Flint, Michigan, has symbolized the human side of the Rustbelt's decay since at least 1989, when in his documentary Roger and Me, Michael Moore unsuccessfully attempted to convince General Motors CEO Roger Smith to come see what downsizing had wrought on the city of GM’s birth.
Twenty-four years and one bankruptcy later, the story has only gotten sadder. Flint is known less as "Vehicle City" than as the country’s murder capital. With 63 murders in 2012, its homicide rate is more than 10 times the national average. Its population has dropped 30% since Roger and Me and keeps on sliding, creating a vicious cycle of abandonment and declining property values.
One man who sees that cycle up close is Douglas Weiland, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank. "The only people living [in the most blighted areas in Flint] in most cases are older people who are economically trapped," says Weiland. Once they die, their heirs don’t want to move into the houses, but can’t sell them either. (Weiland says the average sale price for a house in Flint has been $15,000 for the last three years.) Left vacant, the houses are immediately stripped. "You can’t rent them, you can’t sell them. All you can do is board them and sit on them," says Weiland. Soon, the heirs decide there’s no point paying taxes, and the houses go through the tax foreclosure process and end up at the land bank. "We see that cycle repeated over and over," says Weiland.
The Genesee County Land Bank is one of the country's oldest land banks: government institutions set up to deal with abandoned and foreclosed properties. Weiland's land bank has some 8,000 properties in its possession, more than 90% of which are residential, split between abandoned houses and abandoned empty lots. But the plan isn’t to rebuild these neighborhoods—it’s to knock them down. "Yes, just greening it over," says Weiland.
This makes a certain amount of sense. As a city’s population shrinks, the city has to shrink, too, and cities don’t shrink evenly. "Let me give you an example," says Weiland. "Every year we send a postcard to any resident living next to one of our vacant lots." That way, people who still live in the neighborhood can buy adjoining lots and have a larger yard. Last year out of the 3,500 lots where they sought neighbors, they were only able to deliver mail to 500. "The other 3,000 lots were all next to other vacant properties," says Weiland.
In the city’s new master plan, these areas are optimistically re-imagined as "Green Neighborhoods." "A Green Neighborhood is an area where previously vacant or underutilized properties have been repurposed to create a low-density, residential neighborhood with a significant amount of land dedicated to green uses such as community gardens, small-scale urban agriculture, and small open space areas," the plan states.
But the future is a long way off.
The land grant has received $20 million in federal funds and $3 million in state funds to use for demolition. "With those funds we’ll take down close to 2,000 properties," says Weiland. "But we’re still gonna have another 1,000 or so that we own, plus another 3,000 or more privately owned blighted properties that ought to go down."