Shrink to Survive? Rust Belt City Downsizes

Proposal to bulldoze dilapidated areas of Flint, Mich., faces pushback.

Oct. 28, 2009— -- Three homes, 824 Stockdale Street, 4034 Trumbull Avenue and 1538 Garland Street are all located in Flint, Mich., and all share the same fate.

In an act of residential triage, Genesee County, which includes Flint, has been knocking down the city's vacant homes at an astounding rate -- often up to four a day.

"We'll collapse this [house] down onto the ground in about 15 minutes, 20 minutes," said Kevin Muma, a foreman on the wrecking team. "It doesn't take long at all."

Flint, a blue-collar city in the Rust Belt, was once home to several thriving General Motors plants that helped build a strong work force here. But as the automaker declined and cut tens of thousands of jobs, Flint residents started leaving too; the city's population has fallen to 115,000 from its peak of nearly 200,000 in the 1960s.

While many left the city in search of jobs, Dan Kildee, 51, a Flint native and now Genesee County treasurer, stayed put. He spoke to "Nightline" from Jane Avenue on the city's north side.

"I walked up and down this street from the time I was a year old until my grandmother died," he said.

Out of the 25 houses that stood on this street in Kildee's youth, only one looks occupied. There are about 10,000 vacant homes in Flint -- some of which were built more than 80 years ago.

To push his hometown out of a housing glut, Kildee proposed a radical idea: demolishing 6,000 abandoned homes in Flint. "We've lost 84,000 people. They didn't take their houses with them," he said.

Kildee thinks the cure to Flint's survival is shrinking it: "Get rid of these houses, get them out of competition," he said.

Not all neighborhoods in Flint are flailing. But Kildee says home values in the more stable neighborhoods have been undermined by the abundance of "Do Not Resuscitate" homes.

"...I can't avoid the reality that this house, despite its history is ruining other stories," he said. "Two blocks over, there's somebody trying to have a life and their condition is affected by this thing sitting here."

A local resident named James we also met on Jane Avenue agreed, saying if a bulldozer showed up and demolished every other house on his block, "he'd help."

"The truth of the matter is, his house would improve in value immediately, if all these houses got torn down," Kildee explained.

Vacant Homes Make Way for Green Space

But what would come in the place of all the vacant homes? Let it be something else ... something green, Kildee said.

"It can maybe [be] a productive part of this larger area as open land. Or a forest of trees or a great big urban agricultural enterprise," he said.

But bulldozing areas in Flint to make way for "green space" has sparked a firestorm of criticism from the left and right. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the issue, alluding to the strategy as un-American.

"They want to bulldoze 40 percent of Flint because apparently 40 percent of the town has homes that are boarded up, foreclosed on, and so forth," Rush Limbaugh said on his June 15 radio show. "So they want to bulldoze it and turn that land over to nature and -- and downsize the city. ... Did you ever think you would hear anything like this in the United States of America?"

But over the next couple of days, Limbaugh not only changed his mind but wondered if the city ought to go even further: "If you're going to bulldoze 40 percent of Flint and bulldozing 40 percent of Flint will not cause people to return and have it grow, why not bulldoze it all?" Limbaugh argued. "We tried propping them up with urban renewal, and it didn't work. ... We kept pumping money in there, kept pumping welfare, food stamps, all these things because we loved them and cared for them, but the proof, the proof that a government can't revive anything is Flint, Michigan."

Flint is not the only city suffering from population loss that's adopted this approach. Youngstown, Ohio, which was hit hard by the demise of the steel industry, outlined a plan to restructure the city to fit its current size.

Limbaugh's comments struck a nerve on the public's perception of bulldozing Flint: This is America. We grow. We don't shrink.

Dayne Walling, the mayor of Flint, hopes to reframe the discussion about Flint. In his attempt to match the city's housing to its smaller population, he emphasizes new home construction on bigger lots.

"Shrinking is temporary phase," he said, "I don't want it to become a state of mind for this community."

By downsizing Flint, Kildee doesn't want to push people out. In fact, he says he'd like to pay people to relocate to create denser neighborhoods, but there's no money for that in the budget.

"It's not surrender, it's really isn't surrender," Kildee said.

But it is a kind of vanishing act, as the house at 1711 Donald Street, which stood here for decades, disappeared in less than half an hour.

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