Abandoned 100-year-old Detroit home about to get new tenants

Maria Salinas, Executive Director of the Congress of Communities-Southwest Detroit Neighborhoods, poses with her staff on April 22 in Detroit as they gather for a lunch and to move boxes in preparation for a relocation to the organizations new headquarters, a refurbished house near St. Hedwig Catholic Church. (AP photo)

DETROIT — With new flooring being laid, paint going on walls and community-based programming continuing, after 11 years, the nonprofit Congress of Communities is preparing to move into a new home — literally.

Congress of Communities, which is moving from an office space to a house the group is renovating, is a grassroots organization that advocates for issues affecting southwest Detroit and its residents, while empowering those same residents to become community leaders and advocates. From hosting its youth council to fighting for equitable community development, Executive Director Maria Salinas felt like Congress of Communities — also known as CoC — had to be in the neighborhood. Thus, they received a grant and are revitalizing an unused property.

Creating a space for youth

But Salinas doesn’t take credit for the idea. Southwest youths — that’s who brought the idea to her. And Salinas said she took it to heart, the Detroit Free Press reports.

CoC has many moving parts, such as Taking Action por Nuestros Niños, which advocates for better schools and a safer southwest Detroit, anti-gentrification efforts and early childhood programming. CoC’s youth council focuses on civic engagement, mentorship and other issues.

Members of the 2018-19 youth council presented the idea to Salinas and she was impressed, yet not surprised that this idea came from teenagers.

Detroiter Stephanie Segura-Guerrero was one of those teens. While the youths were on a retreat with Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone, a youth-driven teen center, they learned about how to incorporate even more youth-driven work into the organization.

“We were kind of confused, because we were like, ‘CoC is already so youth-led, but how can we make it more youth-led?’ “ said Segura-Guerrero. “And that’s when we were like, ‘What if we had our own youth space?’ That’s how the house (idea) evolved.” Now 18, Segura-Guerrero is a student at Michigan State and participates with CoC as a member of the House Task Force.

The House Task Force, comprised mostly of youths, as well as residents, has been instrumental in the development of the house from idea to inception. The Task Force meets biweekly, either virtually or at its soon-to-be former office on West Vernor Highway.

“They have designed the house, hired the contractors. They’ve been a part of everything in regards to the house, and that’s going to really have longevity because these residents and youth — this is their house. This is the community’s house,” said Salinas. “I’m hoping within five years, that we’ll find sustainability through the people, through the alumni coming back and through the residents who have engaged themselves in this youth-driven house.”

Funding the space

After the Task Force was established, CoC received its first grant of $150,000 through the Kresge Foundation’s Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit Grant. The grant money went toward staffing, stipends for the Task Force, as well as the construction and purchase of the property, which was $40,000.

So far, CoC has raised over $30,000 from individual donors and the group is hoping to raise $30,000 more.

In total, Salinas said, the renovations are likely to cost about $200,000.

Though the house is labeled a youth-driven center, Salinas says it is for everyone. “The youth just keep it fresh and young,” she said, noting the house will be a multicultural space and place of healing. The house, located at Junction and St. Hedwig, is at the intersection of different types of Detroiters.

Amanda Holiday, who is CoC’s Early Childhood and Community Organizer, has been working with Salinas and the board to oversee the youth-driven center and other CoC initiatives. Holiday recalls the state that the home was in when they found it. “The roof was shot, nearly all the pipes and wiring had been removed and scrapped, the floor was in shambles and most of the windows were broken or missing,” Holiday said. “Generally, it was a disaster.”

Though the 2,000-plus-square-foot, nearly-100-year-old house was abandoned, Salinas found it important to not demolish it, she said, for one reason: “We wanted to conserve the culture.”

Incorporating culture

In the past, CoC’s board elections were parties with food, African drummers, Irish bagpipers and Mexican dancers. Salinas is bringing that annual event to the house from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. July 28 — ahead of its tentative opening in late fall.

“We have so many cultures. We’re in the middle of a Polish neighborhood with a lot of Latinos. We have African Americans, we have Irish … and that’s my dream; to bring people together to break bread, (listen to) different music, and it’s better now than ever.”

Adriana Alvarez, who is CoC’s board chair, shares Salinas’ passion, saying that the house will be an asset to the community. “We’re kind of in the middle of southwest Detroit, which was very important to us because we wanted to be an agency that can anchor from all the different little sectors and cluster areas in southwest Detroit,” the 32-year-old Detroiter said.

As the board chair, Alvarez not only participates in House Task Force meetings, but she serves as an intermediary between the board and the Task Force — both mainly comprised of youths — to make sure all ideas encompass everything the youths envision for the house.

The House Task Force, Alvarez said, is “making decisions on floors, and on color; what they want to see and what the space should look like and what is good for them,” said Alvarez.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today