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Flint, MI—A proposed affordable housing development in Flint’s Carriage Town is once again up for City Council’s vote after years of negotiation between residents and Communities First Inc., a local nonprofit developer.
Despite those negotiations, the proposed apartment complex continues to face opposition.
“I never vote for these PILOT programs for two reasons,” said Councilman Allan Griggs at an Aug. 18 legislative committee meeting, “We lose taxes, and I want our residents to own a home, not be a renter.”
While the development will not be in Griggs’s ward and he did vote in favor of a different PILOT in June 2021, the councilman highlighted a dominant concern for Carriage Town residents opposed to the apartments: the developer’s request for PILOT status.
PILOT stands for “payment in lieu of taxes,” an agreement in which the city allows a developer to pay a percentage of a building’s revenue instead of property tax.
“Some people think it’s a 100% tax break, and we pay no taxes at all,” said Glenn Wilson, president and CEO of Communities First. “That’s incorrect. We’re paying taxes based off the affordable rents rather than based off the property value.”
Communities First has multiple PILOT developments, which Wilson said ensure long-term affordability and prevent future displacement of residents—important goals for a nonprofit whose mission is “to build healthy, vibrant communities through economic development, affordable housing and innovative programming.”
Emily Doerr rewrote the city’s PILOT process while working for Flint’s Community and Economic Development division between April 2016 and May 2018. She said one of her responsibilities at that time was “shepherding developers through the gauntlet” of PILOT approval, which involves amending the city’s PILOT ordinance and adding the project information into the ordinance language itself.
That makes the process difficult.
“To amend an ordinance requires being approved by a committee plus two readings by Council, which opens the process up to more scrutiny,” she said.
A PILOT arrangement is meant to help keep housing affordable, Doerr explained. It does so by decreasing a developer’s annual expenses (compared to what they would be paying in market-rate property tax), which allows that developer to pay bills while holding rent for over half of a building’s units at affordable rates.
Doerr pointed out a flaw in assuming “in lieu of taxes” translates to no income for the city.
“Because the developments that seek a PILOT are either new construction or renovation of a blighted or obsolete building, the payment amount that these residents are paying to the city are dollars that didn’t exist before,” she said.
In the case of the proposed Carriage Town development, the apartments would be built at a vacant property—which has been made into a temporary greenspace —at the corner of Grand Traverse and W. University Ave.
The development would comprise 48 units—43 of which are designated as affordable housing units, with a further 17 of those 43 designated as permanent supportive housing units.
The five remaining units would be rented at market rate.
As a vacant lot, the current property tax payment to the City of Flint is about $3,200 a year said Joel Arnold, planning and advocacy coordinator for Communities First.
Under the PILOT, Communities First would pay 4% of the completed property’s rental revenue, which a city assessment estimated to be around $17,000 per year, assuming a 10% vacancy rate for the complex.
That same assessment also indicated that if the complex were built as all market-rate apartments, the property’s taxes would land at around $69,000—about $52,000 more than the annual PILOT payment.
But, Wilson said in a recent meeting with Carriage Town residents, “you’re not really giving up something you never had.”
Wilson went on to explain that without PILOT status Communities First is not able to reasonably finance the project, as most of its funding sources require that the complex provides affordable housing.
In other words, the developer is saying there’s little use comparing the assessed property tax of $69,000 to the PILOT payment of $17,000—without PILOT approval they can’t build the apartment complex that gets the city the increased property tax.
In the same meeting, Communities First also asked residents to consider that the property’s overall contribution to the city would actually exceed just the $17,000 PILOT payment indicated in the city assessment.
Should the current design hold, the apartment complex stands to pay the city about $78,000 per year between PILOT payment, taxable income of tenants (about $13,300), and sewer and water bills (about $48,000) according to the developer’s calculations.
In the past five years, the City of Flint has granted more than 15 PILOT ordinances to various developers, four of which were granted to Communities First, Inc.
Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter, who represents Carriage Town residents, said she’s planning to vote down the project in part because of the number of PILOTs Communities First already has.
“We’ve got to be fair about that,” Winfrey-Carter said. “We’ve got to be fair about giving out PILOTs.”
There is no stated limit to the number of PILOTs a city can issue or that a developer can obtain.
Winfrey-Carter added that she believes her Carriage Town constituents remain against the project.
“I’ve got to stand with the people there,” she said.
Aside from the PILOT revenue concerns, some Carriage Town residents remain upset by the property’s design, which they say does not meet neighborhood standards despite being approved by the Historic District Commission.
“It’s a beautiful building, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a historic building,” said Paul Herring, who lives across the street from the PILOT site and remains opposed.
Communities First originally received criticism because they didn’t consult Carriage Town residents before submitting their design proposal in 2018.
“The way that they communicated about it was pretty bad,” said Cade Surface, then-vice president of the area’s neighborhood association and its current secretary.
Since then, residents and Communities First representatives have met multiple times to alter the building’s appearance to better align with design standards for the historic district.
“I give them huge credit for being willing to spend the money and the time on modifying,” Surface said of Communities First. He added that he has since changed his stance on the apartment complex, which he was originally against because of the design.
Absent from much of the public debate surrounding the development, though, have been the voices of current Carriage Town renters and potential future renters.
“I’ve been living in Carriage Town for three years, and I feel like I was one of the lucky people to find a place in the neighborhood,” said Megan Heyza, founder of The Porch Project and a renter in Carriage Town.
“I can’t tell you how many people have reached since out to say ‘hey, do you know of a place that’s opening up?'”
Heyza said she moved to Carriage Town after a few safety concerns at her prior Flint residence. She said overall the neighborhood is wonderful.
“We have conversations on each other’s porches, and it’s a really nice community and space to live in,” Heyza said. “I really hope that there’s more opportunity for renters to share that experience with me and… to come into the neighborhood.”
But Heyza noted that as much as she’s felt supported by most of her neighbors, she’s also experienced the stigma of the other factor Griggs noted in his Aug. 18 statement: Flint wants owners, not renters.
“There have been situations where I did feel like my opinion was devalued because I’m viewed as a temporary entity within the neighborhood,” she said. “But I’ve been here, like I said, for three years and contributed to the neighborhood.”
Heyza added that such a dynamic is something that needs to be addressed beyond the borders of Carriage Town, saying the community should start “viewing renters as just another person within the community, regardless of their home ownership status.”
At the same meeting Griggs voiced his PILOT stance, Ashnee Young, a Flint resident and professional community organizer, called to voice her support for the project through personal experience.
“I’ve been homeless three times in my life,” Young began, “And prior to returning to Michigan, I lived in my car—it used to leak on me on the inside when it would rain. I stole food from hotels. I slept in the McDonald’s parking lot.”
Young said she has since spent five years researching the state of homelessness in Flint and helping coordinate homeless and fair housing outreach on behalf of others.
“There is a scarcity of affordable housing in our county, but not a scarcity of resources,” she said to the Council. “The difficulties we face to build sustainable relationships and make unbiased decisions constantly disrupt the continued care of the people in our community.”
Herring called into the council meeting as well, reading a letter he said was signed by fifty “persons from Carriage Town and the community” opposed to the project. The names included Megan Heyza, though she has since said she is in favor of the development.
“I love what Communities First is doing in our community,” Herring said in a separate interview. “And there needs to be more done in the city of Flint and God bless them for doing it. But not here. We don’t need it here. We don’t need it in Carriage Town.”
When asked why Communities First hasn’t just scrapped the project or moved the proposal to a different site, Essence Wilson, CSO and co-founder of Communities First, said, “Because we know of individuals and families that need a voice and a safe, affordable place to live. Those are the people we’re fighting for.”
The Carriage Town PILOT proposal will be before the legislative committee again on Sept. 22. From there, it will need to be voted through to Council and read twice for approval.