Over the past year, as Detroit officials came under fire for fluctuating demolition costs and the Flint water contamination crisis was widely publicized, Flint has been making quiet progress on another front.
The Genesee County Land Bank Authority has demolished more than 1,766 blighted houses in Flint since 2014 using federal grant money. That exceeds its stated goal of 1,600 home demolitions when the city was awarded more than $20 million in federal blight-removal funds in 2013. The Flint program also boasts lower average demolitions cost than those in Detroit, which received more than two times as much funding. The most visible sign of the city’s progress: Hundreds of lots with neglected or abandoned homes have been transformed into fields of clover.
Of five Michigan cities that shared $100 million in Hardest Hit grant funds, Flint is the only city to meet ‒ and exceed ‒ its demolition goals, state records show.
As Flint and Detroit prepare for another phase of demolition funded by a new infusion of grant money, Flint has eradicated nearly 30 percent of the city’s blighted homes.
To be fair, the blight fight in Detroit is on an unmatched scale ‒ at least 3,683 houses were demolished in Detroit with Hardest Hit grant funds, records show. And Detroit’s task remains far more daunting, with an estimated 80,000 structures that needed to be knocked down.
Nonetheless, Flint’s program is the largest blight fight in the city’s troubled history, said Lucille James, brownfields and demolition program manager for the land bank.
“We’ve never worked at this scale,” she said.
There is of course, much more to be done.
The federal blight money is intended to stabilize neighborhoods around the city’s anchor institutions ‒ “schools, hospitals, churches, main thoroughfares,” James said. “So it doesn’t address all our needs.”
A ride through Flint’s neighborhoods offers glimpses of the same sort of poverty porn Detroit has become known for: streets pocked with wood frame bungalows that now lean in on themselves, empty; brick houses, crumbling.
Yet Flint has fewer wide-eyed, gentrifying hipsters to stoke hopes, and no world-renown decay to attract attention to its plight. When Antonio Dunn drives through Flint, he hardly recognizes the city of his childhood.
But he also sees vestiges of progress ‒ soft carpets of clover grow where rotting houses stood only months ago.
Dunn, an inspector for the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, stood on Mackin Road, on the city’s north side, and explained how the north side of the block – save one vacant house – was demolished.
An elementary school stands on one end of the block.
“Before, it wasn’t safe. It was a hot mess,” Dunn said of the block. “Abandoned houses are used for trap houses, stash houses,” , referring to houses where drugs and money are hidden. “And you get the rodents and pest problems
“When we take down the blight, it just gives people room to breathe.”
In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department gave Michigan $100 million from its $498 million Hardest Hit Fund grant (for homeowners hurt by the mortgage crisis) to focus on eliminating blighted single family homes in five cities. The big winners: Detroit, which received $57.3 million to demolish 4,000 houses, and Flint, which received $22.7 million for 1,604 houses (Grand Rapids got $2.4 million for 100 houses; Pontiac $3.7 million for 200 houses and Saginaw $11.1 million for 1,205 houses).
At the time of the first infusion of grant funds, about 6,000 houses in Flint needed demolition, James said. So the 1,766 homes demolished as of Nov. 15 represented nearly 30 percent of the city’s blighted houses.
Flint demolition rates lower
Then a few weeks ago, another wave of federal funds for blight reduction was announced. Detroit will get an additional $21 million. Flint will get an another $11 million to take out 900 vacant houses (The blight elimination in both places is administered through land banks).
The Genesee County land bank is knocking down Flint’s blight for about $11,600 per structure, while Detroit’s demolition costs have jumped to about $16,400 up from $10,000 in 2013. Overall, the demolition cost to knock down a house now averages $13,830 for a single family residence demolition in Detroit, said Craig Fahle, spokesman for the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
Fahle said Detroit house demolitions peaked at nearly 300 structures a week, but that pace “proved to overwhelm the available contractor pool.” Currently, Detroit is moving at a clip of 100 to 150 homes a week “within the existing contractor pool.”
Like Detroit, Flint saw upticks in costs when the program peaked with about 400 demolitions happening at the same time. Abatement costs, increased oversight requirements from federal and state regulations and competition for contractors drove up costs across the state, James said.
One reason Flint demolition costs may be lower than in Detroit has to do with better access to clean, safe dirt to fill the hole left by demolition, James said. Flint vendors have access to soil from nearby quarries and stockpiles of dirt, she said.
Private owners, public problem
There’s an often-repeated saying in Flint: “People moved, but they didn’t take their houses.”
The land bank estimates that Flint has about 22,000 vacant properties total, representing about a third of the city: 14,500 vacant lots and 7,500 vacant houses and commercial buildings. Of that, the land bank owns 23 percent of the vacant houses and buildings and 55 percent of the vacant lots.
It’s counterintuitive but true: most of the blighted houses in Flint are not foreclosures, but privately owned, according to the land bank.
“It can be falling down a hole and some individual could still be paying the taxes,” James said. “If the land bank doesn’t own it, our hands are tied.”
That likely will not be the case for long.
Though the mortgage and housing crisis has ebbed nationally, private owners in Flint are still losing properties to tax foreclosure in big numbers. In the past year, a couple thousand properties went to tax foreclosure and then were handed over to the land bank to either demolish or try to sell.
At that rate, the land bank will be the largest owner of Flint’s vacant buildings in the the next three years or so, said Doug Weiland, executive director for the land bank.
“It’s inevitable,” he said.
In Michigan’s hardest hit cities, more blight springs up every week. A house that is standing today could be a teetering danger by Tuesday.
Maurice Davis, 59, lives in the Civic Park neighborhood, an area populated by historic homes. Of about 1,000 parcels there, more than 200 have been demolished since last year, according to land bank records.
Davis, president of the Historic Civic Park Preservation Association and owner of a commercial strip, has bittersweet feelings about the blight fight.
Blight is wrapped around Civic Park School like a bad rash, and another 200 eyesores need to be demolished in the area, he said. He appreciates the demolition program, but wishes more money was used to preserve homes and help owners stay.
“What the land bank is doing is welcome, we need houses torn down,” he said. “But what happens to the residents who are left?”