Flint. Cold.

Flint, Michigan has been coping with a cold real estate market due to declining manufacturing and population loss. Then, the water crisis hit. How are the city's neighborhoods faring? NACEDA Executive Director Frank Woodruff took a tour with Flint HOME Administrator.

September 15, 2016

In mid-June I was able to spend five days in South Central Michigan. I grew up a Midwestern boy. Born in Baraboo, WI, in 19(eh), I’m intimately familiar with rich foods, self-deprecating humor, omnipresent smiles, and cow pastures abutting the downtowns of small cities. But Michigan has its own brand of Midwestern charm and distinct flavors to offer your community development palate. I was able to visit three cities during my visit, and I would describe those cities’ flavors the same way Goldilocks described the porridge during her little B&E with the three bears.

Day 2 took us to Flint. Cold.

Vehicle City ArchFlint’s history textures a typical Midwestern narrative of fur trade, leading to carriage and automobile manufacturing, followed by disinvestment. Blue collar factory families of the 1930s were the bedrock of the United Auto Workers Union. Flint built a “Vehicle City” persona that thrived for much of the mid-20th Century, a persona it still nostalgically boasts today with large artistic main streets signage over downtown streets spanning five to six lanes wide. A city with approximately 100,000 people, its peak was around 200,000 in 1960, Michigan’s second largest city at the time. Today as Michigan’s seventh largest city, the manufacturing sector is estimated to be about 10% of what it once was.

Declining population and public revenue have taken its toll on Flint. But some of the unemployment and violent crime statistics belie the city’s notable assets, including the University of Michigan – Flint, the CS Mott Foundation, a LISC office, Cultural Center, as well as the brand new, beautiful downtown Farmer’s Market. Heck, one downtown restaurant was even experimenting with a sushi menu.

Though while the downtown bustles with professionals squeezing in a lunch hour and college students catching a smoke between classes, the neighborhoods struggle. A drive through the city’s northwest quadrant tells the story you would expect having seen the national news. Wide streets, trash, unmown grass, and fallen trees interrupt a landscape of single-family homes, many of which are burned out or clearly vacant, at least to some degree, as well as abandoned schools and other large buildings. The only commercial activity to speak of is a startlingly long cue of store front churches, auto and payday lenders. I began counting these alternative lenders midway into a ten-minute drive through the neighborhood. I stopped counting at 14.

Flint watershed signThis neighborhood portrait wasn’t universal across the city however. Several neighborhoods on the West side of the city showed promise. In these typical Midwestern neighborhoods densely sprinkled with modest but well-manicured single family homes, there are lower vacancy rates, stability, and an attractiveness unheard of in other parts of the city. But during a neighborhood drive-through with the city’s HOME Administrator, Emily Collins-Hamel, I was told “this neighborhood looks great. But even in this city’s best neighborhood, you can’t sell a home.” “Why not?” I asked.

“The water.”

Flint’s water supply was connected to a corrosive source in April 2014. The change was driven by the state appointed fiscal management team to save taxpayers $4 million. Within four months, by August 2014, the city began issuing boil water alerts. An endless series of public health warnings, lead tests, rashes, Legionnaires Disease, and other illnesses followed. Flint switched back to its original water source in October 2015. But water that flowed through Flint’s pipes for 19 months did its damage. The pipes are corroded, leaking chemicals, and need to be replaced.

Flint water plantCity and state officials were blamed, most notably Governor Rick Snyder. And money followed. A lot of it, including $28 million in January 2016 from the state. During my visit in June 2016 city officials had maps of where they suspected the worst pipe damage. They had a well-made diagram explaining to homeowners how far they would replace pipes running into their homes. They had even bid-out a contentious fast-track program to get the most damaged pipes replaced first. Meanwhile, chemicals continued to leak into the residents’ water. This was all explained to me in a meeting with a city official on June 22, 2016, almost two years after the first boil water warnings were issued. It all sounded thought-out, resourced, and transparent. But I pressed, asking whether shovels were in the ground right now replacing the seeping pipes. I was told “No.”

The city lacks capacity.

Flint water towerBrian McGrain with the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM) was host for my time in Michigan.Brian repeatedly wondered aloud if the lack of CDC capacity in Flint was at least partly to blame for the city and state’s inattention to the water crisis, especially early on. Put another way, could CDCs have prevented the worst of the water crisis? It’s hard to know. But I don’t see how they could have hurt.

The city has the country’s attention, a world-renowned institution with deep Flint roots in the Mott Foundation, a LISC office, and a robust CDFI. But the nonprofit development capacity is very limited, leaving few places to deploy resources. The city’s few active CDCs include Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, which has high capacity, but as an arm of the Mott Foundation is limited in community credibility. The other, Communities First, does quality community-based projects but is limited with just one staff person.

In addition to tens of millions in public resources already committed, the Mott Foundation has pledged $100 million to help Flint recover from the water crisis. While details of the commitment are still being developed, neighborhood organizations (including CDCs) can expect capacity building dollars to hire and train staff. It’s a good start. But as we know, that takes time. And poverty isn’t waiting.


“Flint. Cold.” Is the second of a three-part blog series documenting Frank’s time in Michigan in June 2016.

Also in the series:
Part 1 - “Grand Rapids. Hot.” 
Part 3 - “Lansing. Just About Right.” 


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