In Feb. 2019, when Maurice Turner and his now husband, Blake Milnes, took a leap of faith and purchased their historic home in Highland Park — a “fixer upper” if ever there was one — it’s led Turner on an adventure he couldn’t have planned. It’s a path that includes being featured on an HGTV home rehab show, getting married in his newly landscaped backyard, co-founding a nonprofit to revitalize Highland Park and throwing his hat in the ring for mayor.
What drew Turner and Milnes to the Craftsman-style home in Highland Park was their shared love of historic architecture. Previously, the two were living in the University District in Detroit. As they considered what was available on the housing market, their future home — a mile away in Highland Park — “kept popping up,” Turner explained.
“We decided to take a look at the property,” Turner told Pride Source. “And when we walked through, the house was in pretty bad shape, but we just really felt a weird pull and attraction to this house — not only just the potential of the beauty, but the neighborhood felt right.
“I just always say that it was some kind of divine intervention or something bigger than we were that was telling us that this was the right home that we could really as a couple grow in and be able to build memories here as well,” he added.
Turner believes his home represented where the city is right now. “There’s so much potential here. But it’s hard to kind of see it,” Turner said. He acknowledges that people often ask, “Why Highland Park?”
“It made more sense of why fate brought us here as we started to get more involved in the community and really being purposeful with connecting with the residents,” Turner said. “And really, a lot of them wanted to connect with us. I think in communities like Highland Park, it’s rare that someone makes those deliberate attempts to reach out to people. Some people keep to themselves here a lot.”
Before the couple could think of settling in (with four dogs), they worked on the house for about a year. The plan was not to renovate but to restore the home. “We took a lot of the home apart, and then we pieced it back together,” Turner said.
The next twist of fate came in the form of HGTV personality Nicole Curtis, who was looking for unfinished home rehab projects in the Detroit area for her show, “Rehab Addict Rescue.” Turner and Milnes’ house made the cut. Filming occurred in the summer of 2020, the height of the pandemic.
Along the way, Turner and Milnes opted to scale back on their wedding plans and tie the knot in the backyard. Their former diamond in the rough was transformed into a wedding venue.
Turner talked about the city in its heyday, before the auto industry left.
“People looked to Highland Park, Michigan as this idealistic city,” Turner said. “This was like a magical place with 50,000-plus residents at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s.” Today, the population stands at 9,000, a reflection on the devastation and despair that Turner notes has plagued the city over the past several decades.
But Turner isn’t sitting on his hands. Instead, he’s rolling up his sleeves. As he says, “teamwork makes the dream work.” And that’s evident in the work he and Milnes do for the nonprofit organization they co-founded, Rehab Highland Park, where Turner serves as president.
Turner said it began by helping a longtime resident who became their “Highland Park mother” with tending to areas that were overgrown or otherwise needed cleaning up. Soon, the community pitched in.
“We started this nonprofit early on when we moved here back in 2020, and then we became a fully registered 501c3 nonprofit agency last year in 2021,” Turner said. “But we have been doing the work almost since we got here, just doing various projects, helping people and other organizations. We just started this nonprofit, Rehab Highland Park, to really make a commitment to the city.”
That commitment includes cleaning up 30 properties, streets, sidewalks and intersections; assisting homeowners with renovation questions; and basically, helping people who don’t know where to look for a decent contractor. They plan to partner with other nonprofit and for-profit organizations to look into obtaining grants and do more fundraising.
Kerriem Hunter is a Rehab Highland Park board member who also participates in the volunteer projects. He emphasized Turner’s positive outlook.
“I would say I was impressed by somebody who was willing to take on a challenge to renovate an older home in a city like Highland Park,” Hunter said. “But he has a very good spirit about him, very positive guy. We discuss many challenges when it comes to renovating homes, and he’s not afraid of any challenges.”
Turner said his philosophy in life is, “If not me, then who?”
“Who else is going to do it?” Turner asked. “Luckily, my husband Blake also has a get-things-done attitude. And so, we just made a commitment to really do our part as new residents of the city and show our love and appreciation to the people and the city in the form of action, instead of just talking about it.”
Taking action also meant running for mayor of Highland Park, known as an “enclave city” within the city of Detroit. The decision was a natural extension from the work he was doing for the city already. A resident’s roof replacement sealed the deal.
“One of the biggest things that we just were able to accomplish and bring some positive press and attention to the city was getting one of the local residents here who was in desperate emergency need for a new roof,” Turner said. With some of the materials and labor donated, the estimated $40,000 to $50,000 cost was reduced to $10,000.
Soon, they were inundated with requests for help and resources.
“The need is great here in the city of Highland Park for assistance and resources and grant funding, and really doing a lot of this has led me to really want to get involved in government here and take a look at how we could re-structure ourselves as a city, as a government, to be more functional.
“I want our government to have more impact — positive impact — on our city and more so on our residents, because the people are really crying out for help here. And we need more people to step up to the plate and specifically our government in order to meet the needs of the population here in Highland Park.”
Catherine Perkins has lived in Highland Park for 56 of her 68 years, 14 years in her present home. She met Turner at a neighborhood block club party.
“When I talked to him, he told me about his plan for the city and how he would like to move the city forward for development, for schools — and that’s what we need,” Perkins told Pride Source. “I knew then Maurice had a vision and I was very impressed by that.”
Perkins was so impressed she’s pitching in to help with Turner’s campaign. As the former senior coordinator of Highland Park, Perkins is introducing Turner to seniors and helping make connections to others in the community.
When Perkins first met Turner, he made a good first impression. But she says those “currently in positions” don’t know him well enough to accept or reject him, and they may feel threatened.
“They know that he does have a vision, and he’s showing that he’s involved,” Perkins said. “He’s reached out to help where help was needed. He’s done a lot of things in the community to show people that he does care, to show that he does have passion, genuinely, to help. And he was doing that even before running for mayor.”
Turner’s plans as mayor extend beyond revitalization, though that’s a major part. He wants to cut spending and see where the city can stretch dollars. Even more, he feels they’ve missed out on grants for which a dedicated grant team should be researching and applying. He’s also eager to reach out and connect with neighboring municipalities. In addition, he’d like to see greater government transparency and accountability through regular engagement among those who lead, live in or own businesses in Highland Park.
Because of Covid, Turner missed a filing deadline related to his residency. As a result, he is running as a write-in candidate. There are three other candidates for Highland Park mayor: two are write-ins who were removed from the official ballot because of technicalities. Thus, for this office, there will only be a race in the general election: one official candidate and three write-in candidates, of whom Turner is one.
The journey from a Michigan farming community to revitalizing urban Detroit
Born and raised in the farming community of Cassopolis, Michigan, Turner grew up in a family of five children including twin brother Marcus, with whom he attended Michigan State University. In 2005, Turner moved to the Detroit area and has lived there since. In his day job, Turner assists clients nationwide with credit counseling and education, with a focus on the Black and Latinx communities.
Growing up, Turner described Cassopolis as a religious community where he didn’t hear much about LGBTQ+ people. It wasn’t until adulthood that Turner came out.
“Being an out, gay Black man in an interracial marriage — all the things — we’ve never really felt any discrimination,” Turner said, “but I think a lot of people still may not be as comfortable as others that are in our LGBTQIA community here in Highland Park. They might not feel as comfortable being just who they are and being proud about it. But I hope to make a little bit of that change here as well.”
Turner would like to see greater diversity in the city overall, and looked to the past as a hint to what might be in store for Highland Park’s future.
“We have to identify who we are now as a city and where we’re going, what that looks like, and how we can attract the diversity that was here, even back in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Turner said. “It’s always been a diverse city here, with all people from all over the world coming here to Highland Park for work specifically.
“But I think we can really look at our history of that diversity and really provide that as an attraction here to the city of Highland Park to grow our population, grow our business and grow our tax base so that we can become the city that we really want it to be.”