Would you hand over the keys to your home in a prestigious neighborhood and press pause on retirement to relocate and start a business in what was once Detroit’s deadliest zip code?
If you’re Larry and Marilyn Johnson, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
The Johnsons were living what many would consider the American Dream when they decided to focus their efforts on making a real difference in Detroit and founded LifeBUILDERS in 2005.
Their commitment to restore dignity and provide hope to the residents of Regent Park on Detroit's Northeast side has been actualized through LifeBUILDER’s multifaceted mission: reclaim the neighborhood from the effects of disinvestment by providing high quality affordable housing; empower the youth with life skills and opportunities to grow and learn in a safe environment; and build a community of shared values, trust and hope for the future.
In the organization's 15 years they’ve taken it from a "mom and pop" shop to a beloved community gem that serves hundreds of residents annually.
Prepare to be blown away by the Johnson’s entrepreneurial journey in this month’s Tenacity Tales.
Larry Johnson, Founder of LifeBUILDERS.
What’s the obstacle that you’ve overcome that you’re most proud of?
As an organization based in and serving a neighborhood with a high crime rate and lack of public services, among other challenges, we have had to overcome our fair share of obstacles.
In the early years, we were met with many inefficiencies and disfunction at the city level. It took a great deal of persistence and determination on our part to advocate on behalf of the residents to get much needed public services delivered to the community, such as lighting and a police presence.
I am most proud that I successfully advocated to have the Detroit Land Bank Authority extend its funding boundaries to include all of Regent Park. Because of that, we saw up to 100 properties demolished, which led to a much safer community and significantly added to our revitalization efforts.
LifeBUILDERS led the redevelopment of a shuttered Detroit elementary school into a $1.2 million, state of the art early childhood education center.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Regent Park’s challenges were far greater than we ever anticipated. Decades of abandonment and disinvestment plagued the 97-block neighborhood, which opened the door to criminal activity, despair and hopelessness. Like a cancer, it grew.
The effects of abandonment of homes, blight and poverty…this was unchartered territory for us. We didn’t know the emotional effect all of this had on the hearts and lives of the people living in Regent Park. It was going to take a lot of energy and determination on our part to effect revitalization in this devastated neighborhood, while preserving the dignity of residents and restoring hope.
Furthermore, the response to our efforts was scattered and slow. Many residents were skeptical of our intentions. But there were plenty of others who believed our efforts to be sincere and genuine and, ultimately, became champions of LifeBUILDERS.
This is going back nearly 10 years ago, but I recall one day pulling up in a LifeBUILDERS’ branded vehicle to a house we had recently purchased and boarded up until we were set to begin renovations. Two ladies a few houses down noticed and, after some hesitation, came over to ask if LifeBUILDERS had bought it. They were thrilled to learn we had and said they felt helpful it would be transformed into the beautiful family home it once was. That brief exchange, and others similar to it, fueled my passion to continue moving LifeBUILDERS’ mission forward.
What’s your best advice to other small business owners?
My best advice to other small business owners is to be prepared for, and adaptable to, changing conditions.
A LifeBUILDERS home renovation in action.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day at LifeBUILDERS. It varies from encouraging staff, calling on donors, working with a grant writer, advocating with city departments for increased public services and developing church relationships.
Our door is always open. It’s not uncommon for a resident to stop in to say hello, learn more about ways they can get involved, drop off a rent payment and then end up with a staff member praying over them.
LifeBUILDERS believes that the 800 children within Detroit's Regent Park are integral to building a better future for the entire community.
How has COVID-19 impacted LifeBUILDERS and what are you doing to adjust?
Many of our residents work in non-essential industries and have been laid off, not knowing when they will get back to work. It is a stressful time for many families. They simply can’t wait for or rely on the arrival of the federal stimulus or unemployment checks.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have delayed our plans to hire additional staff, finalize two significant housing projects and expand our youth programs. Instead, our main focus is helping families who are in need now through a ‘stimulus’ package of our own that we've created.
In anticipation of what might be ahead for our residents, I began putting out the call for help in mid-March. Individual supporters, donors and private foundations all came through with contributions totaling $100,000. That is amazing!
We are using these funds to provide rent forgiveness, beginning with the month of May, to 50 tenants residing in LifeBUILDERS-owned properties and others in investor-owned homes and apartments in Regent Park that LifeBUILDERS manages. We’ve also been providing food assistance, making deliveries to the homes of not only residents, but also to families who participate in our programs throughout the year.
For 15 years we have been working alongside residents to improve the quality of life here in Regent Park for its 10,000 residents. Our neighbors have come to rely on LifeBUILDERS to provide a sense of stability and hope in the most difficult of times. We will work hard to provide for the hard working families of Regent Park in this time of need. We consider it a privilege.
Want to learn more about Larry and Marilyn Johnson and LifeBUILDERS?
Check out the LifeBUILDERS website.
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