Asia Denson stands in front of a group of people in a conference room at a Hilton Hotel in Brooklyn, New York.
“What up doe? I was born and raised in Detroit. I went to Martin Luther King Junior Senior High school…”
The 36 year old Denson owns a construction and property investment company, Denson Construction Services, in Detroit where she lives. She flew out to Brooklyn to teach a real estate seminar. More than 30 New Yorkers purchased tickets costing up to $199.99. They’re here to learn how to buy properties – not in Brooklyn – but in Detroit.
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The seminar consists of Detroit Title and Escrow Owner Emma Elder-Howell, Opulent Realty Team Broker Marcus Twyman, real estate investor Azikiwe “Zeke” Johnson, and Brooklyn-based Express Capital Financing Loan Officer Simon Rishty.
Early on, Denson tells the audience that the time to invest in Detroit is now.
“The hipsters are coming, or I should really say, they’re already there. They’re moving in to Southwest Detroit and the North End. If y’all been following me on Instagram and YouTube, I’ve been preaching about the North End forever. I grew up there. I know that neighborhood like the back of my hand.”
Denson says she’s worked with clients in places such as Las Vegas, China, and Israel. In October, one of her New York clients flew her out to the Bronx to teach a class for his investor group. It was such a success that Denson realized she could fly herself out with a team of Detroiters and charge money to do it. That’s how this Brooklyn seminar came to be.
Pass the Tile
It all started when she was a little girl. Denson’s grandfather – a carpenter in Georgia – introduced her to the construction trade.
“I remember being a kid and helping him tile but I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. He’d be like ‘pass this,’ ‘pass that’ and I’m just happy to be hanging out with grand pop,” she recalls.
After getting her Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology, Denson worked highway engineering jobs while earning her Masters of Science in Construction Management. Then in 2010, she started her own construction company.
“What I found out was that a lot of minorities don’t know the business side. They can do an amazing job but they have no idea how to handle the paperwork. And the paperwork, from what I’ve been taught in school, is really where the money is,” she says.
Denson’s crew members are all subcontractors. She is her company’s only employee. She takes on the estimating, the project managing, the marketing and she oversees the finances.
Denson says her company does a lot of work helping investors get their properties ready to be rented. Bathroom and kitchen renovations and repairing roofs are among the work they take on. But beyond rehab know-how, what qualifies Denson to lead the Brooklyn seminar is that she has invested in real estate herself. Denson says she’s bought and sold more than 50 properties. Right now, she owns three.
An Emerging Market
One of the properties she owns is a two-unit duplex located on the outskirts of Detroit’s prestigious Indian Village neighborhood. Denson says she purchased the large brick structure for $2,500.
It has boarded up windows, visible fire damage and debris spilling into the front yard. To enter the building, Denson and I navigate around a dumpster, up a board that covers crumbling porch steps and then walk through a door-less frame.
Inside, the first floor has been stripped down to the structure’s skeleton.
“This used to be a makeshift fireplace, which I believe is how the fire started over on the other side.” Denson says, gesturing to a brick wall that looks faintly charred. “The brick is exposed which I really love. I might try to keep it that way, if the city lets me, when it’s time to pull permits on the interior work and kind of give it a lofty look.”
Denson says her crew can fix the fire damage.
Walking up the stairs, our feet crunch on debris.
“What are we stepping on here?” I ask. “Is it the ceiling?”
“Yeah. And the walls,” Denson confirms with a little laugh.
Back at the seminar in Brooklyn, Denson warns attendees about the realities of Detroit’s housing stock.
“Detroit is an emerging market that takes dollars. So, yes, you bought that house for $500 but how much work does that house need? Please keep that in mind because y’all cousins and them been up in there, they done took the pipes, they done took the duct work, they done took everything so you gotta put it back to make it habitable.”
Members of the class chuckle. Harlem resident Ousmane Sidibeh is in the audience. He says he works with autistic kids and also drives Uber.
“So I came across Asia’s video on YouTube how she bought a deal for $5,000 and flipped it for $45,000. And that just put a light bulb in my ear and I just wanted to be here,” says Sidibeh.
He’s been interested in investing in real estate, but he says it’s not affordable for him in New York. After seeing the seminar, Sidibeh says he wants to buy in Detroit as soon as possible.
Out of State Investors
The idea of outsiders investing in the city can put up red flags for some. That’s because many out-of-state, absentee landlords are speculators who own hundreds of properties they don’t maintain.
Chase Cantrell is the Executive Director for the Detroit non-profit, Building Community Value. He says speculative investors are a legitimate concern, but it’s also important for Detroiters to be at the forefront of development in their city. Especially, he says, when it comes to buying homes.
“This used to be a majority homeownership city,” says Cantrell. “After around 2000, foreclosures began to increase. After the great recession of 2008, it accelerated. We lost a great deal of that black wealth in the city and now we’re a majority-renter city. For us, to reverse that trend and go back to the stability that we once had, we have to have African Americans who live in these communities involved in actually having homeownership again.”
One of the things Cantrell’s non-profit does is teach Detroiters how to invest in small scale real estate in their own city. Full disclosure – I’ve taken a class. While Cantrell wants to empower Detroiters to develop their own city, he recognizes that the need for rehab is so great that out-of-town investors will likely need to get involved, too. And if these outsiders are all people of color – like they are in Denson’s seminar – Cantrell says that can be valuable.
“People of color can help uplift people of color. And if that investment is coming from other, more stable cities, I think we should welcome that, if the lens of the investor is an equity lens.”
Cantrell says regardless of the race or residence of investors, he hopes they will actually rehab the properties they buy, and care about their tenants.
Rehabbing Her Hometown
Denson hopes these investors will rehab their properties, too – and that they’ll hire her for the job. But she says teaching the property seminar is more than just a business opportunity for her.
“I remember the glory days — well the glory days of my era of Detroit. And I remember how blocks used to look. They were vibrant, they were full of families, people cared, they were respectful. You knew not to step on Ms. So-In-So’s grass because she was gonna pop you. And I think, me, my philosophy is that I’m rehabbing Detroit one house at a time and I’m making Detroit beautiful again,” says Denson.
Some people use construction skills to renovate their homes. Denson wants to use the tools she’s learned to rehabilitate her entire hometown, gaining assets for herself and her neighbors in the process.