Freelon apartments to provide housing for homeless veterans in Sugar Hill
Midtown’s newest apartment complex opened Thursday, bringing nearly 70 new units to the historic Sugar Hill neighborhood, including affordable housing for veterans.
The $38 million mixed-use, mixed-income Freelon development in Sugar Hill was built on vacant land across from the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center and offers 14 affordable housing units for people in the Supportive Housing Program. Veterans Administration support for the homeless. Veterans.
“We will provide housing for homeless veterans and they will be close to where they get their services,” said Donald Rencher, director of the Detroit Planning, Housing and Development group.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that Michigan had approximately 495 sheltered homeless veterans, or those staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and other similar programs, in a single January night. While veterans make up about 5% of Michigan’s population, according to the 2020 census, 11-14% of homeless adults housed in the state are veterans.
Veterans will not spend more than 30% of their adjusted income on rent, and all Freelon Veteran Apartments are fully furnished and have been designed using best practices in trauma-informed design by the Coalition of Designers of interior for change.
“It really helps people feel welcome,” said Julie Degraaf, vice president of nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, co-developer of the Freelon, Trauma-Informed Design approach. “The most important thing is just to create a warm and welcoming space. … A lot of veterans won’t come with their own furniture and they can actually take that furniture with them if they decide to move.”
Trauma-informed design practices can include the use of warm colors and images, blackout curtains to help reduce light sensitivities, and sound pads to block out loud noises, Degraaf said.
The Freelon also offers affordable housing for non-veterans. Six of the total 68 units are reserved for affordable housing for people earning 30-80% of the average median income (AMI). At-Large Detroit board member Mary Waters said she “absolutely loves it.”
“We want to see more 30-50% AMIs,” Waters said. “We need to look at income-based housing in this city, and we need to do that in order to include everyone.”
Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said the council is “laser-focused” on projects like the Freelon, which include people with very low to extremely low incomes and “honor the true essence of what is affordable housing.
The development is named after Phil Freelon, a prominent black architect who designed the Detroit development shortly before his 2019 death from ALS. Other notable works by Freelon include the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
Sonya Mays, president and CEO of Develop Detroit and co-developer of Freelon, said she has always been inspired by Freelon and his wife Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer.
“He (Freelon) wanted the design of the buildings to be of his place and his time,” Mays said. “And to have a reference to the culture that is specific and special to this place…that was Phil’s statement of what he thought was necessary or possible with this development. I think we accomplished that here. I hope he would I agree.”
The Sugar Hill neighborhood was known for its thriving entertainment scene until the 1960s and was home to many black-owned businesses. The entire neighborhood was declared a National and Local Historic District in 2002.
Nnenna Freelon said her late husband would be very proud of the project at Sugar Hill. Developments like the Freelon that integrate different types of people aren’t happening everywhere, she said.
“My husband was a dream builder,” Freelon said. “Before the contract was signed and the ink dried, before we agreed on concrete, steel and other materials, there were dreams. Dreams that included the smallest of us. Dreams that included those who have no roof over their heads.”
The Freelon contains 11,900 square feet of retail space, a 160-space parking structure open to residents and the public, and new businesses, including a cafe. There is also an outdoor green alley space adjacent to the building. The outdoor space was developed with Midtown Detroit Inc., a non-profit organization that supports Midtown’s economic development. Public parking and green space will help support other small businesses in the neighborhood, said Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.
Funding for the project includes a combination of public-private partnerships, including from the City of Detroit $2 million in HOME Dollars, $2.4 million in Community Development Block Grants and a $6.7 million loan under section 108 for the parking structure. The project also received $4 million from the state’s Community Revitalization Program and $2.25 million in Michigan Brownfields Tax Credits.
Other funding includes: $9.8 million in PNC Bank’s New Market Tax Credit equity, raised through NMTC allocations from Building America CDE Inc., Michigan Community Capital, Cinnaire and PNC Bank.
The funding includes a $4 million first mortgage from PNC Bank, $5 million through Prudential Financial and $300,000 in social impact financing from the Quicken Loans Community Fund.