Case Study

The Freelon at Sugar Hill

6 min read

An Architect’s Legacy Helps Homeless Veterans

For those in affordable housing considering their legacies, there is the example of Philip Freelon to consider. After a distinguished career as an architect (Motown Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture), Freelon signed on to a project to turn a vacant lot in Detroit into 68 apartments, including some with supportive services for low-income veterans. Although he didn’t live to see the project completed (he passed away in 2019), the architect’s memory certainly lives on at the development, Freelon, Sugar Hill.

“He helped shape it,” says Julie DeGraaf Velázquez, vice president of redevelopment for Boston’s Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), co-developer of Freelon, Sugar Hill along with Develop Detroit.

Sonya Mays, president and CEO of Develop Detroit and co-developer of the Freelon, says she has always been inspired by Freelon and his wife Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer.

“He [Freelon] wanted building design to be of its place and of its time,” Mays says. “And to have a reference back to the culture that is specific and special about that location…that was Phil’s statement on what he thought was necessary or possible with this development. I do think we accomplished that here. I hope that he would agree.”

Sugar Hill was a prominent entertainment district in Detroit back in the day, and that legacy is noted by colorful artwork all over the mixed-use project, even on the outside of the parking garage.

The creative theme extends to the commercial spaces at Freelon, DeGraaf Velázquez says. “We now have leading fashion designer Tracy Reese, and we have an entrepreneur in the nail arts.” Reese’s new fashion line headquartered at the Freelon is called Hope for Flowers, and the nail salon is called Cure Nailhouse. There is also a Haraz Coffee on site.

The artwork at the project “features all local artists,” DeGraaf Velázquez says. Develop Detroit led the process to identify a local curator for artwork throughout the building and a lead artist for custom panels on the parking garage.

The developers worked with Judy Bowman, a mixed-media collage artist from Detroit. Bowman’s art “centers on exalting America’s Black culture and uses vibrant hues, textured paper and acrylic paint to illuminate narratives that move beyond institutional racism and disparaged perspectives of the Black experience.”

Interior artwork was curated by Asia Hamilton of Norwest Gallery of Art and features Detroit-based Black artists. 

Then there’s the vibrancy of the color of the building,” which she describes as “an orange flame and a beacon right there in the middle of the midtown arts center.”

The effort to house 14 previously homeless veterans “turned out to be a great partnership,” DeGraaf Velázquez says. “We’re right across the street from the VA.”

These veterans are going to be helped by a unique collaboration between two federal agencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides the housing subsidy, and the Department of Veterans Affairs provides supportive services, in a program called the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH). This collaborative program pairs HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) rental assistance with VA case management and supportive services for homeless veterans.

Having the VA right across the street is a big help, DeGraaf Velázquez says. “Veterans live all throughout the Detroit metro region, and especially if they are unhoused, often they don’t have direct access to services. Because they’re right across the street it makes for a great fit.”

Partnership with Designers
Another good partnership was with Carolyn Dwyer, president of the Interior Designers Coalition for Change. DeGraaf Velázquez says Dwyer proposed, “What if we were to have 14 teams, all volunteers, and each one could take on the task of designing and furnishing the apartments for veterans?”

DeGraaf Velázquez shares that the group employed best practices in trauma-informed design, a key component of POAH’s development and management approach. “They really took it to heart as to what kind of colors, what kind of patterns, how you ordered the furniture, how you attenuate sound and then personalized each apartment. It was beyond what I had imagined for it. There were even message boards that said, ‘Welcome Home.’”

The veterans qualified for the VASH program and have incomes at or below 50 percent of area median income (AMI). A few additional units went to those at 80 percent AMI and lower. The rest are market-rate units for a total of 68 apartments and 11,000 square feet of commercial space at a development cost of $37 million.

The apartments, studios, one- and two-bedroom units ranging from 475 to 1,000 square feet, include in-unit washers and dryers, stainless steel appliances, solid surface counters and high ceilings. Amenities include a fitness center and a community gathering space. The units replaced an acre of vacant land.

Freelon, Sugar Hill used no Low Income Housing Tax Credits but did make extensive use of the New Markets Tax Credit for the commercial space and the 160-space garage.

Complicated Capital Stack
The capital stack was complicated (the development closed in 2020 and experienced some construction delays due to the COVID pandemic) and included the following:

  • City of Detroit: $2 million in HOME, $2.4 million in community development block grants and $6.7 million from a Section 108 loan for the parking structure;
  • Michigan Economic Development Corp./Michigan Strategic Fund: $4 million in funding from the Community Revitalization Program (CRP) and $2.4 million in Michigan Brownfield Tax Credits;
  • $9.8 million in New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) equity from PNC Bank, raised through NMTC allocations from Building America CDE Inc./AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, Michigan Community Capital, Cinnaire and PNC Community Impact Partners, Inc.;
  • A $4 million first mortgage from PNC Bank, N.A. and $5 million in financing through Prudential Financial and POAH;
  • $1 million in sponsor equity from POAH and Develop Detroit, plus POAH Capital Magnet Funds; and
  • Philanthropic support from Rocket Community Fund, the MacGregor Fund and the Home Depot Foundation.

POAH describes itself as “a nonprofit organization with offices in Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC, which owns and operates more than 13,000 affordable rental homes at 130 properties in 11 states and the District of Columbia.”

POAH’s co-developer, Develop Detroit, was launched in 2015 as a collaboration of local and national funders to build communities and expand opportunities for all Detroiters.

“As a mission-based real estate developer, the organization takes an entrepreneurial and equitable approach to neighborhood revitalization with a focus on service-enriched rental apartments, activating commercial corridors with increased density and ground-floor uses to attract a range of residents and businesses…,” Develop Detroit’s website says.

The developers say architect Phillip Freelon believed that all people deserve to experience beautiful and purposeful architecture in their daily lives.

They quoted him in a statement that could apply to the design that bears his name and legacy: “I have worked throughout my career as an architect to create environments that are uplifting, inspiring and set the tone for sharing knowledge and facilitating cultural exchange.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.