Recent College Grad Boosts Detroit Community

Ian Perrotta is renovating dilapidated homes and inviting professionals to live in them.

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Yesterday, I profiled Lindsay Hyde, founder of the nonprofit Strong Women, Strong Girls, as part of an ongoing look at why so many young people are starting their own nonprofits. For today's post, I interviewed Ian Perrotta, 24, who started the group Habitat for Hamtramck to help the ailing Detroit neighborhood after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh earlier this year. Like Hyde, Perrotta is driven by the desire to fill a niche that he doesn't see anybody else addressing. He bought five dilapidated houses for a total of around $1,400, and he plans to renovate them and then invite professionals, including a nurse, financial planner and social worker, to live in them and offer their services to the community for one day a week. "I'm trying to create more a communal society, where people help each other out," he says.

[For more, read: "Obama Boosts Nonprofits."]

Perrotta and his twin brother Andrew have already generated much media attention by sending an e-mail to celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and asking him to blog about their cause. They also publicly challenged Stephen Colbert to help them raise money (and offered to name a house for him in exchange). So far, Colbert has ignored their request, which Ian Perrotta says he expects to continue until the group achieves official nonprofit status.

Perrotta is getting some help with that challenge, which requires some pretty hefty paperwork. Susan Barrett, an attorney who grew up in the Detroit area, offered her assistance free of charge. She has already suggested that he consider changing the name, which is similar to Habitat for Humanity. She also says that Perrotta needs to consider who will monitor the services performed by the professionals and what happens if someone sues the nonprofit for receiving bad advice from one of them.

Here are excerpts from my conversation with Perrotta:

Why did you decide to start Habitat for Hamtramck?

Sometime around late February or early March, I noticed there were a lot of stories popping up about the real estate market in Detroit and how you could buy a house for $100. Then, one night we were watching 20/20 and a segment featuring an artist couple who had bought a house in Hamtramck [for little money] and fixed it up came on. I looked houses up on the Internet and found a couple listed in Hamtramck. I thought, 'We'll get in the car and see this for ourselves. On a Friday night, I got in my truck and drove to Detroit [from Pittsburg]." When we got there, we saw the house that I'm living in now. It was listed for $100.

What is your goal?

I was never trying to make money. The idea is to bring people into the area in a way that could help with positive redevelopment. I just had the idea that there are all kinds of people affected by the economic crisis and that if they didn't have the burden of the mortgage to pay, they would be able to use their skills to help other people in the community.

I'd like to have an office that's open to people in the general area where they can come in and use the services of a professional on a rotating basis. I might give one [of the five] houses to someone in a health care profession, like a nurse, who could look at people and give them a general health screening. A lot of people don't have that. The next day, I'd like to see maybe a dental hygienist, and maybe on the third day a financial planner who could help people create a savings account. On the fourth day, a paralegal could help with legal advice, like problems with bill collectors, and on the fifth day, a social worker could help with mental health and other problems.

It sounds almost like a mini-utopia.

No, it's more of a return to community. You get a sense of how the world used to be from reading books and watching old movies. As a result of the Internet and mass media, now you don't know your neighbors, you're just inside on the computer. I'm trying to create more of a communal society where people help each other out.

Is fundraising difficult?

We're soliciting donations on the Internet and through word of mouth. When people understand the concept, they are really receptive to it. After Perez Hilton did a post on it on April 15, we got 1,000 visits to our website and about $1,000 in donations.

Instead of starting your own group, why not join up with another one, like Habitat for Humanity?

I didn't want to be micromanaged by someone. Anyone that's ever been in a situation where there's multiple levels of management can attest to the fact that there's a way management wants you to do it then there's a way that is logical. I want to do it my way. I don't want to follow somebody else's rules.

Up next: Three friends join forces to help families affected by leukemia.