Off-the-cuff suggestion prompts discussion on what to do with abandoned neighborhoods in Flint
Look in any direction from Bianca Bates' north Flint home, and you'll see graffiti-covered siding, boarded-up windows and overgrown lots.
About half of the homes on her block are burned out or vacant magnets for drug dealers and squatters. It isn't where she thought she'd end up, but it's all she can afford to rent.
"It's a dangerous place to live," said Bates, 21, who lives on East Russell Avenue. "Everywhere you look, these houses are empty around here."
Property abandonment is getting so bad in Flint that some in government are talking about an extreme measure that was once unthinkable -- shutting down portions of the city, officially abandoning them and cutting off police and fire service.
Temporary Mayor Michael Brown made the off-the-cuff suggestion Friday in response to a question at a Rotary Club of Flint luncheon about the thousands of empty houses in Flint.
Brown said that as more people abandon homes, eating away at the city's tax base and creating more blight, the city might need to examine "shutting down quadrants of the city where we (wouldn't) provide services."
He did not define what that could mean -- bulldozing abandoned areas, simply leaving the vacant homes to rot or some other idea entirely.
On Monday, a city spokesman downplayed Brown's comments.
• City officials say they may consider shutting down city services in areas where no one lives, but no plans are on the table to so.
Bob Campbell, Brown's spokesman, said the acting mayor was speaking hypothetically about a worst-case scenario, "not something that would be laid out in the next six months" while he's in office.
But City Council President Jim Ananich said the idea has been on his radar for years.
The city is getting smaller and should downsize its services accordingly by asking people to leave sparsely populated areas, he said.
"It's going to happen whether we like it or not," he said. "We'd have to be creative about it, but it's something worth looking into. We're not there yet, but it could definitely happen."
Flint resident Derrick Young, 39, doesn't think people in his West Austin Avenue neighborhood would bow too easily to such a request.
"We (are) all family over here," he said. "We all stick together."
Even in neighborhoods where more homes are vacant than occupied, Young, who rents, said the city shouldn't interfere.
"They shouldn't be so hard on people, just because they live in a bad area," he said. "They should find more ways to fix it up and rent it out."
The concept of "shrinking cities" isn't new to urban areas similar to Flint.
Last year, the city of Youngstown, Ohio, proposed incentives to encourage people to move out of nearly empty blocks and relocate to more populated areas closer to the heart of the city. Some people were offered upward of $50,000, according to news reports.
The idea was to shut down entire streets and bulldoze abandoned properties so the city could discontinue services such as police patrols and street lighting, according to a CNN report.
The problem came, understandably so, when officials asked residents to move.
Abandoned and foreclosed homes are on top of the list of major challenges facing Michigan cities, said Arnold Weinfeld, director of public policy and federal affairs with the Michigan Municipal League. The organization surveyed several cities that cited declining property taxes as the No. 1 problem, he said.
In the past three years or so, cities in Michigan have lost a combined $147 million in property taxes, he said.
"That's bound to have an impact on local services," he said. "There's no question it's an issue. Each community is going to address it differently."
Brown took over last month after former Mayor Don Williamson resigned facing a recall election. His replacement will be elected Aug. 4.
Brown is focused on economic development as a key to revitalizing Flint, Campbell said. The city also has the advantage of having the Genesee County Land Bank, he said.
"Cities such as Flint might be forced to make difficult choices at some point," Campbell said. "However, what he's all about is having an economic development plan in place so we don't have to seriously consider that as an option."
Bates said the idea might make some people happier, but she doesn't see how it would help the city.
But her roommate, Gabrielle Daniels, said it sounds like a good idea.
"Let's get these kids out of these bad areas," she said. "Get them out of drug houses and into safer neighborhoods."