RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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As former manufacturing strongholds like Flint, Michigan continued to lose jobs and residents, abandoned homes are becoming a bigger problem. But the county in which Flint resides is stepping in and taking direct control of properties in the city that have been foreclosed for taxes. It's selling plots of land to neighbors for a dollar or paying churches to maintain them as new parks, and that program has incensed some investors and land speculators.
Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.
TRACY SAMILTON: If Michigan hand tumbleweeds, they'd surely blow through downtown Flint. Some neighborhoods have five or more houses in a row boarded up, as one owner, then another, packed up and left.
(Soundbite of bulldozer)
SAMILTON: This bulldozer is putting the final touches on a demolition, dragging the earth about to cover up any sign that a house once stood here. It's one of hundreds of houses being demolished by the Genesee County Land Bank 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 auctions 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.
Mr. DAN KILDEE (Treasurer, Genesee County): Maybe a single family home becomes a rental and then the next time it passes through the system it goes from being an occupied rental to being sort of a slumlord-owned, sporadically leased property, and then eventually a big, abandoned, burned-out shell.
SAMILTON: Land Banks aren't new in the U.S., but this one run by the county is trying something different. 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 says neighboring towns understand that just as a house loses value if it's next to an abandoned one, property values in the county are depressed by the presence of a dying city in its midst.
Kildee says the new system is helping just about everyone. Developers who can prove they have Flint's best interest 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. But not everybody is happy with this scheme.
Mr. KILDEE: If the people who stay up too late at night and they watch these goofy infomercials and they learn that there's a way to make money in property through tax sales, and so they buy these tapes and they learn that there's this system.
SAMILTON: Just as he's explaining, he's interrupted by a phone call from an out of state woman who wants to build a house on a vacant 20-foot-wide plot in the city, one that's not buildable under modern Flint zoning codes. Kildee says speculators believe they have an absolute right to bid on any property in the county's possession.
For the most part, real estate investment adviser John Reed agrees. He says the real problem is an outdated system and that counties need to enter the 21st century and stop selling tax-foreclosed properties at public auctions on the county courthouse steps.
Mr. JOHN REED (Real Estate Investment Adviser): The whole reason speculators go after these things is because they're marketed in such a god-awful, inefficient way that they sell too cheap.
SAMILTON: But Kildee says there's no way to entice enough legitimate developers who care about Flint's long-term future.
Now the Land Bank plans to teach its methods to other shrinking cities like Youngstown, Little Rock, and the most dramatic example of all, New Orleans.
Mr. KILDEE: What they experienced over one weekend we have experienced over a period of 35 years. We had our own sort of slow motion Katrina.
SAMILTON: As Flint shrinks, it's taking on an oddly rural quality. Most streets are run down but there are also ambitious vegetable gardens springing up under the tender care of the new owners of double lots.
Mary Liman(ph) sits at her patio table overlooking her new yard that boasts a cheerful flower garden, a trellis, and a swing. She says it's a big change from the days she worried about drug dealers coming and going at the abandoned house that once stood there, once the house was gone and the land was hers.
Ms. MARY LIMAN (Resident, Flint, Michigan): I just really enjoy coming out here like 6:30 in the morning with my coffee and sitting in the swing. I felt like I was in the country.
SAMILTON: Land Bank officials say properties are falling into their hands awfully fast. But everyone believes one day the economy here will improve and then the Land Bank's work could help make Flint a thriving city of 100,000 one day about half the size it once was.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.
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