These Entrepreneurs Are Rebuilding Detroit One House at a Time

October 4, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Century Partners

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Andrew Colom, 33, and David Alade, 29, ditched jobs in real estate and banking to start Century Partners, a development firm aimed at revitalizing neighborhoods in the Motor City. The duo also uses the biz to help Detroit’s Black residents build wealth.

What inspired you both to move to Detroit?

Andrew Colom: About five years ago, when I was a real estate developer in Mississippi, I was raking leaves in front of a house before showing it. I was listening to an audio book, Arc of Justice, about Ossian Sweet (a Black Detroit home owner acquitted of murder after he defended his new home against a White mob in 1925). I was thinking about the stories of people who were struggling during the Great Migration, and it sort of inspired me. So I took a trip up here about four years ago and drove around and fell in love with it. I went to David and said, “Detroit is where it’s at. We’ve got to invest.” He said, “You’re crazy.”

David Alade: As a banker at Credit Suisse in New York City, I covered the Big Three auto companies—Ford, GM (GM) and Chrysler. All I ever heard was negative stuff about Detroit. Andrew’s talking about artists and potential, and all I’m hearing is crime and violence and abandonment and bankrupt auto companies. About two years ago, I started thinking that it wasn’t my dream to stay in banking. I’ve seen so much inequity in the world, and it’s all tied to wealth disparity. And whatever I wanted to do next, I knew it had to be somewhere in that area.

How does Century Partners tackle wealth disparity?

Colom: We buy historic, abandoned homes and let neighbors invest in the rehabilitation of those homes and recoup their investment from the fund consisting of rent paid by new neighbors. Investors can also sell their homes to Century for cash and inclusion in the investment pool.

Why was it important for Black residents to be involved financially in the rehabilitation process?

Colom: Detroit is a city where there was such high African-American ownership of homes. That got us thinking about bringing neighborhoods back.

Alade: Mrs. Cox, a Black woman who has lived here for 50 years, will talk to you for hours upon hours about the history of Detroit. Within the context of White flight from the neighborhoods, we have a chance to reinvigorate diversity. Ultimately, we can help bring wealth back to the communities that deserve it the most. People who stuck with Detroit through the depths of crisis are really looking forward to seeing how it looks on the other side when home values go up and neighborhoods are vibrant again and abandonment is gone.

Colom: We want to make the Atkinson Historic District, a historically Black neighborhood that has been dormant, active again. They used neighborhood associations to keep Blacks out. What if we use neighborhood associations to build Black wealth?

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What do you hope for Detroit in 20 years?

Colom: I think we’ll see some diverse neighborhoods filled with people biking around. I think we’ll see some young children living in the neighborhoods, because once they resolve the state control of the public education system, a lot of innovative thinking will come here like it went to New Orleans. I think you’ll see interracial neighborhoods, which will be so beautiful for Detroit.

Alade: People usually think of developers as the Donald Trumps, the Dan Gilberts—very well-capitalized, older guys. What I hope is that we’re able to create this new legacy for what a developer looks like. If I can play a role in shaping or changing what a developer is traditionally supposed to look like and encouraging and thinking about ways to build generational wealth, I will consider that a huge accomplishment.

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Rochelle Riley (@rochelleriley) is an award-winning columnist for the Detroit Free Press and a frequent commentator on MSNBC and national radio shows.