Flint, Michigan Sheds Foreclosed Properties

Abandoned homes are a big problem in Flint, Mich., a former manufacturing stronghold that is losing jobs and residents.

In some neighborhoods five or more houses in a row are boarded up, as one owner after another packs up and leaves. Once they have sat vacant too long bulldozers come to demolish them.

But the county is stepping in and taking control of the city's tax-foreclosed properties, selling plots to neighbors for a dollar or paying churches to maintain them.

The Genesee County Land Bank is demolishing the abandoned homes in an attempt to end decay and help Flint downsize gracefully.

The lots are sold to the neighbor for a dollar, or turned into parks.

Dan Kildee is Genesee County's treasurer and the chairman of the Land Bank. He says the old system, where the county auctioned tax-foreclosed properties to the highest bidder, worked against the city's interests. The amount of money raised wasn't that much and the result was often a spiral from bad to worse.

"Single family becomes rental, then slumlord owned, then eventually a big abandoned, burned out shell," said Kildee.

Towns throughout the county — all better off than Flint — are allowing the Land Bank to spend all the money it gets from tax-foreclosures only on Flint.

Kildee said neighboring towns understand that a house loses value if it's next to an abandoned one, and property values in the county are depressed by the presence of a dying city in its midst.

He added the new system is helping just about everyone: Developers who can prove they have Flint's best interests at heart get properties at a good price. Residents don't have to fear when the abandoned house next door will be set ablaze, and the city can focus its scarce resources on crime and jobs.

Real estate investment advisor John Reed said speculators mainly come after tax-foreclosure properties because they sell too cheap.

But it's difficult to entice enough legitimate developers who care about Flint's long-term future.

As Flint shrinks, it's taking on an oddly rural quality. Most streets are rundown, but there are also ambitious vegetable gardens springing up under the tender care of the new owners of double lots.

Mary Lymon sits at her patio table, overlooking her new yard that boasts a cheerful flower garden, a trellis and a swing. It's a big change from the days she worried about drug dealers coming and going at the abandoned house that once stood there, she said. Once the house was gone and the land was hers.

"I just really enjoyed coming out with my coffee — felt like I was in the country," said Lymon.

Tracy Samilton reports from member station Michigan Radio.

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