Ford Foundation to open Detroit office after 64-year hiatus

on May31

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. Photo credit: Photo by Buck Ennis/Crain’s New York Business

The Ford Foundation is preparing to open its first office in Detroit since leaving the Motor City in 1953 as it ramps up a major initiative to invest in affordable housing in the city where it was founded 81 years ago by Edsel Ford.

The New York-based international foundation has hired a new program officer who will be based in Detroit later this year, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said.

“They will be working from Detroit and working with grantee partners there so we don’t have to have staff parachute in and out,” Walker told Crain’s Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News. “I think it’s important because having someone close to the ground, someone working in the city, is a more effective way to do our work.”

The Ford Foundation president plans to detail the foundation’s work in Detroit in a speech Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

Walker’s decision to plant an employee in Detroit is the latest effort he’s made to rebuild the foundation’s ties to the city where its endowment was first generated from the estates of Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, who chartered the foundation in 1936.

In June 2015, Walker brought the foundation’s annual board meeting to Detroit, the first since 1948, following the Ford Foundation’s unprecedented $125 million contribution to the “grand bargain” deal that settled Detroit’s historic bankruptcy and shielded the city’s art collection from creditors.

The Ford Foundation’s Detroit program officer will be charged with overseeing the $15 million in grants the foundation is making in Detroit annually, the most of any U.S. city, Walker said.

That total is in addition to its $8.5 million yearly payment to the bankruptcy “grand bargain” fund used to boost Detroit’s municipal pension funds and shield assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts from ever being sold.

Robert Collier, CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, said he and others in the state’s philanthropic foundation circles have been encouraging Walker to re-establish a physical presence in the city since the “momentous” 2015 board meeting.

“Having someone who is here is certainly strategically very important as opposed to having someone drop in once a month for a couple of days or having an endless stream of consultants,” Collier said.

Attacking poverty

The stationing of a new Ford Foundation staffer in Detroit comes as the foundation is looking to wade into investing in affordable housing in the city’s neighborhoods outside of downtown.

In April, Ford Foundation’s board announced it would take $1 billion out of its $12.5 billion endowment and put it into mission-related investments focused on tackling poverty abroad and affordable housing in the U.S.

Walker told Crain’s Detroit Business that Detroit and surrounding suburbs will be a “primary focus” for the foundation’s housing development investments.

“What drove it was the realization was that we’re going to have to leverage every asset we have to advance revitalization in Detroit,” Walker said. “And those tools must go beyond our grant-making.” 

The Ford Foundation has not set a target dollar amount for affordable-housing investments in Detroit.

But they’re open to hearing financing proposals from developers with projects outside of the 7.2-square-miles of greater downtown, Walker said.

“Rather than setting an artificial target, we want to generate as much demand as we can,” Walker told Crain’s.

The Ford Foundation is using its endowment for targeted investments in housing that it expects will be paid back over time and is in addition to the 5.5 percent of charitable grants it gives away annually.

Neighborhood redevelopment

Collier said the Ford Foundation’s new Detroit program officer will be critical to carrying out its neighborhood redevelopment mission.

“Community building is very much relationship-based and very much face to face,” he said.

Walker said the foundation is looking to invest in a range of housing projects for households earning between 75 percent and 150 percent of the median household income. In Detroit, that would benefit lower-income families earning between $19,300 and $38,600 annually.

The Ford Foundation plans to hire a director of its $1 billion mission-related investments this summer, Walker said.

He added: “We expect to start making investments in the fall.” 

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