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Detroit’s problems echoed in a (far) smaller Flint

The website is not the type of brand identity any city would seek.

Called “Abandoned Flint,” it posts photos of ruined homes and businesses and a running commentary that reads like a post-modern apocalypse.

Under photos of “Abandoned Travelodge,” it notes: “... people have totally trashed and looted it. Every single window was shattered. And of course it’s Flint … homeless people had definitely been living there when it was warmer outside.”


Cold, hard statistics describe a different fact to the same story.

Assessed value for all property in Flint plummeted from $1.97 billion in 2007 to $969 million in 2012. Residential property fell by 57 percent, commercial by 15 percent and industrial by 56 percent.

For Genesee County, total assessed property value tumbled by 35 percent from 2007 to 2012, with residential property falling by 40 percent, industrial by 43 percent and commercial by 22 percent.

In Flint, those numbers reflect a community that lost nearly half its population in 40 years, from 193,317 in 1970 to 102,434 in 2010.

Those who flee leave behind a city of scarred neighborhoods, crumbling properties and government in perpetual financial crisis.


Like a junior version of Detroit, Flint now looks to radical surgery to save itself.

In the past several years, some 1,100 abandoned houses have been razed in Flint and another 300 outside the city. That leaves at least 5,000 more in the city alone.

Douglas Weiland, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank, considers robust demolition an important element in restoring a city hardly recognizable from its prosperous 1960s self. The nonprofit organization owns about 15 percent of the parcels in Flint.

“In order to retain residents, we have to make a quality of life better than it is. We need to retain the residents we have.”

But he concedes there are only enough funds to tear down less than a tenth of the abandoned homes scattered across the city. And Weiland is nothing if not realistic about how long it could take to resuscitate this city. It remains under the control of an emergency financial manager, with a budget deficit that climbed to $19 million in 2012.

“I think we have a 50- to 100-year problem. The estimates that I've heard in studying Flint say that in order to be stable, we need a population of 140,000.”

He noted that automotive jobs drove the city's growth, just as their exodus killed it.

In 1900, it had a population of about 13,000. General Motors incorporated in 1908. By 1910, it was about 39,000. By 1920, it was 92,000 and by 1930, more than 156,000.

The Flint area employed about 80,000 General Motors workers in the mid-1970s. It employs about 6,000 today.

Weiland hesitates to predict when property revenues might begin rising.

“There is no end in sight for when that will bottom out,” he said.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling counsels patience.

“As we get closer to 2020, we should see property values increasing,” he said.

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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