Personal and professional partners Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas are flippers with heart. They do it to the delight of TV viewers across the country on their hit HGTV show “Bargain Block,” which returns for a second season on June 8.
But more than just being a ratings boom, Bynum and Thomas are making a real difference on the northwest side of Detroit they work in. As they transform neighborhoods – to date, the couple have rehabbed and renovated nearly 30 homes – they are also promoting the reemergence of Detroit to a national audience.
At first site, what you see of the city on the show might not be pretty. Bynum and Thomas only take on the worst of the worst houses, run down, abandoned and abused. Most of any prestige these houses ever had lie in ruins, initially. In fact, it’s a good day if all the outer walls are even standing. Then Bynum and Thomas do their thing, lovingly transforming them into real homes with personality and panache for happy first-time homebuyers.
But on “Bargain Block,” you see more than just the gory details of flipping desperately run-down properties. You see the heart of Detroit within its neighborhoods, the resilience of its people. You see the city itself becoming almost a palpable character in the show’s storyline.
No wonder viewers can’t get enough.
Bynum and Thomas only moved to Detroit five years ago, without ever having even visited the city. But it was love at first site, ahem, sight for the couple and their new hometown. They instantly “got” Detroit — and Detroit instantly loved what the gay, white couple was doing in predominantly Black northwest Detroit.
“I think there were a lot of times in the last five years in Detroit we questioned if we were on the right path,” Bynum told Pride Source. “Sometimes, it’s finding the ability to take a step back and see how far you’ve come.”
Two seasons into “Bargain Block” and Bynum and Thomas feel as strongly as ever about the work they’re doing and the city they’re doing it in.
“Every house has so much history,” Bynum said. Even those without a lot of visual character can still have charm. “The fact that these houses are very old just means that there’s a lot of energy tied to those houses. Especially on an abandoned house, to bring some of that energy back to places that have been kind of forgotten … I really love that element of it.”
That’s the kind of lens through which Bynum said he sees himself today. He was rejected by his parents for being gay. What’s more, his father told him that his sexual orientation would keep him from enjoying any kind of construction-related career. But Bynum and Thomas are both capable carpenters. Thomas, who also holds a PhD in physics, is the one who often has to bring Bynum back down to Earth.
“We do have a certain quality standard of what our houses need to be,” Thomas told Pride Source. “So there are certain things you just can’t cheap out on. And sometimes a house is going to cost a certain amount and you can’t make it much less than that. So you have to see what that number is and if it makes sense.”
Bynum and Thomas, however, have been known to produce many a miracle on a tiny budget, without skimping out on quality. That’s part of their mission. But with Season 2, they’ve realized their mission has expanded. First that mission is to create affordable housing for first-time homebuyers. That, said Thomas, has turned into the couple’s “passion project.”
“We’ve seen that the market really needs that particular product,” he added. “It’s rewarding to see a first-time homebuyer so proud of their purchase.” Second is to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ folk who are interested in working in construction. Bynum said providing opportunities for other LGBTQ+ carpenters starting out is important to him. “It wasn’t our intention in the beginning,” he said. “But it certainly became that we were doing that, too, and it was interesting to see the people who flocked to us because of that.”
They, of course, also want to promote their new hometown and make a difference in it.
“There’s just a whole different world that exists in Detroit on the creative side and it is fascinating to see,” said Bynum. “It’s been one of the biggest inspirations of being in the city, to be able to literally just look everywhere and find amazing art, amazing food and amazing architecture. It’s chock-full of beautiful things.”
Bynum said viewers said they wanted to see more of Detroit as well and that he and Thomas really want to “showcase all of the cool things about the city that people outside of Detroit maybe didn’t know about, especially in relation to how we run our business.”
This included “all of our great thrift stores and Eastern Market,” said Bynum. “Anywhere we go for cool finds when the cameras aren’t rolling, we wanted to bring the viewer there as well.”
Thrift stores play a big role in the couple’s design concepts, along with Bynum’s handiwork. “We, of course, still love our thrift stores, for example ReStore on Grand River,” Thomas said. “Facebook Marketplace always has great finds too. We do still have our store. It’s on Grand River and McNichols.”
Taking a moment out to consider their time in the city, Thomas said, “It’s pretty surreal to look back on our past five years in Detroit and everything that has taken place in our lives and our business. It has been a challenging and wild ride with many highs and lows. We are very proud of what we have accomplished so far and are so grateful that there are people out there that seem to enjoy our work.”
Bynum and Thomas bought and reconstructed their own home in the city at the end of last season. Now the couple says they feel more like Detroiters every day.
Over the last five years here, “there were times when it was very hard and Evan and I banded together and we just worked through it,” he said. “I learned that I’m far more resilient than I ever knew.”
And resilience, said Shea Whitfield, their real estate agent partner, is what Detroiters are made of.
“Before Keith and Evan, I believed to be a Detroiter you had to be born and raised in the city,” she told Pride Source. “What they’ve shown me is being a true Detroiter is someone who is dedicated to the health, wealth and happiness of Detroit’s residents.”