By Jan Worth-Nelson
Forty-two percent of Flint’s properties are vacant — 24,000 of them –and their presence, appearing to some like tombstones, to others like hopeful patches of gardens or clover, to others annoyances swamped by unmowed grass or decaying trash–has become one of the uneasy visual realities of a city in transition.
A panel of experts grappling literally at the grassroots level talked about those vacancies and abandonments at the Feb. 6 Flint Area Public Affairs Forum at the Flint Public Library.
The four speakers, introduced to the audience of about 60 by moderator Tom Wyatt of Kettering University, were:
—Margaret Dewar, professor emerita of urban and regional planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan,
—Christina Kelly, director of planning and neighborhood revitalization for the Genesee County Land Bank Authority,
—Kristen Stevenson, City of Flint Department of Planning and Development, and
—Quincy Murphy, community activist from Urban Transformation Development.
Though the forum title was “Whose Land? Reclaiming Our Urban Spaces,” the discussion revolved much more around the “what” and “how” than the “who” — the underlying assumption being that everybody has a stake in these scrappy little parcels of green.
Dewar, co-author of The City After Abandonment, focuses in her work on urban land use and the economics of remaking cities following major population and unemployment losses. She is investigating whether or how how residents and community-based organizations can save their neighborhoods from disinvestment and mortgage foreclosures, and and how land use changes occur when demand for property is very weak. It’s an investigation incorporating law, landscape, architecture, civil engineering, public health, water ecology and sociology.
Her work studies a process familiar to Flint residents: following derelict structures through demolition to green storm water infrastructure — “the everyday remaking of place in the most abandoned areas of cities,” as Wyatt described it.
Dewar complimented the breadth and design of the city’s “Imagine Flint” master plan adopted in 2013 and now in its implementation phase.
“I was impressed,” Dewar said. “Your plan looks forward, not backward–what can Flint be now, rather than what it used to be — thinking about a different kind of place that’s better.”
She said Flint’s master plan also is distinct because it includes a facilitative zoning plan along with its master plan map. That is rare nationally, she said.
“So, what do we make of the vacant land?” she said. “There’s so much of it.”
She said cities with large amounts of vacant land face a problem: traditionally, real estate determines property values are based on “highest and best use” — but that doesn’t work so well where property values have fallen and demand is low. Options, she said, include welcoming and enhancing the natural features left after abandonment–like the hills in Pittsburgh. In Youngstown, people now can see a river and rock outcroppings once obscured by steel mills.
Other positive moves–some of which are included in Flint’s master plan, she noted — include transferring vacant properties to adjacent property owners, increasing the likelihood that residents can improve their own environment, or setting up green storm water infrastructure, or removing bureaucratic barriers to innovative uses, like getting access to water for urban agriculture and permission to put up hoop houses. But almost every choice costs money–and in most cases, resources need to be brought in from outside the city– as in regional park systems taking over city parks, or relying on regional philanthropies. Most of all, she recommended consulting with residents themselves.
“People have so many good ideas,” she said, “and that helps keep the civic culture alive.”
In some cities, small grants for individual projects have produced fruitful results. “The creativity, the ideas, the energy are critical and need to be enabled and facilitated,” with an eye toward maintenance over time.
“No one has solved these problems — not a single city that has lost substantial population has solved all this, but if all these issues are addressed, amazing innovations come to bear, like graffiti parks, butterfly parks, renewal energy investment.”
Kristen Stevenson has been a planner in the planning and zoning division of the City of Flint for four years, beginning as an Americorps volunteer who took an offer to stay on. She grew up in Flint and said she finds “there is a lot of joy” connecting with residents in town.
Delving into the city’s master plan, the first in over 50 years, Stevenson said the city hadn’t had any planning staff in over 20 years until grant support for the process materialized. The projected population of the city for 2020 is 78,000 — down from almost 200,000 in 1960. She noted 5,000 people participated in the plan process — a 20-year vision about adapting to change and the decrease in the population.
One out of every four residential parcels, about 16,000, are vacant in Flint. “Vacant and abandoned land has become the leading issue,” Stevenson said.
She said the city’s mission has three main paths to address the vacant land: the blight elimination framework, neighborhood parks planning, and the Flint property portal — a new website allowing residents to monitor and report on the status of properties.
“We’re the entity that a lot of people are pretty mad at,” Christina Kelly, of the Land Bank said in opening her remarks, “because we hold this inventory of problem properties. We are a force because we hold so much abandoned land.”
Wyatt noted that since 2005 Kelly has been influential in securing more than $90 million in grants to reduce blight and improve abandoned properties. As Flint’s population declined, Wyatt explained,
“People walked away, stopped paying their taxes, properties went back to the government–to the Genesee County Treasurer through the foreclosure process — and the Land Bank was set up to be the entity to accept those properties after tax foreclosure.”
The Land Bank inventory grows every year: in 2018, nearly 14,000 properties in the city of Flint — all those parcels having gone through foreclosure and having been transferred to the Genesee County Land Bank. Of these, 96 percent are residential, mostly vacant lots and vacant residential structures. The majority are in blighted condition, more than 70 percent, she said — again, because people walked away.
The Land Bank itself does not have a plan of its own, relying instead, she said, on the city’s master plan. “We are happy to follow the city of Flint’s master plan” She said the city’s housing inventory, which assesses the condition of every single parcel in the city, has been updated three times.
The Land Bank has secured $67.4 million in federal Hardest Hit Fund dollars since 2014, a “huge accomplishment for us,” Kelly said, allowing the Land Bank to do more demolition at least through 2019. “It’s always about how do we find resources to address challenges,” she said.
As noted earlier, 42 percent of properties in the city — about 24,000, residential and commercial combined, are vacant in the city of Flint, and half of those, having gone through foreclosure, are owned by the Land Bank. The work to manage this inventory is never-ending and huge, as Kelly described: 30,000 mows in 2017, 625 tons of trash removed. Costs of the work, she said, are somewhat managed by the Land Bank’s Clean and Green program, with 58 community-based groups assisting in maintaining 3200 properties, including decorative boarding of 400 homes since 2014. Clover is planted on many of the vacant lots because it grows low, Kelly said, preferred by many residents over tall grasses that requires more mowing.
The Land Bank also promotes home ownership –sold on land contract to make them more affordable, and understanding that the condition of the homes are often in rough condition. Nonetheless, 28 homes sold, with 902 property sales altogether in recent years.
“The Land Bank is not the solution and it’s not the problem — because the Land Bank didn’t create the problem. It was set up as a mechanism to accept abandoned properties after foreclosure,” Kelly said, “and then create opportunities for reuse of that vacant land. Through the Master Plan providing a guide and residents taking the initiative, coming up with the ideas leading development projects — that’s where there are more opportunities to reposition and revitalize Flint.”
For 20 years, Flint Northwestern ’93 graduate Quincy Murphy has been organizing cleanups and protest rallies and meetings and campaigns and neighborhood improvements. For the past three years he has partnered with the City of Flint to mow, maintain and provide programming activities at Dewey Park, which recently received over $70 thousand in upgrades. He participates in the Land Bank’s Clean and Green program and serves on the Land Bank’s community advisory board. He has successfully applied for grants to address for youth employment, neighborhood stabilization and crime prevention; he was active in the Master Plan process and has taken a prominent role in responding to the water crisis and assisting in the research out of Wayne State about the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak.
Murphy described in his early childhood how bullies tore down his clubhouse and terrorized the neighborhood. As he grew up, he watched with dismay the deterioration of the north side where he was raised. It motivated him to take action.
“Blight’s been in the community for a long time,” he said. “Vacant lots with high grass have been in the community for a long time.” So he started getting involved in positive change.
His neighborhood activist group once was named for Garfield Elementary School, but after Garfield and Ralph Bunche Elementary School both closed, the group had to “rebrand,” changing their name to Urban Transformation Development. The group has tackled many problems — which he acknowledged are “massive,” and have come to understand they need to focus on projects that can be managed, one year at a time. Once it was repainting the basketball court, even though it was still beat up– one year it was adding benches. Next year, maybe tennis courts. They have tried and tried again.
“We’ve been turned down 99 percent of the time — we’re the one percent,” he joked.
“I’m always out there fussing,” he said, “But I have a right to complain — I’m a worker. I believe in working collectively and it’s not about me. ”
“We had faith,” he said, and through that he and his group have learned to partner with many other community-based organizations, churches, city government, and the Land Bank.
“There’s so much to do,” he said. “We want to build capacity so you’ll be able to see the difference. It’s an everyday struggle — our homes are OUR American Dream–we want better.”
Sponsors of the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum are Baker College of Flint; Flint Community Schools; M-Live Media Group/The Flint Journal; Flint Public Library; Genesee Intermediate School District; Kettering University; Mott Community College; The Flint Club; and the University of Michigan – Flint.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.