Detroit — Nearly 1,300 home buyers took out mortgages in the city in 2018, a number not seen here since before the Great Recession.

The milestone signals a strengthening housing market in a city that once boasted one of the largest homeownership rates among African-Americans. But by 2012, the number of new mortgages had dwindled to just 244, a marker of economic distress.

More than six years later, most home sales still are all-cash, and many Detroiters cannot obtain a loan. But mortgages are appearing in more neighborhoods, home values are up and the city is attracting financial industry investment.

Chemical Bank, which recently moved its headquarters from Midland to Detroit’s downtown, said last month it intends to merge with Wayzata, Minnesota-based TCF Bank. The new TCF Bank, potentially one of the largest banks in the nation, would be headquartered in the $60 million tower Chemical is planning at Elizabeth Street and Woodward Avenue.

“I think mortgages are a really powerful tool for residents who live in Detroit to access capital and improve their homes, open a business and make important life decisions,” said Rob Linn, interim inventory director for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. “Undoubtedly, Chemical’s presence will help residents access these tools.”

Bertha Alexander relied on one of those tools after she lost her home insurance on the Morningside bungalow she purchased through a land contract in 2013. It needed significant repairs that would cost money the 65-year-old great-grandmother living on a fixed income didn’t have. Afraid she could lose her home without insurance, she contacted Chemical Bank and the Detroit Home Mortgage program about refinancing in 2017.

The nearly $55,000 in loans she closed in May, she said, cut her interest rate in half and funded repairs to her roof and moldy back room, the demolition of her tilting garage and renovated bathrooms. Next are new windows and carpet. She also has insurance again.

“There was no way I would have been able to do it,” Alexander said. “I would drive up to my house and see (my roof), and it weighed on me. I’d see my neighbors doing their own projects. Now I got it. I can pay it from my income. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I don’t know what I would have done.”

In 2014, Chemical Bank’s leadership “adopted” the neighborhood surrounding Marygrove College where Chemical Financial Corp.’s chairman, Gary Torgow, grew up. At the time, it pledged $1 million over five years in $25,000 forgivable home repair loans to mortgagees there. It later learned, however, it could have a larger impact by working with nonprofit Southwest Housing Solutions to purchase homes, finance renovations and sell them.

Between the two projects, 22 homes have been upgraded. Another is expected to go on sale soon, and three more are in pre-development. Home values were around $40,000 when Chemical launched its program, but some now are selling for around $125,000.

Since then, the bank has joined other efforts to increase financial literacy and lending. A Heart & Home project it piloted last year offers up to $2,500 in closing cost assistance for low- and moderate-income households and since has expanded to other communities.

Most recently, Chemical joined six other businesses in pledging $5 million each over five years to the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund for affordable housing, parks and more. The bank also plans to add neighborhood branches in the city.

Maurice Cox, city of Detroit planning and development director, said Chemical Bank’s move to Detroit is an endorsement that the city’s recovery can be sustained.

“These are generational investments that they make,” Cox said. “At the same time, seeing them willing to invest in the typical Detroit neighborhood that is trying to be revived, that’s just good news, and I think there will be more good news to come.”

Teaming with TCF would accelerate Chemical’s efforts in this area, said Chemical Bank CEO Tom Shafer.

“Being a $45 billion company headquartered in Detroit gives us real-time knowledge of what is going on so…