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Twin Engines

Written by Peter Kusnic

Ian Perrotta

Ian Perrotta

In Detroit, two recent Pitt graduates tramp across an overgrown lawn, inspecting a house with chipped brick pillars and opaque windows. Inside, they find the lights turned up, a pillowed sofa, and—behind a sheet dividing the living room—three unexpected residents. Everyone stares at each other. No one knows what to say.

The Pitt grads, twin brothers Ian and Andrew Perrotta, purchased the house two months ago when no one was living there. A few months earlier, they’d seen an ABC News 20/20 television segment about young artists who were redeveloping the Hamtramck area near Detroit. The brothers had been trying to figure out what to do after graduating from Pitt-Greensburg, and moving to Hamtramck sounded pretty cool. So they headed to the ailing auto town deemed the “Wild West” of real estate with the hope of buying a block of repairable homes for themselves and all their friends.

However, after seeing the thriving immigrant community of Hamtramck, the brothers envisioned another end: to buy homes in nearby Detroit and jumpstart another community’s restoration. They acquired five deeds for $1,400, not including unpaid taxes, then returned to Pitt-Greensburg so Ian could finish his degree in political science and writing, and Andrew could finish his degree in psychology.

In between studying for finals, the Perrottas brainstormed how they would inject sustainability, interdependence, and diversity into the neighborhoods of the five houses they bought. They founded an organization named Habitat for Hamtramck (www.habitatforhamtramck.org), applied for nonprofit status, designed two Web sites, held fundraisers, and challenged Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert to endorse the project. They also received national media attention on blogs, television, and in newspapers. And they tried to figure out how to recruit volunteers to rehab the homes.

“I wanted to do something that would make an impact,” says Ian, who served as president of the Students for Peace and Justice club during his senior year. “The homeless and squatters are people just like anyone else, but they need help.”

Now in the silent living room, the brothers introduce themselves to the people behind the sheet—a former policewoman, her uncle, and a nephew who’ve been squatting in the house for six weeks.

“I bought this house,” Ian says, “but I am not kicking you out.” In fact, he may have found his first volunteers.

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