By Jan Worth-Nelson
The bomb-sniffing dog checked every bag at the door, and City Hall shut down for two hours. Outside, a well-known street character bellowed “America the Beautiful,” getting the words roughly accurate, as dignitaries trooped in. Eventually the lobby was packed, media with cameras and iPhones crammed against each other to get the best shots, a parade of speakers trotted out colorful thanks and congratulatory phrases, a big white check got lots of cheers, and afterwards everybody went to the parking lot for a barbecue.
It was a day of hoopla, heightened security and celebration as U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson rolled into town to seal the deal on a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to the City of Flint and the Flint Housing Commission.
The grant project focuses on the troubled Atherton East housing complex, a set of apartments built illegally, two-thirds on a floodplain, in 1967 . Through the decades, Atherton East has been a symbol of substandard circumstances for poor people, as it deteriorated in an isolated and partially unpaved street east of Dort Highway between Atherton and Lippincott Streets, and became the nexus for a plague of crime.
All 192 units are set to be demolished. Over the next two years, the residents will be relocated to new housing provided by the grant, built on more felicitous sites. Norstar Construction is coordinating the building projects.
The first of four phases of the relocation is expected construction of 62 units of mixed-income housing, called Clark Commons, on North Saginaw between Woods and Williams across from Doyle Ryder School. Of those units, 39 would be for current Atherton East residents, according to Suzanne Wilcox, City of Flint director of planning and development. In March city officials predicted building would start in six to twelve months. A warehouse nearby is expected to be torn down.
Perhaps the most promising part of the grant, what Wilcox called “game changing elements,” are supports for up to 50 partners with the Flint Housing Commission. Among many partners on tap to participate, Mott Community College Workforce Development is expected to provide career case management services to help residents find jobs; Hurley Medical Center will help match residents with health care services, nutrition counseling and mental health services; and the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network will help with education and literacy programming.
Carson cited Weaver for her “tremendous leadership” adding, “You all have a real gem of a mayor.”
About the city of Flint, he said, it has a “unique spirit,” and is known for its initiative and innovation.
“A lot of things have happened here, and some of them haven’t been great things, and yet the resilience of the people–you simply have not given up, you have pushed forward.”
The Secretary, who grew up in Detroit and said he had spent “much time” in Flint with relatives in his childhood, asserted Flint has “big ideals and plenty of hope.”
Leveraged with public and private entities, for every dollar of the grant, partners will average a leverage of nine dollars, for a total in Flint of $271 million, Carson predicted. “There’s a lot more money in the private sector than there is in the federal government. It is possible to be compassionate and fiscally responsible at the same time.”
Flint is one of five cities nationwide to receive a Choice grant, and the city Carson chose for the rollout announcement. The others are Baltimore, MD; Phoenix AZ; Shreveport, LA; and Tulsa, OK. Overall $144 million has been distributed “to redevelop severely distressed public or assisted housing and to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods,” according to a press release provided by HUD.
Choice Neighborhood grants focus on three goals, Carson summarized: housing–replacing distress property; families– designing to improve outcomes; neighborhoods–creating necessary conditions “conducive to investment that result in better schools, commercial activities, and other amenities to enhance the growth of families.”
Saying Washington can not meet all the challenges of the day, he called for shared efforts across many sectors.
“If part of the boat sinks, the rest of us are going down, too. We’re in this together,” he said.
Wilcox reiterated that though new housing is the key element of the project, over the next six years residents will be offered what she called “drastically improved” services including financial literacy training, workforce development, education services, small business loans, and better access to health care. In addition, provisions of the grant will address a wide range of community enhancements, including blight elimination, better lighting, sidewalk repair, parks and recreation improvements and the addition of two safety officers.
“Thirty million dollars — this is a joyous day,” Jessie McIntosh, board president of the Flint Housing Commission said to loud applause. “I have never seen a check of this amount…AMEN. We are overjoyed and elated and just happy to get this economic shot in the arm.
“I’ve often heard the term nobody wants you when you are down and out. In the City of Flint we have seen some down days but we are not out and this is a perfect example. I’m very thankful that HUD had confidence in the city of Flint to not throw the towel in on us– that we would take care of business for our residents and the community as a whole. We’re going to do everything we can to get a slam dunk and a home run for the City of Flint,” McIntosh said.
Tiffany Mayers, an Atherton East resident, a 12-year Army veteran and a member of the Flint Housing Commission advisory board, said “The struggle is real,” before asserting, “The process of this was not easy–just going into something that you don’t understand, when they come and tell you they’re going to remove you, move you somewhere else.
“For three years we were scared,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know if our voices was going to be heard, we didn’t know if they was going to listen to us, but apparently they did because they gave us $30 million….this is really big.”
“Living conditions is about to get better,” Mayers said. “Atherton East is a group of strong individuals and I just want you to welcome us with open arms.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.