The Unexpected Challenges of Fixing Up A Cheap House in Detroit

What does it take to rebuild a house, and become part of a neighborhood?

Jake Neher/WDET

A few years ago a young man from Adrian published a fascinating piece on the website Buzzfeed about buying a broken-down house in Detroit for $500.

He would fix the house up by hand, buy a dog, and become part of the community.

Now, Drew Philp has published a book about that experience. It’s called “A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City”, released in hardcover this week.

Philp admits he started out a bit naive. He writes in his book of the day he looked for the right building to buy:

“I imagined life in my yet-unfound house to be pastoral and wonderful, a life in which I could make most of what I needed, grow a bunch of my own food, and live in a manner I thought responsible. I’d spend my free time woodworking and inventing little contraptions to make life easier. One of my goals was to have nothing plastic in the house, nothing cheap and disposable and made by the hands of children in Asia, nothing with built-in obsolescence. I’d be self-contained, and warm and content. I’d read books by soft desk-light and go to work and come home honest and tired. I’d eat a lot of peaches, ones that I grew myself.”

When Philp rides through his would-be neighborhood explaining his plan to residents, they snicker.

Philp did buy a house and fix it up. Of course, there were many lessons learned along the way — some of them very difficult — about what it takes to rebuild a gutted house, and become part of a community.

He concludes in his Buzzfeed story:

I’m not certain I’ve accomplished anything other than taking one abandoned home off the street, teaching a few kids how to read, or bearing witness to a something larger than myself. I’m not certain I’ve become an example to anyone or necessarily changed a whole lot for the better. But I’m still here. I go to bed and I wake up every day in Detroit, in a house I built with my own hands. Sometimes success means just holding on.

As a friend who grew up in Poletown put it, “We want things to flourish, but we want them to have roots.”

To hear a conversation with Drew Philp on Detroit Today, click on the audio player above.


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