Artists buying cheap houses in Detroit

A small colony of artists is cropping up in Detroit, taking advantage of the bottomed-out property prices, buying houses for as little as $100:
So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.

For Sale: The $100 House (via Waxy)


  1. I know it’s on the wrong end of the spectrum, but frankly that sounds great. At least someone is buying these houses instead of just letting them rot. At least someone is trying to make something better than what it is now instead of just buying a “new” one.

    I own an old house and I know it’s challenges. They are in for a long hard road, but the reward is certainly worth the effort.

    It would be nice if our society thought more like this, than “Oh look at the new shiny one.”

  2. Is the director of this Dutch museum really called “Van Abbemuseum”?

    It sounds much more likely to be a typo, but if it’s true… how wonderful.

  3. When I read that you could buy a $100 house in Detroit my first thought was “artists”.

    If this catches on then they will BOHO the place and in 25 years they will be chased out by property developers keen to capitalise on the Bohemian credentials the area has.

    Soho, Tribeca, Saint Kilda, Kings Cross….there is bound to be one in your city.

  4. It’s easier to chase renters than buyers. But they’d better keep an eye on property tax appraisals.

    Moar on the van Abbemuseum, whose director is Charles Esche.

  5. Plenty more houses in the city of Detroit are being left to rot. Some areas are so devoid of human activity that wild animals that are not typically seen are now frequently reported. Driving through the city last winter we stopped in a former residential neighborhood to take pictures of a beautiful young male pheasant. The animal control authorities have decided to give up trying to trap out the coyotes because they’re too smart and seem to do little harm. Hunters from surrounding areas drive in to walk the deserted lots and train their bird dogs in flushing game.
    The real estate situation here is pretty dire. On the news last night was a story of Kwame Kenyatta, a City Councilman who wants to run for mayor but has defaulted on a mortgage. He owned a fine house in North Rosedale Park and when the market value dropped below $100K, walked away from the $250K mortgage and its 11% interest rate. His greatest disadvantage in the election may be sharing a first name with the last mayor.

  6. I’m becoming more and more interested in what the Detroit art scene has been doing recently. It seems like the city’s becoming a good place for creative expression. Sorta like Baltimore. Does a city need to have a crashed economy for creativity to reign? Probably not but still, it seems like good inspiration/way of attracting artists.

    A month or so ago, I read/watched a good article about Detroit’s community coming together to revitalize the city. here

  7. This is what I thought was going to happen when I first heard about the low housing prices in Detroit. Here’s what will happen: the artists will move in and make the area their own. They’ll give the people a sense of pride in their community and then others will want to live there. Then the corporate sumbags will come in, turn everything into condos for the filthy rich who want to live in a hip area but don’t want to dirty their hands to make a bad place better, and all of the people who put in the hard work to change the area will then be priced out and forced to move. Rinse and repeat in another low-income area until nobody can afford to live in the city.

  8. Maybe not so kneejerk….the artists are BUYING the houses.

    If I wasn’t in Australia, I’d be over there to buy a whole load of them, and rent them at a low cost to artists.

    But hey, most artists don’t seem to do things like buy houses, but if some do, and show others how, they can buy whole stretches of neighbourhoods.

    Wish I was in Detroit at the moment. Talk about a revolution with a tiny bit of cash. Sounds quite exciting.

  9. Someone can always benefit from something. I wonder about the gentrification process in some areas. In New York, it makes sense, since its a hub city in a part of the country people are generally moving to anyway (ie. the coast). What trend is going to move people to the interior of the nation (where they’ve generally been moving out of for the past decade)?

  10. I had been hoping to see something just like this. The fact is that Detroit has always been a mecca for artists for just this reason. Look no further than The Heidelberg Project ( or Theatre Bizarre ( to see how artists have utilized dirt cheap or abandoned property as their canvas. Now the movie studios are moving in as well. Detroit is (and for some, always has been) the place to be. Representin’ for the D, y’all.

  11. I’ve been tempted by the tales of sub-five-figure homes in the Detroit area. It would be remarkably liberating… There are two things that hold me back. Distance from my family is one… But the other is that in an area with such depressed prices, and that many empty homes, the amount of investment in local infrastructure is going to be near-zero. With the world moving as quickly as it is, it doesn’t seem like it would be long before an area with no infrastructure investment would be insufficiently connected to the rest of the world.

  12. All of this sounds romantic and all, but I live in the Detroit area. I spend time in Detroit proper regularly. Most of these houses are massive shit holes. I mean, any sane person should be afraid to even enter most of them for fear of the structure potentially collapsing. Generally, these houses require more than fixing the windows. Many suffer from fire/smoke damage. Most probably need new roofs, plumbing and electrical.

    And while a lot of these neighborhoods are “empty”, many of them are still overrun with massive amounts of crime. And by that, I mean, crazy stories you would think are made up. You would want to exercise an extreme amount of caution.

    I will say, the idea of building a community, or buying a block of houses and developing a community, seems like a fanastic idea, however. If anyone local to Detroit is genuinely interested in buying a block of houses and working as a group, I’d be interested in discussing it further. Seems if we worked as a group and took over a small area, it could work out.

    1. I grew up in Ortonville MI and hung out in Detroit and Windsor in the 80’s. I’ve been gone for over 20 years, but am coming back to live in Clarkston. I’ve been getting Detroit listings for a while and have serious interest in buying land and/or properties – urban greening/gardening is of interest and being part of the movement to bring back Detroit! Let’s chat!

  13. @dt10111, yeah, places this cheap are cheap for a reason, and after all the costs/taxes/fixups needed to make it legal and liveable it’s going to cost ALOT more than $100. That’s why I’m guessing all the slumlords didn’t scoop these up in the first place for rentals. That’s what I would have done.

    You can save money by doing the repairs yourself, but not everyone has as much free time as an artist.

  14. Two things:

    1. Whenever somebody says “The End Is Nigh!” I always feel like he’s selling Humanity short. This is a great example of Humanity taking a bad situation and making it a little better, and is a perfect rebuttal to all those doomsayers.


    2. Are these real artist communities, or are they trust-fund backed hipsters a la Williamsburg? If the former, how are they going to survive in what amounts to an economic vacuum (unless they’re going all survivalist)? If the latter, I could not think of a worse fate for any area. If they’re actually fixing these things up, well, that sounds much more promising.

  15. I lived in the city proper for quite a while, had many neighbors who did just what this article is describing. I made the mistake of moving for economic/job opportunity reasons. At 26, I now live in the type of city whose best selling point is that it’s “a nice place to raise children” and is otherwise pretty mediocre. It’s heartening to see that people are paying attention to this community in Detroit, and it makes me terribly homesick.

  16. This is how it’s supposed to work. When the previous generation of dinosaurs falls, their carcasses get stripped and something smaller and more agile tries to fill the niche. They’re not guaranteed to succeed either, but you never know until you try.

    If we’re going to find a way forward, the more experiments we run, the better. Lower costs of entry make it possible to try a wider variety of experiments.

    My best wishes to them.

  17. this kind of thing happens all the time, all over the place. there are anarchists doing this all through the rust belt. inevitable gentrification. dunno what the solution is, really, but owning a house is still *owning a house*. most people will never do that.

  18. This is how it’s supposed to work. When the previous generation of dinosaurs falls, their carcasses get stripped and something smaller and more agile tries to fill the niche. They’re not guaranteed to succeed either, but you never know until you try.

    Exactly what I was just about to say!

    Malinvestment gets liquidated, and new owners buy them up at lower prices to use it productively. (i.e. creative destruction) This is what real economic recovery looks like; not bailouts and “rescue plans”.

    This is also precisely why housing prices need to fall from their bubble highs. Same for those “toxic assets” that no one wants to buy at the banks’ asking price, rather than the market’s assessment of “practically nothing”, just as these homes are being bought for “practically nothing”.

    Imagine instead if the government used mandates to keep these houses artificially overpriced (and thus empty) — because of some rambling nonsense about “inherent value” and “common sense” saying “no house should be worth only $1900”.

  19. Letter from Flint/Detroit:

    The only people who live here have to live here. Or are too stupid to know how to get out. You don’t want to move here. Stay away.

  20. Are these real artist communities, or are they trust-fund backed hipsters a la Williamsburg?

    Yeah, I kind of wondered that myself, given that most visual artists have to work some other job than making art. How do they get enough money together to pay the upkeep costs or buy food and other necessities? Is there even enough infrastructure (grocery stores etc.) to make living in these places viable?

    Of course, lots of artists have part-time telecommuting jobs, so maybe they’re all proof-reading Korean patent applications. If so, rock on!

  21. I’m an artist with a day job living and working in Detroit, and have been living in the actual city for about 40 of my 46 years. I pay around $800/month rent to live in the midtown area so I can walk to work. Would be nice to buy a cheap home but I can’t afford the ~$50,000 it would take to make it livable. Many years ago I left one of the worse areas of the city to escape crime, and have no interest in going back. I do hope things keep improving.

    To the people here complaining about Detroit becoming so high priced that only rich people can afford to live here; your attitude is what has kept Detroit down. My god, there’s blocks of this city that once held dozens of houses and now have none! And it goes on for miles and miles of this city. Look at my old neighborhood the area east of Alter Rd. with all the is Grosse Pointe Park

    1. I have a great livable (everything is in good working order)cheap ($22,000 or less)house for you on the far west side (Detroit), 1.5 blocks from Dearborn. You’d only need to buy a refrigerator and a bit of furniture. My childhood home, now for sale. Organic garden for over 50 years, 2 sweet cherry trees, concord grapevine, Dolgo crabapple tree, many flower & flowering plants, WONDERFUL redwood sunporch on front of home. No garage, but a few great neighbors; full basement(recently waterproofed), 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths. 1923 vintage, Gas FA, A/C, new gutters, new back porch roof, 2 new back doors, etc., etc. Please reply.

  22. @BUDDY66

    First, Flint is like an hour away from Detroit, so let’s not lump them together, shall we?

    Second, I can only assume that you’re not an artist, because artists tend to see possibilities as opposed to realities. Yes, it’s bad here… especially if you value manicured lawns and chain eateries, however Detroit’s art community has certainly figured out how to make lemonade out of lemons. You need only look at The Heidelberg Project ( or Theatre Bizarre ( to see how it’s done.

  23. Now THAT is living the American Dream Bravo to these free thinking, openminded repurposing individuals. BRAVO!

  24. Artists don’t always need a day job- and these days location isn’t always required to sell your art. You can live almost anywhere and sell through the internet. So buying a cheap house- which may need a lot of work but you can use the 19000 you didn’t need to use to buy the thing to do that- works. And a house is often a shithole because the people who lived there made no effort to make it NOT a shithole.

  25. (a) To dt10111, yes Detroit has a lot of really scary neighborhoods and a lot of terribly run down properties. The ones I refer to in the piece are in one particular neighborhood in East Detroit which is relatively stable. As you point out, doing this in one concentrated area makes a whole lot of sense and these homes (and more like it) are only separated by one or two blocks. If you’d like more info, contact Mitch or Gina at

    (b) To phillamb168, appreciate your concern, but these aren’t trust fund hipsters, they are working artists. But luckily today’s artist lives & works often on the web and often on the road. You can see Jon Brumit’s excellent work here:
    And Sarah Wagner’s work here:

    (c) To GPeare, thanks for the shout out.

    Onwards, Toby

  26. the artists will move in and make the area their own. They’ll give the people a sense of pride in their community and then others will want to live there. Then the corporate sumbags will come in, turn everything into condos for the filthy rich who want to live in a hip area but don’t want to dirty their hands to make a bad place better, and all of the people who put in the hard work to change the area will then be priced out and forced to move. Rinse and repeat in another low-income area until nobody can afford to live in the city.

    Oh noez!!! The evil corporatonz are going to gentrify neighborhoods in Detroit! The city might raise taxes and actually have some money to spend on infrastructure and education! The horror! The horror!

    Let me explain it to you: A city where houses go for $50 is not a city with gentrification problems. God, could Detroit use some gentrification. The city is broke and desperatly needs something to raise property values. Artists aren’t going to have any problem finding a place to live anytime soon.

    Besides, the people who complain about gentrification of their “artists community” are the trust-fund hipsters who help gentrify areas in the first place. I am sure a real working artist would be happy to sell their home for 50000 times what they paid for it, quit their job, move someplace cheap, and live on the dividends.

  27. I’m from Glasgow in Scotland, a city that for most of my life was written off as a shit hole that should be burned to the ground, the land seeded with salt so that nothing would grow there again.

    It was seen as some post industrial hell hole that was beyond redemption.

    nowadays a 3 bedroom flat will run you a quarter of a million quid.

  28. I’d like to add that Detroit has some really stupendous residential architecture. Often the houses that are going cheaply are not flimsy wood frame ranches but big 2 and 3 story homes on decent sized lots with full basements, brick exteriors, plastered walls, lovely woodwork, local Pewabic tile, stone, landscaping, etc. All in dire need of repair, but there’s a lot there to work with. You drive down the street and see one burned out hulk after another that used to be some family’s palace. It’s really sad.

  29. I needed this so much.

    Thank you for showing me the cleverness and aspiring spirit of humans to turn a dark situation into the foundation for innovation, progress and support of their own.

  30. Considering how inept the Detroit mayor and city council have been, these folks aren’t likely to last long.

    I can’t imagine their tax bills will be pretty (‘oooh, look, lilly-white hipsters we can tax to the hilt!). Maybe they can work out an arrangement where they bribe local government officials.

  31. The Burning Man community should get in on this action. This is an opportunity to make a year-round version of BRC.

  32. #2: I’ll never understand why people like new houses.

    Give me character any day. New houses are cookie-cutter disasters, which seem to get worse the more money and independent design that’s put into them.

    It’s a sign of a rotten culture, where old homes are disregarded.

  33. oh yeah, and this reminds me of the t-shirts i always say (but probably never will) make:


  34. @34- Oh Noez! You’re a corporate apologist! You obviously have never been on the losing end of gentrification. So let me explain it to you: this is obviously not the problem in Detroit right now. I never said that it was. I said that it will happen. Notice I used the word “will”. That implies the future. It “will” happen becasue it always does in cities. I’ve seen it happen over a dozen times in as many years and that’s just in the Boston area. So yeah, artists won’t have any troble finding a place “anytime soon”, but call me in 10-15 years. You know, the future. Hence the word “will”. Most of the people I know who complain about gentrification are not “trust fund hipsters”. They’re artists who moved to the cheapest areas they could find so they could continue their art and have seen their rent go up 500% in less than 10 years because of the “trust fund hipsters” think the area’s cool now that all of the work is done to make the area livable. I’m sure a real working artist would rather have a place of their own that they helped cultivate than be booted out of their house due to “emenent domain.” Maybe if you lived through these situations, you wouldn’t come across as such an idiot.

  35. I think this is great. Good for them for trying to do something creative. It’s always nice to see these pockets of positivity popping up around Detroit…but realistically the city ain’t ever coming back. I say this as an urban planner who would love, love, love, love to see the people 60 miles down the road in Detroit doing well.

    It has few competitive advantages over a totally green field site or a suburban location. Lets see: Tons of brown field sites requiring massive environmental remediation, crumbling infrastructure that would cost more to repair than to build new, a corrupt and ineffective government with a toxic relationship with the suburbs (almost entirely based on decades long racial tension), a workforce skilled in a dead industry, a population density that falls well short of what can be efficiently serviced, no tax base, a state that can’t afford to pump money into the city, terrible schools, no major colleges or universities, etc. The people I knew who lived in Detroit as punky 20-somethings all left when they realized it was insanity to send kids to school there.

    This isn’t Boston or New York or Chicago or even Cleveland or Pittsburgh. This is a city that never had any economic diversification whatsoever. You can barely buy groceries within city limits anymore.

    The best the city can hope to achieve is some sort of clustered redevelopment, which is exactly what these wonderful wackos are trying to do. More power to ’em, but gentrification isn’t going to be a problem in our lifetimes. A city of 2 million depopulated to under 900K people just isn’t viable.

  36. @47 Patrick Austin

    “no major colleges or universities, etc.”

    Wayne State University, including their College of Education, School of Medicine, and Law School; the College For Creative Studies; Lewis College Of Business; Marygrove College; University Of Detroit Mercy; Wayne County Community College-Northwest, -Eastern, and District.

  37. and @47 Patrick Austin

    I walk to buy my groceries, either at the neighboring Foodland or, on Saturday mornings, at the thriving, bustling, beautiful Eastern Market.

    Oh, and if you’re going to come at me with the other cliche spawned by those residing 8 to 60 miles away, I get my dry cleaning done at Harbortown.

    All roads lead to the D.

  38. JERKZILLA is right.. the artist always make a neighborhood livable and hip then gentrification happens. Even if they buy the house, all the houses around them go up in value and new condos will go in and make their taxes go up. Also the new trust fund hipster who follow them bring noise, and stuck up attitudes and start calling the code people down on the working artist for silly things like painting a fence or having out of town guests from cali park up in a bus for 2 days. They always ruin a place. It’s a cycle.

  39. I love Detroit and am a long time resident of this city. Detroit is both wonderful and heartbreaking. I recently saw a Dutch television interview with two “Detroit” artists Warren Defever and John Sinclair. I have loved the work of both these guys over the years and respect them as artists. However, it was saddening to hear the romanticized and self-centered version of Detroit that they expressed. It seems very common and so easy for artists who move into this city from the suburbs, to take the mentality of “this is my crazy-weird-urban-artsy-third world city” and live in their own little romantic bubbles. It IS good for people to move into this city. It’s great for artists to buy cheap houses and help vitalize empty and suffering communities. Just please remember that there are many people who live in this city already, and don’t really have all the choices and opportunities that these artists and suburban transplants have. If you move into this city, please take personal responsibility to help EVERYONE in the city live better. There is a huge city here with all types of people and all types of issues. Detroit isn’t just artsy hipsters who get houses for 100 dollars and go to the Magic Stick to drink Pabst and hang out at corner art galleries. If you choose to live here, please consider how you can contribute to the community that extends beyond the artsy neighborhood blocks near Wayne State or Corktown. In order for Detroit to thrive, everyone who lives here must be deeply considered.

  40. “I think this is great. Good for them for trying to do something creative. It’s always nice to see these pockets of positivity popping up around Detroit…but realistically the city ain’t ever coming back. I say this as an urban planner who would love, love, love, love to see the people 60 miles down the road in Detroit doing well.”

    Patrick what type of “urban planning” do you do? 60 miles down the road? Seriously! I bet you work on nice little streetscapes for tourist towns and local farming communities. Detroit needs real artist and it seems that they are getting that right now. Dont feel bad our parents generation felt the same way and they left. There is a new generation of thinkers taking over. These people dont know the hate and fear that created this mess. They see a better future for all of Detroit. Forward thinking citizens who live in the city are the people who will make change. Maybe we can call them the “real urban planners” and give them all PhD’s in Urban Planning for actually making change. Detroit isnt dead, its changing and the last time I checked Detroit has always been the comeback city. This isnt the first time we have experienced a collapse in Detroit and it wont be the last. Saying that it is hopeless doesnt do anyone any good. I just read an article in Detroit Business that mentions the creative class as the first sign of revival.

    “Already, homes in Detroit are going for as little as $100, and many are being bought up by the creative class, whether it’s artists, musicians, or filmmakers. As research has shown, the arrival of artists is often the first indication of a revival.” – dBusiness

    Right now I live about 2 miles outside the city limits and I am considering a move to the city. I feel like I cant complain if I dont live in Detroit. Personally I appreciate art and understand its importance for all, but I am no artist. However I do think artist will save the city, because creativity leads to innovation and Detroit needs major innovation right now. Just my 2 cents. Go Tigers

  41. I’m not an artist but would love to purchase a cheap home in Detroit for the shear pleasure of having NO HOUSE PAYMENT. Yeah, yeah, I know there’s still the taxes but I can live with those. Back to my oringinal comment; I make a pretty decent profit on ebay when I dedicate myself to it. Owning a home in Detroit would allow me to pursue the avenue of traveling the country (and elsewhere) in search of treasures to resell. Heck, there’s probably plenty of stuff to be found right there in the city. I’ve mentioned this to family and friends. They all think I’m crazy, but hey, the idea that millions of people would someday be able to connect with each other on little machines that can be held in lap probably sounded crazy too. Are there any ebayers out there in Detroit? If so, I’d love to talk.

  42. I currently live in Indianapolis but would love a place in Michigan to rehab for my son who lives with me…we both love the arts and if someone could give me the actual locations of streets/areas that are going thru renewal so i can google them, i would be most appreciative

  43. I hope they didn’t so much “dig” a garden as they did “truck in a bunch of dirt and throw it into a pile”.

    The Detroit Earthworks (urban garden group) came to my school and gave a talk a couple of months ago. The rep said the ground is too toxic to grow in directly and you need to bring in fresh dirt, pile it up for a couple feet and grow stuff out of that.

  44. The people buying these houses for cheap prices are well educated white people, they might me artists they might not. And yes they are the same types of people that live in Williamsburg Brooklyn, who else would try to revitalize run down neighborhoods in Detroit. Yes they will create neighborhoods that they might one day get run out of but that probably won’t happen. These people could also live in NYC, they have the money they just want the experience of creating a new neighborhood. Don’t let them tell you they got pushed out of NYC, they can afford to live anywhere they want, they have the money, background and education to do what they please. It’s called elitism.

  45. I’m a photographer and would like to find out more about this artist colony and any more available homes. Does anyone have any information on it? Thank you.

  46. I am a student at the fabulous Wayne State University and am planning on moving into the neighborhood just north of the school. Woodword and GMC Drive intersection approximately. The neighborhood is a little thin and about 50/50 houses are maintained/abandoned. I don’t mind the aesthetic and can appreciate a house that costs 6k with minimal repairs and taxes of $600 a month! I am a DIY since birth and plan on doing all my fixing up such as windows, siding, painting, etc. Anything I can physically do, I will do and have experience to do it right.

    The house is going to be a collective for me and my friends; anyone that lives in it pays their way for food and utilities and that’s it.

    Come and join us soon!

  47. When the economy is so low, as it is in Detroit, creativity becomes a necessity! This is why artists are able to prosper! To bad for the rest of the individuals our educational systems have let down or didn’t rightfully prepare by cutting the arts…how are they supposed to think outside of the box and see the beauty in all possibilities? It is time for artists to collaborate, as we frequently do, but in a way that will draw attention to the overall importance of art and it’s ability to encompass the universe yet relate so personally. Yes bring back Detroit, but, BRING BACK THE ARTS!!!!


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