Flint, MI — In a community room at Clark Commons, three folding tables labeled “Atherton East” in black permanent marker sit against a pillar. Like the residents who live in the newly-developed housing, the tables were moved out of a place that was no longer livable years ago.
Since 2018, when the City of Flint and the Flint Housing Commission (FHC) announced a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) grant, the two entities have worked together to support the relocation of families who once lived in Atherton East, a former public housing development on Flint’s southeast side.
But the goal of the grant goes beyond relocation alone.
The funding was meant to rebuild Atherton East families’ homes in less isolated, more accessible locations in Flint — areas nearer to public transit, grocery stores and jobs — and to thereby improve their educational opportunities, safety and economic outcomes.
Now, five years later, officials and residents say some progress has been made on those promises.
All former Atherton East residents have relocated, and Clark Commons, the new development constructed to rehouse some of those residents, is rounding out its second phase of a three-phase build out, with some families already living in its completed units.
However, for former Atherton East residents, current Clark Commons residents and the entities tasked with making good on the Choice Neighborhood grant’s promises, there is still work to be done.
A brief history of Atherton East
Atherton East, a development featuring 36 residential buildings along with a playground, community room and laundry facilities, opened on May 6, 1967.
Atherton’s build-out followed highway construction and other developments, termed “urban renewal” projects, that destroyed Flint’s Black and immigrant neighborhoods, like St. John Street, and forced families out of their homes.
“A lot of African Americans were displaced and kind of shoved in the corners of the city,” FHC Director of Development Jason Borror said of the time.
Within two years of opening, issues with the new housing development began to surface.
“We are located far out from the center of the city and these people have transportation problems,” Paul Shaheen, the then-social services director for Flint Public Housing — now the Flint Housing Commission — said in a 1969 news article. “Atherton East was opened because this city faced a crisis. We wanted freeways and in order to get them we had to find housing for people who were going to be driven from their homes by the freeways. And the only place these people could go into was public housing.”
Aside from isolation, Atherton East residents also dealt with a host of pests and cockroaches throughout the years, with multiple articles citing the problem from the late 1960s to late 1980s.
To compound those issues, Atherton East was also built on a floodplain, which led to leaks and flooding for residents, as well.
“It leaks in the basement when it rains,” former resident Mattie Barfield said in a 1981 Flint Journal article. “They said they would send someone out last year and never did.”
Borror said that, ultimately, Atherton East’s floodplain location played a large role in the housing commission’s decision to seek Choice Neighborhood funding for the area over half a decade ago.
While the complex’s infrastructure was of concern as flooding continued, in the years leading up to its closure, crime and gun violence was too.
Debria Andrews, a former resident, told Flint Beat that she and her five children had lived on the dead end of a road within the neighborhood, so they saw a lot of what went on for the Atherton East community.
“My oldest has a little trauma from there. A couple of her friends got killed out there. So she’s like, that’s a place that she wouldn’t even want to go back to visit,” Andrews said.
In 2010, a man named Gerald Collins was shot and killed at the complex, according to reports at the time. In 2015, one man and one woman were also killed in a shooting at the development.
By the time the Choice Neighborhoods grant was announced in 2018, the complex’s crime problem was so well-known that Michigan Public Radio headlined its story on the grant: “Flint’s notorious Atherton East public housing will be torn down and replaced.”
But relocation and demolition take time, and in the intervening years, crime has gone down according to the Flint Police Department.
“The population has greatly decreased in the area, so we’re just not seeing the volume of calls for crime-related incidents like we were seeing six months or a year ago,” Flint PD Public Information Officer Tyrone Booth told Flint Beat in May.
He shared that, according to Flint PD data, in 2021 there were 11 incidents of crime in the Atherton East neighborhood, including six assaults, four larcenies and one criminal sexual conduct incident.
There were seven incidents of crime in 2022, and there had been six incidents of crime by May of 2023, including one motor vehicle theft.
Booth did not respond to Flint Beat’s multiple requests for updated numbers by press time.
Though criminal activity had been on the decline, there have also been a string of fires at Atherton East this year, with three buildings affected.
FHC Executive Director Harold Ince, Jr. told a local news outlet that the fires have prompted the commission to try to “accelerate” the complex’s demolition timeline under the grant.
Rather than focusing on the development’s history, though, stakeholders are now honing in on its future, and, more specifically, the futures of those who once called Atherton East home.
With all former Atherton East residents relocated, officials are working on building new homes and improving outcomes for the more than 100 families living in the complex when it closed.
As part of Flint’s 2018 CNI grant, former Atherton East residents got to choose where they wanted to live after leaving the development.
Options included brand new housing, getting help purchasing a home or taking a housing voucher to go wherever they would like in the country, Norstar Development Relocation Manager Qiana Dawson explained.
Norstar Development is the contracted developer for Clark Commons.
Dawson said that all of the Atherton East residents who were not evicted from the complex have the option to come back to Clark Commons once building is complete, and she will help them move back.
However, she added, residents who were evicted from Atherton East, or any other home they relocated to after that, are no longer eligible for services offered through the initiative.
Dawson said there were 109 families residing in Atherton East when she joined the project, and her job is to take residents from doorstep to doorstep.
“It’s not just that we moved a bunch of people,” she said. “It’s a group of people decided to have their lives interrupted — and disrupted for the better.”
Borror, of FHC, said so far 30 families have moved into Clark Commons, the development built to rehome Atherton East residents in Flint’s Smith Village neighborhood near the north end of downtown.
Currently rounding out its second of three phases of construction, Clark Commons is now 62 units. But when the third phase is complete, Dawson said, there will be 192 units.
“You don’t realize how intimate of a thing it is to help somebody move,” she said. “It’s an emotional thing.”
Dawson said that most of the people living in Clark Commons now have lived there for almost two years and are pretty settled in. But even though all of the families who were living in Atherton East have moved elsewhere or into Clark Commons, her job is still not over.
“We have a responsibility to make sure they’re living in a decent, safe and sanitary living arrangement, and that is not happening with a number of landlords in Section 8 units,” she said, referring to a federal program that assists low-income families, the elderly and people who have disabilities with housing.
Dawson said that when she finds that a landlord is not doing what they’re supposed to, she helps the residents move into a different place.
“I’ve done that at least five times,” she told Flint Beat.
Debria Andrews, her five children and one grandson moved into their Clark Commons townhome in August 2021.
She said her and many of her neighbors are still getting used to the move, but she said she knows it’s for the best.
“It’s bittersweet for a lot of us . . . no matter how long it’s gonna take, we’re getting there. It’s a process,” she said.
Andrews lived in her Atherton East home for nine years with myriad issues, but she said a few weeks before move-out the pests had gotten especially bad. She recalled having to lock a bat in her downstairs bathroom at one point.
While she said she doesn’t miss the creatures of her old home, she does miss the community she’d formed through Atherton East residents’ shared concerns.
“Out there, we was a family,” she said. “We was a community . . . We always had that connection, now it’s like they feel like they disconnected with everybody.”
But instead of reminiscing on what she feels she lost, Andrews has made it both her personal and professional mission to help foster it anew.
She now works as the Choice Neighborhood Initiative coordinator through the Crim Fitness Foundation, which acts as a service provider for FHC residents through the initiative.
Andrews said that she’s heard from Clark Commons residents that even though they do feel safer, they also feel more “pulled apart” and “separated” than when they lived at Atherton East.
“So I’m trying to step in and kind of put that back together,” she said, adding that she’s done so through events like Easter egg hunts, Halloween parties, trips to basketball games and more.
According to Adrian Jones, a family coach through the Flint Housing Commission, when it comes to outcome improvements, the Choice Neighborhoods grant is also supporting work related to helping residents better their health, education and financial self-sufficiency.
Jones said that at the beginning of the Atherton East relocation effort, he worked directly with residents to help them with issues they encountered while moving.
“Our goal was to pretty much eliminate barriers to ensure a smooth transition into their new housing situation,” he said.
Some days his job had been to call an exterminator, and other days he’d just be there to provide moral support, he recalled.
Now, he also coordinates monthly Choice Neighborhood update meetings for residents, though the meetings themselves are resident-run, and he helps connect people with resources, like workforce development training and funding to help pay rent on time.
Jones said there is one other family coach through the Flint Housing Commission and two others through the Mott Foundation supporting this effort, as well.
All residents who lived in Atherton East are welcome to the monthly update meetings, but he said those who don’t live in Clark Commons don’t show up often, so he keeps in touch with them individually to solve any issues they run into.
As the second phase of Clark Commons nears completion, Dawson said she expects more residents will be moving into the new development by the end of this year.
She estimated phase three, meaning the completion of all construction at Clark Commons, will likely conclude in spring 2024.
The fourth and final phase of the Choice Neighborhood grant’s work, which includes building dditional townhouses and a mid-rise apartment building in Smith Village, will have to be completed by the end of September 2024, the deadline for all of the grant money to be spent.
FHC Executive Director Harold Ince, Jr. wrote in an email from Sept. 7, 2023 that the Choice Neighborhoods project is on track to be completed by the deadline.
Aside from building housing, Flint’s remaining Choice Neighborhood funding will also go toward demolition, blight removal and vacant lot reuse around affected areas.
Applications of that funding can include urban gardens, parks, community recreation and more, Borror, with FHC said, adding that $4.5 million from the grant was set aside for such critical community improvement projects.
Flint’s Planning and Development Department, helmed by new director Emily Doerr, is in charge of those neighborhood improvement plans.
While Doerr did not respond to Flint Beat’s repeated requests for information on the department’s ideas, in the spring of this year, Flint City Council voted to approve a $650,000 agreement with Genesee County Habitat for Humanity.
The agreement allows Habitat to use Choice Neighborhood grant funds to rehabilitate owner-occupied housing in the areas surrounding Atherton East and south Flint, where some Atherton East residents have moved.
At the time of the vote in April 2023, former Flint Planning and Development Director Suzanne Wilcox said the funds would allow $20,000 per home for exterior renovations for qualifying homeowners. She added that contractors for those renovations would be selected through Habitat for Humanity “within the next 60 days.”
However, Genesee County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Thomas Hutchison told Flint Beat that as of Aug. 29, 2023, Habitat had not received any funding or contracts from the city regarding Choice Neighborhood grant funds.
City of Flint Communications Director Caitie O’Neill wrote in an email on Aug. 31 that the contract and funding are currently moving through a process required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval.
At another April 2023 meeting, city council also approved a resolution to allocate $1.5 million from the CNI grant’s remaining funding to demolish publicly-owned properties in the Choice Neighborhoods area, which include Atherton East as well as the area surrounding Clark Commons.
Ince, Jr. told Flint Beat that all 36 Atherton East buildings and its office will be demolished, though he wrote that the city was responsible for the demolition part of the budget and he did not know how much funding, in total, was allocated to that effort.
Neither O’Neill nor Doerr responded to multiple requests regarding how much funding was budgeted, nor how much was left of it, for these planned demolitions.
Still, Ince Jr. wrote that the buildings will likely be demolished within the next 12 months, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city will also be demolishing a single home currently in the Smith Village area for Clark Commons, he added.
For some former Atherton East residents, the demolition news is welcome, if not a wholly joyful outcome, for the place they once called home.
At the beginning of August 2023, Debria Andrews drove through the now-vacant Atherton East housing complex to see what her old home looks like now.
She said the buildings were not in a good condition and “not pleasing” to look at.
“They just need to go head on and tear it down,” she said. “I’m just bittersweet, you know? We have a lot of good memories and a lot of not-so-good memories. So, it’s a little bit sad.”