaTrice reflected.

“Change isn't necessarily bad, but I could see that this change wasn't being driven by my neighbors. My schools closed down, important parts of the city were starting to disappear. I thought, the city I grew up in that made me who I am is struggling. How can I leverage the experience I have and mobilize that in a way that pushes my city forward? It wasn't about saving the city, it was about joining the conversation.” Her invitation to the conversation came with a job offer from Develop Detroit’s CEO, Sonya Mays, herself a Detroit native who had returned to help her city recover.

Through her work at Develop Detroit, Latrice is able to impact neighborhoods like the one where she grew up. “A lot of what we want to do is neighborhood stabilization - get to neighborhoods that are about to be redeveloped first so we can help residents who are already there to stay as their neighborhood becomes the next cool place. We can find the happy medium of merging what's happening in the city as it recovers with the history of its neighborhoods.”

Unexpected opportunity

For Ben Philips, Develop Detroit’s Vice President of Real Estate, coming home to Michigan to grow a new real estate development nonprofit from the ground up wasn’t where he expected to find himself. A native of Kalamazoo and University of Michigan graduate, Ben’s work in housing and community development started in college, and took him to major cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, and Atlanta for the better part of his career.

One common theme across the roles he took on was an attraction to startups and organizations in their infancy, where, “I was chief cook and bottle washer. Until Mercy Housing, which even Mercy at the time was less than half its current size, and I was tasked with growing the new Southern California branch. It quickly became much more established, and I really enjoyed helping build it. I have always worked with rapidly growing businesses.”

When the Develop Detroit opportunity came along, Ben was intrigued. He’d never anticipated to find an opportunity in his home state to do the kind of social enterprise work upon which he’d built his career. The market wasn’t right, and there wasn’t a model for Ben’s expertise until HPN’s involvement, introducing the backing of the nation’s leading community developers to the city. This, Ben believed, was a vision to try something for which Detroit was uniquely poised, and that also had the support necessary to have a shot at success.  

“The fact that there appeared to be, for the first time in a long time, a unique opportunity to take advantage of a particular moment in Detroit’s economic and civic life to create a lasting legacy here both in the built environment and in an organization – that’s what caused me to drop my life in California. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” Ben decided.

“For many years, spirit and history was all Detroit appeared to have, now there’s an opportunity to build. In many ways Detroit was a boom town, one of the biggest boom towns ever, but the booms didn’t always contribute to long term community benefit. The current growth is not coming from giant factories or major public investment, but from the bottom up—local developers and residents building and responding to demand. If we can tap into those activities, add capital, bring them to sustainable scale and get permanent growth out of them, that’s when we’ll be doing our job.”

Since its founding in 2015, Develop Detroit has built a pipeline of development projects that will work to serve the best interests of the communities where they’re based. There’s a lot of work yet to be done, but because that work is driven by the spirit of the city, we anticipate a lot of success to come.