Introducing Spaulding Court

I was reading over the notes from Resource Generation’s final delegation meeting at the US Social Forum 2010 this morning and one question seemed apropos to this posting, “How can we leverage our privilege to support Detroit?” This is one example.

It started with liquidating some of the community investment notes I had with the Calvert Fund that were supporting affordable housing and economic development in the southeastern region of the states.  I was only working part-time and wanted to be sure I had access to some cash, so I deposited about $8,000 I had mentally earmarked for community investing in my credit union savings account in Chicago… just in case.

I thankfully got a full-time job and so I made a loan to a friend, gave $25 and $50 donations here and there, but kept the bulk of it in my savings account.  US Social Forum plans stated getting underway and there was an idea on the table for some Chicagoans to potentially buy a super-affordable house in Detroit.  Chicago organizers would live there for the months of May / June to assist efforts on the ground, and then detroit community organizers (or an organization) would become collective owners (renting-to-own or something similar) post-forum. In reality,  speculators were buying up houses fast and Detroit organizers needed to focus more on the “now” than commit to thinking through such a project. Besides, did Detroit organizers really need outsiders to buy a building for them?  During the process, I spoke with some community development corporations and property managers, and after talking to Deborah Olson, lawyer with the Center for Community Based Enterprise, I got a call from Jon Koller, an engineer student turned-community builder, who is leading a 10-member community resident owned project called Spaulding Court.

Jhonathan Gomez, chicago cultural organizer in the kitchen of rehabbed unit of Spaulding Court

Spaulding Court is a series of stone row houses with 3 small BDR units originally constructed as a motel in 1918. It stood abandoned and blighted for many years until Friends of Spaulding Court – the newly formed non-profit – bought the row houses from the city in February 2010 for $1,000. You can read about its history here.

What Jon proposed to me sounded more like a solidarity community investing idea than buying property from a city over 280 miles away. I would within weeks write a check with my ‘earmarked money’ as a $6,000 construction loan to Spaulding Court. I did this, pretty impromptu, for several reasons. 1. I’m attracted to risk. My SRI portfolio is medium-risk. This real estate loan was going to be high risk (think possible natural disasters, flood, tornados, etc.) And then the giving circle I’m a part of could be characterized as ‘risky.’ We’re independent, don’t ask for much by way of documentation or reporting, and stretch the bounds by granting to individuals.

2. Spaudling Court was a potential symbol of hope, regeneration and community pride for the lively, central Corktown neighborhood along Rosa Park Boulevard.  Neighbors commune with each other, swap tools, grow produce, and share a wireless hot mesh. However, the row houses needed serious work (new roof, rehabbing throughout, plumbing, electric, etc.) and no bank was going to lend them money without being up to code. Only one unit was more-or less livable with Joe and his family only paying $100 in exchange for handy-man help.

3. My money would serve as a seed loan for local laborers to rehab one unit in the hopes to begin renting the unit and bringing in some income in August.  In exchnage, for the month of June, three Chicago organizers would live and work in the rehabbed unit (free-of-charge) to help assist Detroit in getting ready for the social forum.

Airstream "pink flamingo"

Residents Tony Foster (L) and Joe Foster building outdoor showers

Their treasurer wrote up a loan agreement; we negotiated on a 8% interest rate, even though I insisted it was too high. [ I have a feeling we will need to re-negotiate once the loan term kicks in come the beginning of August.] The construction took longer than projected, a few squabbles over appliances ensued, hot water and a working refridgerator were hot commodities, but all in all, alot of Chicago/  Detroit love has nourished Spaulding Court (SC).

Camp the Court

During the forum, Jon, resident Joe Harris, and buddies installed outdoor showers, a toilet, and created a canopy for forum participants to “Camp the Court.” A source of revenue for SC, neighbors sold chicken wings, offered produce from the local CSA, and set up a 50s airstream selling tacos, watermelon spritzers, and other delights.

All of this said, SC still needs alot of love. More help is needed to rebuild what many in Corktown view as a community gem, a symbol of perseverance and survival when much around them has been falling apart.

For more information, view rehab progress videos here or contact Jon Koller at jonkoller@gmail.com.

Kristen Cox is a cultural worker, resource developer, donor organizer, and community partnership builder in Chicago. She works for a community development credit union and founded the Fire This Time Fund after participating in a giving plan workshop at a MMMC conference in 2005.