This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Breaking Ground, our quarterly newsletter. To receive Breaking Ground in your inbox, please join our email list.
It might go without saying, but the City of Flint in 2014 is very different from the Flint of 1960.
Decades of population loss have brought about a squeeze on public services, rising crime rates, a declining tax base, and, subsequently, vacancy and abandonment on an unprecedented scale.
That’s why, early this year, after extensive community engagement and outreach, the City of Flint released its first master plan since 1960. The comprehensive Master Plan sets forth a blueprint for the successful growth of the City of Flint over the next 20 years.
(See Christina Kelly of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority discuss the Master Plan in our recent video produced by Next City)
Using the Master Plan as a starting point, Flint recently released Beyond Blight: City of Flint Comprehensive Blight Elimination Framework, which the City developed with advice and input from a number of stakeholders, including the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, the Flint Area Reinvestment Office, and the Center for Community Progress. The blight framework is a five-year work plan, applying the high-level long-term goals of the Master Plan to short-term concrete blight elimination work. It takes the vision laid out in the Master Plan, and asks, “Who exactly needs to do what in the next five years to tackle the city’s blight problem?”
In a nutshell, the blight framework provides specific action steps to residents, local government, institutions, community groups, and businesses for each blight elimination activity (mowing, demolition, vacant lot reuse, etc.) in each place type (downtown, green space, traditional neighborhood). It also provides prioritization, so, in cases of limited funding, it is clear which activities should be first in line, who is going to execute that work, and where they should focus it.
While the path to blight elimination will not be easy, this framework is expected to coordinate all stakeholders and help them strategize in order to make the greatest positive impact on the City of Flint.
“Pay attention over the next year,” said Natalie Pruett, author of the Blight Elimination Framework. “I think we are going to see the community doing more with what they currently have, and things are going to look better even if there isn’t additional funding.”
Understanding the Challenge
While, particularly since the mortgage crisis, cities all across the country are grappling with the issue of vacant properties, the scale of blight in Flint is striking.
“I see blight as a clear and present danger to Flint’s future, because it undermines our efforts around neighborhood revitalization and public safety,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling remarked. “We know people, students, and families want decent neighborhoods with good schools and quality of life amenities. Reducing blight makes this possible.”According to the framework, there are roughly 22,000 vacant properties in Flint, representing more than one-third of all the property in the city.
Extensive efforts to curb Flint’s blight are already underway. A number of stakeholders are expending significant effort and resources to tackle boarding, mowing, and demolition, among other blight reduction activities.
“Its hard work,” said Pruett, “and most US residents don’t live in places where they have to do things like this, so it’s really important to acknowledge the work already going on.”
For Flint to be able to not just manage but eliminate blight, however, these efforts have to be further strengthened and coordinated.
Defining the Financial Gap
In order to plot a course forward, the Blight Elimination Framework first seeks to measure the gap between the cost of removing blight from the City and the work already underway.
It puts an actual monetary value on the work being done by all parties, as well as the work left undone, giving a complete picture of the challenges Flint faces in respect to blight.
“I’ve not personally seen another plan come out that so strategically calculates the cost savings while making the case for change,” said Danielle Lewinski, Vice President and Director of Michigan Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress.
After analyzing all the data, the framework found that the total cost of removing blighted properties over the next five years is $112,201,135.
While mowing, boarding, and waste removal all contribute significantly to the overall blight elimination cost, demolition is by far the most expensive piece of the puzzle, encompassing 67% of the total.
Luckily, there is already significant work underway by a number of different stakeholders to address this enormous problem. For example, in 2013, over 1.8 million pounds of trash was removed from vacant lots during Love Your City Month, 2, 625 vacant properties were mowed by community groups, and 379 blighted structures were demolished by the Genesee County Land Bank.
The total value of blight removal completed by all parties in 2013 was, however, only $12.31 million.
That leaves a 5-year gap of $102.5 million dollars, a hefty sum for any city, much less a city the size of Flint. And, even by implementing mow strips and other creative cost-cutting tools, the cost exceeds what the city’s coffers can cover.
Thus, one of the reasons this Blight Elimination Framework is so important is because it clearly demonstrates Flint’s need to the city’s partners at the federal and state level. Since it is such a detailed action plan, it can demonstrate to funders exactly where their money would go, even going so far as to outline exactly what would be achieved in four different funding scenarios, ranging from $66 million to $368 million. In this way, the framework acts both as a governing document for actual work to be done, as well as a prioritized wish list for what Flint as a community would do if it received the money it needs to truly eliminate blight.
“I think that this lays a really good framework for additional private and public funding,” said Pruett. “The City of Flint has identified, to a very detailed level, what the problem is, and how they want to fix it. In fact, this report very closely mirrors the things you’d be asked to provide in a grant proposal.”
And that additional funding will be critical to achieving parts of this blight framework. “A majority of these costs are tied to bigger ticket items like demolition, and without federal resources we cannot do much of the work that needs to be done,” said Christina Kelly, Director of Planning and Neighborhood Revitalization at the Genesee County Land Bank. “We are really dependent on our partners at the federal level to recognize the scale of the problem we face and support us with funding for blight elimination .” In Flint today, one out of every six commercial structures, and one out of every seven residential structures, is in need of demolition. And it’s not just publicly owned land that needs remediation. In fact, over $76 million, or 68 percent of the total blight elimination cost, is allocated for removing blight on privately owned property,  much of which is owned by people who live outside the city.
“People see blighted property and assume it is tax foreclosed and owned by the Genesee County Land Bank,” said Kelly, “but the majority of blighted structures are privately owned. This framework will give people a new perspective on the reality of the situation and where the responsibility for solving this problem lies. We’re all in this together.”
Everyone Has a Part to Play
The strength of this blight framework lies not only in its explanation of the complexities of Flint’s vacant property epidemic, but also in its ability to coordinate action plans for all stakeholder into a comprehensive approach.
Blight elimination efforts were not only undertaken by the local government, but by a diverse group of partners across the City. Thus, it was clear that a broad coalition of stakeholders had to be engaged to truly make an impact.
Naturally, then, the Blight Elimination Framework identifies and proposes work to be done not only by the local government, but also by businesses, residents, community organizations, and institutions – and it includes measures of success. While the framework in and of itself is not binding, it asks stakeholders to commit to expending the time and resources needed to achieve blight elimination.
For example, it challenges local business owners to pledge 5% of their current property maintenance budget to blight elimination, and 50 community groups to commit to boarding 20 vacant properties each over the next 5 years.
“I think basically it helps align all the different stakeholders and asks on each of those levels that they contribute more,” said Kelly.
Right now, “If there is a problem with illegal dumping, there are at least 6 different entities that will respond to that problem,” said Pruett. “They probably are not working together, and they each have different criteria. This framework is about defining roles. So one party says, ‘Actually, I’ve got this. I’m the go-to for when there’s illegal dumping.’ It’s more efficient.”
“I think you also see a similar thing with mowing, too,” Pruett added. “A lot of people are informally taking care of properties, but it’s undocumented, so local government can’t count on it, causing duplication and inefficiency. But if we had a commitment that residents were going to mow just the lot next door, the local government capacity to mow would be increased times four.”
Thus, to promote coordination and efficiency, each of the framework’s activities has a priority chart that clearly designates which stakeholder should do what work, as well as what work is most important.Strategy is Everything
As noted above, in the framework, each piece of the blight elimination puzzle — waste removal, boarding, demolition, mowing, vacant lot reuse, redevelopment, and code enforcement — has its own unique priority chart for neighborhood stabilization, as well as action steps and five-year benchmarks.
In addition, the Blight Elimination Framework also strategically breaks down activity by place type, making sure the largest positive impact is achieved for all of Flint’s residents.
The Master Plan divided the City of Flint into 12 different place types, each with unique characteristics and opportunities. This Blight Elimination Framework builds on the Master Plan by creating distinct recommendations, action steps, and priorities for each of these place types, making it clear not only who is going to do what, but also where. “The value of knowing the future land use is that blight elimination efforts can be tailored to each place,” said Mayor Walling. “In areas that are becoming green neighborhoods, there can be a focus on naturalizing vacant lots. In traditional neighborhoods, services might focus on mowing, beautification, or small community gardens. We want to get to a sustainable future land use as fast as possible, not just make blight a little less apparent.”
The City of Flint, together with its public and private partners, is going to have make some tough choices in its revitalization efforts, but by having clear tasks and priorities that were developed through an extensive community engagement process, it will have the strategy and authority to make them.
“This plan gives us a better road map for decision-making and the justification we need to request funding to complete the work,” said Kelly. “Aligning our work with these collectively defined priorities and improving coordination between the many groups working on blight elimination enables us to be more strategic as we work together to achieve the goals defined through the master planning process.”
“Our prior blight efforts were about cleaning up an endless number of vacant properties and clearing endless amounts of weeds and trash, and there was no end in sight,” said Mayor Walling. “With the framework of the city Master Plan and now the blight elimination plan, though, we’re working together toward a positive outcome of neighborhood revitalization.”