"The city of Detroit made a mistake a couple years ago when they let policemen and firefighters live outside the city limits," says Foster. "It would be like having a mayor live outside the city."
One of Foster's neighbors, in fact, became the first police officer to return to the city under mayor Dave Bing's bid to lure officers back. Project 14, launched in 2011 and named after police code 14—"return to normal operations"—entices officers to move back by helping them with down payments. When Detroit native Ernest Cleaves heard about the program—especially that it meant a $154,000 renovation by CDC to a lovely corner-lot home in Boston-Edison—he signed up.
"I signed the purchase agreement before even seeing the inside. Sometimes I look at it and still can't believe it's mine," says Cleaves, who joined the police squad's special operations unit in 2001. Since he moved from a southern suburb in 2011, he says, neighbors tell him they feel safer and are more likely to stay. "I wanted to come back to help the city get better. The only way to do that is from the inside."
Perhaps no Detroit ministry knows this better than Johanon and CDC. The eight- by three-block area under its purview showcases the group's narrow but deep investment in central Detroit. Rehabbing homes is its cornerstone work. It uses federal funds to buy properties at public auctions, and recruits suburban Christians to install vinyl siding, replace stolen pipes, and complete other maintenance projects to restore the property. Then it locates families who need a home and can afford to maintain it. One Boston-Edison block alone features $3 million in CDC investments. But CDC wisely does more than housing.
"So many [community development groups] put all their eggs in the one basket of housing," says Johanon. "When the housing market crashed … their construction loans and tax credits dried up, so their funding streams went away." CDC, on the other hand, boasts an array of local businesses: Peaches & Greens produce market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Restoration Warehouse home supply store, Solid Rock Property Management, and Cafe Sonshine, a "healthy soul food" restaurant. Together these add jobs and bring commercial value to Piety Hill. Their three neighborhood gardens named Faith, Hope, and Love will soon see another food venture, an aquaponics farm, in a veritable food desert. The CDC Farm and Fishery will raise tilapia in the basement of a onetime liquor store, and then use the fish excrement to fertilize a first-floor herb garden. (Johanon wanted to name it "Urban Herbs" but wondered if "herbs" carried the wrong connotation.)
Faith, Hope, and Love have all been put to rest for the winter, their beds harvested and ready to receive new life this spring.
"It's all about community transformation—how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," says Johanon. "That's how you create change. The little things add up to big things.