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Floundering cities: to rebuild or not

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By The Staff

By Hannah Hayes

There’s a June 6 article in Forbes magazine called “The Best and Worst Cities for Recession Recovery.” Colorado has one city on the “best” list, Boulder, because of its technology industry and the university creating stable jobs. At the top of the “worst” list is Flint, Mich., with “the longest road to recovery.”

The birthplace of General Motors, Flint’s economy is projected to decline 15.6 percent before the end of 2010. (A 10 percent decline of GDP is sometimes cited as a benchmark for depression. It is estimated that Flint will not recover its pre-recession size in the next decade.

Homes and businesses have been abandoned by almost half. The economic assault began in the 1980s when GM began moving jobs out of the country. It’s hard for this liberal to think about Flint and not include the insights of Michael Moore. His comment on GM is, “The glaring stupidity of this policy was that, when they eliminated the income of so many middle class families, who did they think was going to be able to afford to buy their cars?”

A return to the homesteading spirit might be just what Flint needs. There have been successful efforts to restore other rundown neighborhoods. In 1975, Baltimore sold row homes for $1 each with an owner commitment to restore the historically designated property and in return gain a long-term investment.

I guess Kelly is thinking about bulldozing parts of Flint and perhaps up to 50 other U.S. cities. Before razing any houses, wouldn’t it be nice to remember the 3.5 million homeless people in our country? Families make up 41 percent of that group, and more than 500,000 children don’t have homes.

Cheri Honkala, a national homeless hero and organizer, is working to expose the growing epidemic of poverty and homelessness. The reality is that the dismantling of welfare caused millions of families to be cut off from assistance and, while projects are being torn down, the need for public housing is going up. Housing is a human right.

Flint had a population of about 125,000, making it the fifth largest city in Michigan according to the 2000 census. Its abandoned businesses could be used to develop the infrastructure to become a manufacturing center. Creating the equipment needed to retrofit America to use renewable energy sources could replace the failed auto industry. Abandoned homes could be offered to homeless people who so desperately want a fresh start. Incentives and agreements are preferable to bulldozers and destruction.

The problems of Flint may become all too familiar unless the U.S. can move beyond service jobs and information-moving and recreate a manufacturing economy. Homes! Jobs! With some community organization, Flint could prove the critics wrong.

By Kelly Weist

I grew up in Northern Michigan. My father worked for the state, and we lived in many areas. When I attended Michigan State University, I chose an emphasis on urban policy and minority relations. One year, I spent months studying neighborhoods in Flint, Lansing and Grand Rapids. The issues of blighted neighborhoods and tax abandonment were huge issues in the early ‘90s, in many urban communities, but most especially in Michigan.

I recently returned from a visit to my family up North, and also spent some time around Flint and Detroit. All summer, the main topic of discussion was the decision of the commissioners of Genesee County, which includes Flint, to tear down over 1,000 foreclosed houses in an effort to clean up the city. Flint’s population at this time is around 125,000, which is almost half what it was during the 60’s. About a third of that population lives in poverty. Flint was a GM town, but auto jobs have been leaving for years and are currently at about 6,000 from a high of about 80,000.

Flint has been about to die on several occasions. Much of its fortunes are tied to Detroit and the auto industry there. Detroit has been on the edge of extinction for years as well. I can remember the discussions of tearing down neighborhoods in Flint and Detroit many times over the years.

Blighted neighborhoods, where people abandon homes that are too costly due to taxes or high mortgages, become home to crime, violence and extreme poverty. Businesses that employ or service people in the neighborhood flee. Local government costs go through the roof, by the loss of property tax revenues and the increase in police, fire and maintenance costs. Who can blame the county government for coming up with this solution?

I’m not usually a big fan of urban planning or eminent domain. It usually is used as an excuse to reward politically connected people and destroys low income and ethnic neighborhoods by picking economic winners and losers. However, I’m behind the county government here.

Abandoned houses do no good for anyone. Removing them removes crime and violence and provides an environment where entrepreneurs and residents can thrive and rebuild a viable living. Genesee County is not only removing abandoned houses but is giving neighbors the opportunity to take care of the resulting green space for ownership of the property. It is asking people to consolidate in more viable neighborhoods, moving those who are in the most blighted areas.

So, to prove the exception to most of my rules, I say more power to Flint. Scaling back and concentrating on making what they have the best possible place to live and work will attract employers and families. As long as they don’t give in to the temptation of politics, this will set the stage for a comeback.

Hayes Rebuttal

It wasn’t until after I wrote Part One that I was able to see Michael Moore’s historic film from 1989, “Roger & Me.” Moore points to the disturbing divisions between rich and poor in this sharply divided city. The film shows home eviction after home eviction while the country club set remains blithely ignorant. When those in power can continue to pick the winners and losers, the poor will come up short every time.

Flint just elected a new mayor after six months of interim leadership. Judging from on-line comments, residents are hopeful that moving from an ex-felon to a Rhodes Scholar will fuel a turnaround. Newly elected Dayne Walling has plans for revitalization built around the city’s colleges and universities, support of local business and new manufacturing. Walling, like Moore, is someone who left and came back. Flint certainly has some loyal citizenry.

Stimulating the economies of many Midwestern cities is essential now and creating exports will help. President Obama is pledging funds for green jobs such as the manufacture of car batteries and other components for electric vehicles.

Weist Rebuttal

None of the standard liberal playbook answers ever work. Putting homeless people in abandoned homes just exacerbates the drug, crime and violence problems in those neighborhoods. The vast majority of homeless people are homeless because of reasons other than finances or job loss. Public housing in all forms has never worked wherever it was tried.

Lenders lose a lot of money on foreclosures, so they go many extra miles to rehabilitate the loan, but when the value of the home has tanked, and the mortgage is more than the value, no homeowner has an incentive to stay and make payments. Recent studies have shown that this is the main reason for foreclosures in the current recession. So homeowners make the rational decision. Forgiving or reducing homeowners’ mortgages is an unacceptable taking. And when the homes can’t be sold, and blight hits a neighborhood, it is a rational decision for a county government to tear them down.

The best solution would be for the homes to be sold by the lenders, but if that can’t happen, then I support what the county is doing for Flint.

Attorney and political activist Kelly Weist has served on the board of directors of the Colorado Federation of Republican Women and is the co-founder of Mountain Republican Women. She is an adjunct professor of political science at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Hannah B. Hayes is a small-business owner and activist with Evergreen Peace. A recent graduate of Leadership Evergreen with a master’s degree in education, Hayes has remained active in this community through her writing and organizing for 35 years.