If readers pick up “Detroit Hustle” thinking it’s a book about getting rich by flipping houses in Detroit’s depressed housing market, they will be sorely disappointed. But they may appreciate it for its bare-bones honesty about life, love and one couple’s pursuit of the American dream of home ownership — at all costs.
The book, by journalist Amy Haimerl, 40, follows the author and her husband, Karl Kaebnick, a 44-year-old computer programmer, as they move from Brooklyn to Detroit and set out to rehabilitate a neglected house. It can be read as a loving paean to Detroit and its gritty residents, but Haimerl is blunt in her assessment of the city she learned to love.
“I was not prepared for the devastation and poverty Karl and I saw in our first visit to the city together,” Haimerl writes.
But that reaction did not deter the couple from buying a 1914 Georgian-style home in Detroit’s West Village for $35,000 in May 2013. In the book, Haimerl reflects on how she didn’t want to be seen as “another New Yorker scoping a cheap house in the Motor City.”
Like many homeowners, the couple quickly learns that a cheap house is not always an inexpensive one, especially in Detroit. The house has no plumbing, no heat, no electricity and is uninhabitable. A white tomcat greets the couple, which Haimerl sees as a sign of good luck.
The couple ultimately spend more than $400,000 restoring the 3,000-square-foot home, and most of it was money they didn’t have. They maxed out their credit cards, cashed out retirement savings and borrowed from Haimerl’s father to pay for the extensive work required on the home.
A Colorado native, Haimerl describes her circuitous journey to the Motor City in the first chapters of “Detroit Hustle.” She goes through several boom-and-bust jobs in new media before ultimately landing a Knight- Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. While in Ann Arbor, the couple decides Detroit is the place they want to live, and that they want to play a role in “forging its future.”
Even after the deal is sealed, Haimerl has some serious doubts. She wonders if they will be welcome to their new home or would be seen as another pair of “white gentrifiers.” The couple soon learn that Detroit is a welcoming place but also realize that the biggest concerns are within the house itself.
The couple learn some tough lessons: You can’t borrow money against a home that has little value, contractors are tough to find and it’s nearly impossible to insure an unoccupied home — especially in Detroit.
Haimerl, who calls herself “a contractor’s daughter,” faces an almost daily onslaught of decisions. Should windows come before plumbing? Should a roof and eaves be a No. 1 priority? When will they be able to actually live in the house?
To be clear, this is not a book about bringing sweat equity to bear or cutting corners to make the home-owning equation work. Haimerl and Kaebnick contract out the work to a local contractor.
“People wonder whether it was a smart thing and balk at the money spent, but this is a forever house,” Haimerl said. “We want to live in Detroit. It’s still a place defining what its future will be.”
But she cautions others who might consider following their lead.
“Our rehab model is not sustainable,” she said.
Haimerl also knows the real story of Detroit is not about the newcomers like her and her husband, saying that it’s about the “people who never left — the middle class who never left —that’s the untold story.”
The couple’s neighbors on Van Dyke Place help them adjust to life in the city, and they befriend several Detroiters at one of city’s great neighborhood bars, PJ’s Lager House on Michigan Avenue.
“You have to earn your way in; do your time,” Haimerl said.
While the city is laid out for cars, Haimerl finds that best way to get to know Detroit is on foot. On her walks, she discovers local gems like the Guardian Building, the riverfront and Hart Plaza. She also learns to appreciate the unexpected wildlife that has taken advantage of abandoned patches in the city.
“I love the pheasants,” she said. “I love the country within a city.”
Haimerl, who is settled in the home and recently landed a position as a journalism professor at Michigan State University, is preparing to write a book about the “us versus them” phenomena she sometimes encounters. She worries about the success of her own neighborhood, which is now filled with hip shops and restaurants. Improving a community can come at the expense of longtime residents, who are pushed out by rising rent.
“Success changes everything,” Haimerl said.
Amy Haimerl Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14 FREE Schuler Books & Music (Meridian Mall location) 1982 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos (517) 349-8840, schulerbooks.com