Alumna works to expand affordable housing options in Flint

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Essence Wilson knows housing is the foundation of everything people do. That’s why she works hard to make sure people have affordable, quality housing through her work at Communities First Inc.

Wilson (’05, ME) is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Communities First Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is to build healthy and vibrant communities through economic development, affordable housing and innovative programs.

She founded Communities First in 2010 with her husband, Glenn, after their discussions of community issues. Glenn was working in health care at the time and became aware of the living conditions of some seniors in Flint. The organization’s first housing estate was designed for low-income seniors, and since then Communities First has generated over 400 housing units. Along with their passion for equitable real estate development, their work has grown to include creating economic opportunity and engaging people in the community.

Typically, people working in the community have a background in social work or other soft sciences, but Wilson said the skills she learned through her engineering background are transferable and have proven useful, particularly when “an analytical thinking process is needed to work in the context of a social issue or concern.

“The process I use to resolve issues is in many ways similar to the process I used while working at [General Motors] and troubleshooting a broken production line,” she said. “The process is the same, but the impacts and the weight of responsibility are very different. It could literally alter or change someone’s life.

Communities First’s latest project is a 48-unit apartment complex in the University Avenue corridor at the intersection of University Avenue and Grand Traverse Street.

“There is a lot of good work being done in the corridor, and it becomes an additional housing offer for the residents of this neighborhood and also for those who wish to live in this neighborhood. It creates an affordable price for people who want to live there,” Wilson said.

Building close to amenities and resources people need is also important, she said, noting a number of services within walking distance, including a gas station, dining options, education and downtown.

The site where the apartment complex will be built was private green space, but previously housed a burnt-out grocery store that was removed by the University Avenue Corridor Coalition. It is opposite the property belonging to the University of Kettering which houses a Jimmy John’s and a Little Caesars.

Wilson said the organization would like construction to begin as soon as possible and the construction timeline would be 12 to 14 months.

“I think it creates opportunities for some people who are already in the neighborhood but may not be living in the best housing conditions or want something a little different,” she said. “…I think it also helps to raise the level of what people expect for essentially the same amount of rent; there’s just a different quality of life they might have in a new location with retail space and other tenants who are in the building.

She acknowledged that some people in the area get worried when they hear the term “affordable housing,” but she said they shouldn’t worry.

“Housing is a fundamental thing where people who have housing and have a nice place to live often underestimate it for others,” Wilson said. “So the first thing is to get into that space where we understand that everyone deserves a decent place to live. Once we agree on that, we can stop seeing people as ‘those people’. and realizing that we are all those people. We shouldn’t talk about people as if they were an object or as if they were unwanted individuals as much as we should try to create community and cohesion in neighborhoods where everything the world can flourish.

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