Address to Oakland Housing Retreat

January 16,2017
The Townsend Hotel, Birmingham, MI
The Rev. Chris Yaw

What can be done to improve the living conditions of low-income families in America?
That was the question being bandied about in the 1930’s-
-as the Great Depression raged-
-a time when urban slums flourished as bastions of disease, crime, and violence.
Democrats, led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt-
-introduced a series of reforms under an umbrella called ‘The New Deal.’
As we know, its most notable component was Social Security-
But it also included federally funded work programs, labor union initiatives, and banking reforms.
Another, lesser known program, dealt squarely with housing-
And the clearance of these urban slums-
-by building federally-subsidized homes for working families in rural areas.
The biggest proponent was Eleanor Roosevelt.
She worked to push public dollars to a pilot project in West Virginia.
It was called Arthurdale-
The idea was to take laid off coal miners, who were willing to work-
And to give them a home and some land-
-far away from the mines that once employed them-
-and to make them self-sufficient by growing their own food and developing their own simple industries-
-and to, thereby, reclaim their economic footing.
This was controversial from the start-
And even though Senator James Couzens was a left-leaning Republican-
-who broke with many in his party by backing several New Deal programs-
Couzens thought the idea of giving people homes-
-who had no nearby work options-
-was a waste of money.
He thought a plan like this would stand a much greater chance-
-if these homes were not given away to the unemployed-
-but were built closer to industry-
-and purchased through an assistance scheme.
Those in charge of this program thought Couzens might have a point-
-but they had already given away most of their money to Arthurdale and other similar ventures.
So Couzens offered to put his money where his mouth was-
-and to offer funds of his own.
The government thought enough of the idea to ante up on its own end-
-and in 1935 Oakland Housing was born.
Oakland Housing is a 501(c)(4)
-which the tax code describes this way-
“A 501(c)(4) is to be operated exclusively to promote social welfare…
“The organization must operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements).”
501(c)(4)’s are notable in that they do not have to publish the names of its donors-
-nor do donors receive a tax deduction when they donate to one.
As we all know, Oakland Housing’s first venture was to construct 150 homes at a development called West Acres in Commerce Township-
-specifically for auto workers.
We could go into the details of West Acres if we wanted to-
-but let’s just cut to the chase-
-and remember that many of us here were at the West Acres 75th anniversary party a few years ago-
-and witnessed a thriving suburban community.
Contrast that to Arthurdale-
Nobody was at a 75th reunion there-
It was a flop-
-both property and buildings had been sold off to private investors within a decade of its inception.
So this idea-
Of rendering aid to families in this way-
-clearly had legs.
This was a viable answer to the question:
What can be done to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit?
So after it’s development, the Oakland Housing board saw it’s job to walk alongside West Acres.
In the 1940’s Oakland Housing assisted in establishing ride-sharing, children’s study clubs, a Women’s Club, a Credit Union, even a Sunday School-
-which the world needs more of-
-but I am a bit biased here…
Many of Oakland Housing’s ventures, however, were unsuccessful.
For example, much time, effort, and money was spent trying to get a sewer line built for West Acres-
-but to no avail.
Nonetheless, West Acres prospered-
-and soon enough, no longer needed Oakland Housing board oversight.
So in 1946, Oakland Housing set its sights on its next project-
It partnered with the City of Pontiac and three other entities-
-to purchase 141 acres near Crystal Lake-
-which is west of Pontiac-
-with plans to build homes for workers.
For 4 years the board worked feverishly on plans-
-alongside its partners-
-laboring through long negotiations and delays
-only to see this project fail when the City of Pontiac decided to take Federal funds-
-and use the land for apartment buildings instead.
Frustrated, the board turned its attentions back to West Acres-
Where it still held adjacent real estate-
And it was decided to build 20 additional homes.
Ironically, the original West Acres residents protested!
-saying this would degrade the value of their homes.
The board persisted though-
-and the 20 additional homes were built.
Still open to, and exploring new opportunities, the 1960’s came along-
And in the 1960’s, the board returned to the question:
What can be done to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit?
Circumstances had dramatically changed.
Housing had become easily and readily available.
Autoworkers were better paid-
-and the idea of farming in one’s backyard as anything more than a hobby-
-had gone out of style.
In May of 1963, one director suggested Oakland Housing liquidate its assets and declare ‘Mission Accomplished.’
What’s more the Attorney General started to put pressure on Oakland Housing to live up to its charter-
-and build something-
-to ‘paint or get off the ladder’-
-yes, those are my church words.
Then in 1968, Frank Couzens, Jr.-
-our recently retired colleague who had served on this board for an unprecedented 48 years-
-suggested that Oakland Housing do something different-
Instead of building homes-
What if we moved into Detroit and rehabilitated them?
Frank worked with a local Catholic priest-
-and the F.H.A. to ultimately purchase and rehabilitate 7 homes on the east side of Detroit, near Mack and St. Jean.
Perhaps this would have continued-
-had not the Attorney General stepped in once again.
The local autoworker’s union had been examining Oakland Housing’s documents-
-and noticed that the organization was no longer catering to auto workers-
-as its charter had specified.
A legal bout ensued.
And instead of folding-
The board of Oakland Housing refined its objectives-
-reformed its outlook-
-and recovered its sense of purpose by formally resolving:
“ [Our] corporate purpose is to provide houses for [Metro Detroit] low-income families who have difficulty acquiring housing without help”
This statement-
-along with a subsequent court preceding in 1970-
-paved the way for Oakland Housing to broaden its mission-
-and, in a way return to the central issue that has always captivated its members:
What can be done to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit?
In 1974 this led to the board’s purchase of 22 surplus condominium units-
These were located in Avon Township-
-south of Rochester.
It was called Woodgrove-
While the Oakland Housing board was involved in the selection of residents-
-residents did not stay as long as would have been preferred-
-condominiums, which traditionally have higher turnover rates than homes, meant that most of the original residents had moved on within a decade.
Then, in 1980, another development was pursued-
This one was another success-
29 homes in a subdivision called “Hidden Ridge,” in Troy.
This area was at 16 Mile and Rochester Road-
-and in no time these homes were built, sold, and occupied.
In 1983, in Pontiac-
We were able to build 15 homes in what was called the Clinton Heights project-
-at Hilldale and Midland roads.
Our sixth project was River’s Edge, also in Pontiac-
This was in 1989-
The project rolled out in three phases-
And saw the construction of 57 homes-
The 1990’s saw much discussion-
Many ideas-
But no new construction projects of this size or scale would come.
This did not mean the board had gone on vacation-
Rather, we were trying to develop relevant answers to the question:
What can be done to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit?
There was much discussion-
There was some turnover on the board-
Yet another board member proposed we donate our funds to a community foundation-
-and declare our work finished.
In the 2000’s we began, once again, exploring options outside of Oakland County-
And in 2006, we set up Corktown Housing and began purchasing property in the North Corktown area of Detroit.
As we all remember, there was an economic downturn at this time-
And we could not figure out a way to build homes in an environment where people were abandoning them.
In 2009 we held a Board Retreat-
-hoping to guide us forward.
Out of that came suggestions for infill housing and home rehabilitation-
-which we did.
In 2010, we moved back into the River’s Edge community in Pontiac and bought, rehabilitated, and sold two homes.
In 2012, thanks to our partners at Slavik Construction-
We were able to build, rehab, and sell homes to fill out the successful Woodbridge housing project-
-as you know, 10 homes total, over a 4 year period.
We continue to explore the possibilities of building in North Corktown-
-and continue to be open to the idea of home rehabilitation and infill housing-
We have also invested in the possibility of establishing a 501c(3) entity-
-which would enable us to build more valuable homes because they could be subsidized by grants-
-this has its plusses and minuses.
We are here tonight, in January of 2017-
In the midst of a particularly long ‘dry period’ for Oakland Housing-
Mind you, given what I’ve just outlined, it is not unprecedented-
But it is not our goal.
We have contracted with Susan Diehl for the year, to guide us in pondering anew that question:
What can be done to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit?
Were James Couzens here tonight-
He would likely be happy to see that more than 260 homes had been constructed during the 82-year history of this organization-
And especially encouraged to see his privately funded approach had faired much better than the government’s attempt.
However Couzens was much less known for his charm and subtlety-
-than his temper, and stern commitment to getting things done.
More than likely, he would also pound his fist on the table and not so delicately suggest that more might be able to be accomplished.
Like Couzens, the men and women on this board are people of action.
And, to various degrees, I think we would all like to see our organization living more deeply into its mission.
Personally, I have never been this blessed to work alongside people of such high caliber, with such impressive track records in their respective fields-
I am humbled by your accomplishments, in awe of your gifts, and truly inspired that you make a commitment of your time and resources to helping those to whom Oakland Housing is committed to assisting.
And if progress from here on out means working harder-
Or making big changes-
I am confident that this is something we can do.
Is our slow progress the result of a lack of clarity or organization on the board’s part?
Is our paid executive leadership what it ought to be?
Does our mission need to be aligned to better reflect current reality?
I am convinced that the talent that we need to make any changes we deem necessary, and to raise the bar on our accomplishments, is here.
My hopes for these next 24 hours are that we will get to know one another better-
-establish a ‘safe space’ for all to feel comfortable conversing and sharing their honest opinions and observations-
-for our minds and imaginations to be stimulated-
-and for new ideas and commitments to emerge.
I hope you’ll join me in being open and vulnerable to people who we may not know well-
-but who share your compassion.
Finally, I hope each of us can walk away from this retreat with a renewed sense of purpose and mission in what we all signed on to do:
-to improve the living conditions of low income, working families in Metro Detroit-
We are here because that mission has not been accomplished-
And we believe we still have the resources at hand to make a difference.
In the words of one of my industry colleagues:
Can I get an A-men?…
I will now hand it off to Susan…

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