Is Dreamtroit the affordable housing Detroit needs?

Under Tuesday night’s glowing red moon, punks, artists, and other revelers descended on Lincoln Street Art Park to dance to live DJs, drink around a massive bonfire, and check out the newly opened Dreamtroit campus. 

Most have been waiting four years for the return of the park’s epic full moon parties. Others have been waiting to catch a glimpse at the funky, affordable apartments in the mixed-use Dreamtroit development that have been under construction for just as long. 

But affordable housing in Detroit can feel like a joke that’s out of touch with reality. Since “low-income” rent prices are based on the median income of the Detroit-Livonia-Warren area combined, what’s considered “affordable” often isn’t within reach for many Detroiters.

Though Detroit’s median household income sits around $30,000, according to Bridge Detroit, Livonia’s is closer to $80,000 and Warren’s is around $50,000. This leaves a huge gap for Detroiters who are routinely being pushed out by gentrification and pricey new housing popping up around midtown and downtown.

Dreamtroit presents an alternative. But the apartments in this building, located at 1331 Holden Street, are different from others coming onto the market. They come with cabinets without handles. The walls are covered in bright graffiti and some studios have only a lonely sink inside. There will be no quiet hours, ever, as the full moon parties in the event space called “the freezer” spill out into the adjacent Lincoln Street Art Park until the morning.

The Dreamtroit campus is also the future home of Michigan and Trumbull Pizza, Metro Grocery with a Yellow Light Coffee and Donuts inside, and a 9,000-square-foot offshoot of Marble Bar called Lincoln Factory. Recycle Here! and Lincoln Street Art Park are part of the nearly four-acre property helmed by Matt Naimi and Oren Goldenberg.

“We saved 40 grand by not putting handles on the cabinets,” ​ Naimi tells Metro Times as he shows us around the building in a pair of overalls with no shirt on. “That’s a lot when you’re trying to keep the rent low. Every little trick in the book that most people use to make money to build housing, we chose to keep the rent low.”

Apartments at Dreamtroit rent for as low as $364 for a roughly 200-square-foot studio and as high as roughly $2,000 for a two-bedroom with two bathrooms. The campus has 56 studio apartments, nine one-bedroom apartments, and two two-bedroom units, with all utilities plus Wi-Fi included. 

Nine units on the ground floor are what they consider “residential retail.” These studio apartments have full kitchens and bathrooms with doors that open for walk-up customers. Imagine, for example, an artist who wants to have an open studio or sidewalk sale, a lawyer with a walk-in clinic, or a small business hoping to catch customers going to Lincoln Factory. 

Then there are the communal units with a shared kitchen and bathroom, which Naimi notes are cleaned daily by a janitor, making less work for residents. These are the cheapest at around $364 to $600. The most expensive unit, a 1,040-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with access to a graffiti-covered patio is around $2,300.

The City of Detroit requires housing developers to save 20% of their units for low-income residents who make below 80% of the AMI. Of Dreamtroit’s 76 available units, 20% of the apartments are for people who make less than 50% of the AMI and another 50% are for people that make less than 80% of the AMI. 

“All of our units are for people that make less than 120% of the AMI, so if you make too much money, you can’t live here. Period. Go find something that’s market rate,” Naimi says. “We’re income verifying everybody right now and it’s tricky. There’s [sic] these bands of affordability where your rent is tied to your income, but we know what affordability is. We hang out with people that need affordable housing — artists, students, makers, builders, activists. Most developers don’t.”

He says the income cap for Dreamtroit residents is around $73,000.

Goldberg says they initially wanted the apartments to go for $313, $420, and $666, but that didn’t go over well with investors. 

“This is how we approached this: you need a place to live. We’ll give you a really sweet box in a nice community. It’s safe. It’s dry. It’s got internet.  [This is] the cheapest we could possibly afford to do it,” he says. “We tried to do more communal units. People can make it work, they just need a place to be. But the banks wouldn’t fund it that way.”

Naimi is a self-described “garbage guy, activist, recycler” and Goldenberg is a filmmaker. The media has called them “unlikely” developers, and most people thought the project would just be another rendering that never actually got built. Yet, here the $30 million building is offering rents that are somewhat rare in the city.

“Nobody would do this,” Naimi says. “We did it because we were trying to save something that we loved and it wasn’t about a bottom line. When they say you can’t build affordable housing, you can. You just can’t make a lot of money doing it. There are ways to do it, but capitalism will beat that out of you. We got no grants. We got some funding from the state, but we got no real help from the city. So it was two dudes who took on a ton of debt, used the tools on the shelf, and did this.

“We wanted to show the world, this is how you do it.”

Both Naimi and Goldberg acknowledge the affordability component “comes with some teeth.” 

“We are a 24-hour, no noise complaints, no quiet hours because we believe that not everybody lives nine to five,” Naimi says. “You could be living next to a welder or a DJ who’s gonna work… This is a place that’s going to be active. It’s gonna be hoppin’ and we hope it really leads to connections.”

Goldberg adds the building is not necessarily for him and Naimi’s peers but for a younger generation of creatives. 

“I’m about to be 40, [Naimi’s] 50. We’re not trying to live here,” he says. “When I first came to the city in 2007 I rented one room in an apartment on Second Avenue and paid $200 a month. I edited my entire first feature film about Detroit Public Schools’ dismantlement in this tiny room and I slept on a fucking egg foam [mattress], rolled it up, in the morning I’d go to my desk, then roll it back out. When you get out of college, how do you build yourself up if you’re paying $1,500 a month?”

As for the graffiti, Naimi promises all of the unintelligible scribbles, f-bombs, and penises were removed or covered up leaving bright works of art, though we did notice “666” scattered about and a message that “Cheryl’s a bitch.” Sorry, Cheryl.

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