Ypsilanti Immigration Interview: Erika Nelson

Earlier this winter, on one of our small Occupy Ypsi marches around the city, I met a woman by the name of Erika. She’d apparently been living here in Ypsi for a few years, but, somehow, our paths had never crossed, even though we had several friends in common. Well, over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing her by way of email, and I’d now like to share the results… I know it’s a bit belated, but please join me in welcoming yet one more new resident to the blossoming paradise that is Ypsilanti.

MARK: If I recall from our brief chat, you made a decision to settle down in Ypsi about three years ago, after stops in Pittsfield Township, Ann Arbor, Royal Oak and Ferndale. What made you choose Ypsi when it came time to buy a house?

ERIKA: Well, there were two levels of decision making made; first, to move back to the Ann Arbor area, as opposed to staying in Metro-Detroit or going back to Lansing, where I grew up. I spent two years in Ann Arbor while I was in grad school at U of M. I still had friends here and I thought that this area would be the most receptive to a business idea that I was working toward.

I found a realtor and told her my requirements: pre-WWII home, lots of windows, a garage, some space to garden. Anything that fit that description in Ann Arbor was either a) $500,000 or b) <1000 sq ft., without a garage. I looked at some homes in the townships/farmlands and realized that most of the houses that were old enough not to be part of a sprawling subdivision of beige siding and sapling trees were pretty run down or attached to an actual farm. And $500,000. Honestly, Ypsi had never even been on my radar until my realtor called one day to say that a house had just come on the market that she thought I would want to see. She said "It's in Ypsilanti, I don't know if you had considered looking there or not." I saw the house and knew it was exactly what I was looking for - 1800 sq ft, built in 1925, very well maintained/updated, amazing gardens, garage, and huge windows. It is on a charming street with a beautiful island and mature trees all around. And it was more than $100,000 cheaper than anything that I would have considered in Ann Arbor. It was a perfect place to call my own - just right for a single gal with lots of creative energy and a first-time home buyer credit. I knew that Ypsi had a reputation for being less expensive and more economically diverse than Ann Arbor, and that it had some tough areas of town. But I also knew that it was right next to Ann Arbor, and even had a University of its own. I grew up in Lansing, which is a former factory town, right next to a major university, with a very diverse population (economically, racially and otherwise). So, this felt familiar to me. A home with a sense of place and time was important to me - the character, the strength of construction, the history and the charm. A city with the same qualities was equally important. I love that this is not a subdivision of sprawl that people fled to; this is a place where people come from. It's a place where neighbors know each other, and have for years. It has a real downtown - two actually, with Depot Town. Ypsi feels like it has roots, echos of lives and eras that made the city great - just like Lansing does. I was sold. I closed on the house in December of 2008. MARK: Have subsequent experiences in Ypsi ever given you reason to question your choice?

ERIKA: Question? Yes. Regret? No. I don’t really want to get into too much detail, but this house and this community literally saved my life. I came to it at a time in my life when I was ready to give up. I needed just one thing in my life to give me something to start from and this was it. Painting, sanding, tiling, cleaning, digging in the earth in the sunshine, creating, owning, setting roots down, being a part of something, making a commitment, having something to show off and feel some pride in, having somewhere to branch out from, having somewhere to welcome people into.

I have learned so much from this home-owning experience. I have definitely felt frustrated at times. My house has dropped in taxable value by 33% since I bought it three years ago. I thought I got a good deal because I was paying 20% less than the previous owner did, but you know what? This house saved my life, so none of that matters. I’m here now, I will be here for the long term – I love my house, my garden, my neighbors, and my community. That’s why I care so much about the future of Ypsi. I will be here in that future, so I don’t want it to turn out like the Michigan cities that people fled from into the cornfields-turned-beige-siding-and-sapling-trees. I want this to continue to be a city that people will come to.

We have a chance to turn things around. We have things that those other cities didn’t have: we have a major University providing jobs and incentive to reside here, we have two major hospitals and another University right down the road whose employees need affordable homes in the area, we have a police and fire department that goes above and beyond the call of duty, and we have enough local residents who actually care about their city and are willing to see it through.

MARK: How much, if any, research did you do about Ypsilanti before moving here? And what did that research entail?

ERIKA: The only research I did was via observation: I had met a couple of gals in the birth midwifery world who were from Ypsi and they seemed super cool and friendly, and the seemed to share my values system. I noted the sea of Obama 08 signs in the yards. I saw people outside, raking leaves, walking to campus, catching the bus to Ann Arbor, walking into the downtown library. Looked good to me.

MARK: I assume, at some point, you made a list of “pros” and “cons”, and the “pros” outweighed the “cons”, but I was wondering if, for the purposes of our conversation, you could share some of the “cons.” I’m curious to know what apprehensions people have. For instance, when you made the decision to invest here, I assume you already knew about the looming Water Street debt, and the struggles we were having just to keep basic public services, right?

ERIKA: Pro: history, roots, echos of Lansing, $100,000 cheaper, near Ann Arbor, University town = stability, values, culture.

Con: closed down factory, pockets of low socio-economic status neighborhoods, commercial districts with payday loan/liquor store/empty storefronts. Impression that schools were undesirable (although I am not interested in having children). Knowledge that surrounding areas of Pittsfield and Ypsi Twp have high crime areas.

To be completely honest, I was very VERY naive when it came to buying this house. I had spent so many years living in tiny apartments or rental houses, and I was in such a rough patch in my life that I didn’t really care about the details. I just wanted the house. This is really embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t even really know what a “mil” was. I had never directly paid property taxes before. I didn’t know that I could be on the hook for the city’s past debts and expenses. I didn’t even hear the term “Water Street” until two years after I moved in. The devastating hit that I have taken in my home’s value has made my tax bill lower, and increased my willingness to pay a bit more to be able to move forward.

I have since made an effort to research and understand the city’s financial situation. I am now familiar with the terms “Headlee Amendment”, “Prop A”, “bond debt”, “charter mandate” and “contractual obligation” with regard to the budget. I realize that city employees’ pensions and health benefits are enormous expenses; that failed plans by the city in the past become present and future liabilities for tax payers. I get it that property taxes based on depressed property values, stymied by non-taxable property and no room for growth plus Headlee Amendment and Prop A constraints make for dwindling revenue sources.

MARK: What have you discovered about Ypsilanti since being here that’s surprised you?

ERIKA: I am surprised at how “small town” this city feels, and how easy it is to interact with the local government – on a first name basis. I am surprised at how involved, welcoming and organized the local movers and shakers are in town. I was really surprised to meet with the Mayor and discover that he a) only works part time as Mayor, b) has a tiny office, like closet sized, which he shares with another person. It made me really recognize the difference between a small city like Ypsi and a large city like Lansing or Detroit.

Unfortunately, I have also discovered how much Ypsi struggles with crime. I have seen several cycles of home break-ins happening in the neighborhood – two neighbors on my block have had home invasions (one while a woman was home) since I moved in, and another had a bike stolen from his garage. Someone entered my car at night and went through it… but I guess they weren’t interested in tampons and roadmaps.

The summer that my fiance (now husband) moved in, we witnessed a violent crime on Oakwood from our bedroom windows. A pedestrian was robbed at gun point with a sawed off shotgun and hit with the gun. We had to go to court to testify as witnesses when the perpetrators were caught (after they had committed six armed robberies in four jurisdictions). That was interesting. You know what it showed me though? That our police are awesome at what they do. The home invasions were solved, the armed robbery was solved – the police have our backs. I know, I hear what they go through whenever I tune in on the police scanner website.

MARK: Do you feel yet as though you’re a part of the community? And, what could we as a community do better to help integrate our new residents?

ERIKA: Absolutely. I had an open house when I was done with some renovation work on the house, having owned it for about 4 months. Almost all of the neighbors on my street came. The ones that didn’t sent cards. They told me about the neighborhood association and how to get on the email list for that, and they asked if I would like to get involved with the Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation and Ypsilanti Garden Club. My house ended up being on the historic home tour that year and from there I became involved with the Ypsi Meals on Wheels Holiday Tour. I met several locally active people through those two events and started working on the AATA millage campaign – which was especially important to me because I was taking the bus into Ann Arbor to work at the time. I am now the president of my neighborhood association, which consists of 524 households, and working on a local ballot campaign.

I’m not sure what the city as a whole could do to welcome new residents, but I just created a committee in my neighborhood association to seek out new residents of the neighborhood by watching real estate transactions and make a personal visit to welcome them with baked goods and information about the association, local service providers and the city in general. They would then have at least one contact person, whose face they recognize, that they could get in touch with if they have questions. We have visited 5 homes so far and it has been very well received. We average about one new resident home per month, so it’s not overwhelming for the committee to keep up with.

MARK: Can you talk about the experience of looking at homes in Ypsi? Did your agent know the area? Did they try to steer you toward other communities? I ask because, to my knowledge, Ypsilanti’s last real estate firm closed a few years ago. At least, I think that’s the case. I’m sure we have some independent agents here, and that some of the people working for the Ann Arbor firms live here, but my sense, having talked with a few folks, is that there’s not a lot of expertise when it comes to Ypsi, especially when working through the companies in Ann Arbor. I ask because I’ve been thinking lately about the possibility of providing real estate agents with materials on Ypsilanti, and maybe even holding short seminars for them, intended to help them better appreciate the unique attributes of our city and how to market them.

ERIKA: This was the only home I looked at in Ypsi and I made an offer a week later. The agent that I worked with was from Ann Arbor, she did not seem to know the area, or at least she didn’t talk to me about it. Honestly, it didn’t really occur to me to ask anything about the area other than “What is the crime rate around here; is it a safe area?” She said that she wasn’t really able to tell me that sort of thing – I think she said that she wasn’t allowed to because she wasn’t allowed to try to steer me to one community or another. She told me that I could look those sorts of things up on the internet. I don’t think I ever looked.

I do think that you/we/someone should provide materials about Ypsi, past, present and future, to realtors. I think that many home buyers might not understand how Ypsi is different from other struggling cities – the small town feel, the level of involvement of the residents, the commitment of the residents to ride out the hard times, the stabilizing force in our proximity to Ann Arbor and EMU, the opportunities to find updated and maintained historic homes at a fraction of the cost of Ann Arbor’s, etc etc etc. Sure, we have some tough economic times ahead, but we will not become a ghost town like Flint, Detroit, etc. Ypsi will emerge on the other side of this and provide great opportunities for investment along the way…

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  1. Posted February 1, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    I’d originally intended to end the interview with the following, but it didn’t really fit… so here it is, as a comment.

    MARK: As I recall from our earlier conversation, among other things, you teach mortuary science, right?

    ERIKA: For several years, I taught Psychology in the School of Mortuary Science and some seminar courses for the Forensic Investigation Program at Wayne State University, in Detroit. I finished doing that in 2008. I am licensed in Mortuary Science, which is needed to be a funeral director, and I am a licensed, master’s level social worker. I have worked in end-of-life care (hospice care) for over a decade and I studied community organizing and aging in grad school.

    I combined my experience with the hospice model of empowering patients and families to care for themselves and each other in their own homes at the end of life with my interest in funeral care by learning the historically traditional methods of home funeral care. There is a movement, based on empowerment of families and a return to less resource intensive and invasive after death care practices, that is providing new options in after death care in America. I had hoped to bring that movement to Michigan by offering these alternatives in funeral service. A combination of the crash in the economy, financial barriers to entry in the licensing of funeral establishments, personal re-evaluation of my tolerance for the risks involved, along with a realization of the toll that a 24/7 on-call career would mean in my life was enough to put these plans on hold, indefinitely.

  2. tyler weston
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Mark I would love to work with you on educating realtors about ypsi, Holla

  3. Edward
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I did not know what a mil was when I moved here, either. Us first time home buyers can be pretty naive. Still, though, even knowing what I know now, I’d still choose Ypsi over Ann Arbor.

  4. Erika
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Tyler, we should talk too. I’m not going to be at the next Parks & Rec because it’s on my birthday (gotta get the discounted dinner out while I can!) but will I see you at the March meeting, or before? You may remember me as the passionate dog park supporter from previous meetings. ;)

  5. Posted February 1, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    When we bought our house, I was more interested in dollars than mills. When you think of dollars, taxes on a house in Ypsi were a lot lower than taxes on a comparable house in Ann Arbor. (Still are, looking at the house my sister just bought in A2.)

  6. Cheryl W
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Ypsilnti is very furtile “ground” for people like Erika. Her outlook, desire, and talents bring a lot to our community. Residents who possess a positive forward-looking view of Ypsilanti, will have a tough “row to hoe” setting an example of committment, and investment in our own community. I arrived here as a student 40 years ago and made Ypsilanti my home. I would rather pay local taxes than insureance premiums. A decrease of local police and fire service will increase our cost for insureance. I believe my local tax $ can be leveraged to bring more of the State and Federal $ back to our community. Mark, Thank you for the interview. It was well worth the wait.

  7. Meg
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for continuing to run these immigration interviews. It’s comforting to hear other new/newish homeowners talk about their experiences in Ypsi. Sometimes I wonder if buying in Ypsi right now was a good idea but then I get home, look around my garden, and realize I wouldn’t have it any other way. Hearing from Erika Nelson and others like her is a lot of fun. Keep ’em coming!

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