Flint, MI– Last week, the City of Flint placed violation notices at the former St. Agnes convent, condemning the property that local organizations, including a home for young mothers, have tried to occupy.
While the city changed the locks at the facility with plans to relist the property for sale, the Flint City Council had other ideas.
During a May 18, 2022 committee meeting, the city council voted unanimously to do all things necessary to stop the eviction of the home for young mothers, the House of Esther, and a youth education organization, Brighter Futures of America, from the property for 60 days.
The council reached this decision, which was not originally on their May 18 agenda, after four hours of discussion, including hearing from dozens of members of the public who spoke in support of the two organizations.
Yvonne Penton, the founder of House of Esther, told the council that she wanted to be able to keep her promise to young mothers she’s agreed to house and provide services for.
“The only reason I’m here is to be a voice to our pregnant mothers that would be housed in the House of Esther,” Penton said. “And I just need your permission or your help to keep that promise.”
Penton had been renovating the location for years before the property was foreclosed on after the owner failed to pay property taxes.
In 2019, the council passed a resolution stating that the House of Esther could purchase the tax-reverted property, located at 524 W Pierson Rd. if within 30 days the city received a payment of $71,367.87 in property taxes that the previous owner had failed to pay.
Without payment within 30 days, the resolution says that the city shall list the property for public bid. According to a May 13, 2022, press release from the city, payment from the House of Esther was never received.
The press release also stated that a Notice of Violation was issued on April 17, 2020, by the City of Flint Building and Safety Inspections division declaring the premises a “hazard and a nuisance as a dangerous structure and/or structure unfit for human occupancy.” Currently, water is shut off at the property.
Planning and Development Director Suzanne Wilcox said that the city owns the property, and was unaware that it was being occupied until recently. Without water, she said none of those buildings can be occupied, which is what prompted the notice of violations.
“The City of Flint has an obligation to be good stewards of the city’s resources and, most importantly, to protect people from the danger posed by these unsafe facilities,” Wilcox said in the May 13 press release. “The property will be relisted for sale and the current occupants will have an opportunity to submit a bid if they choose to.”
During the May 18 council meeting, Penton said that the House of Esther now has a financial sponsor and enough money to purchase the property. Some council members want to make sure she’s the one to get the property.
“Let’s do something good for our community,” said Flint City Councilwoman Tonya Burns. “Let’s have something that we can brag about at the end of this we can all be there, all nine council members, to cut the ribbon to say we have helped 21 women and 21 babies, to come together to do something good.”
While Burns spoke about having compassion for the organization, some council members expressed concerns about following the resolution previously passed by council in 2019.
“I am 100% in favor of this type of program. But the way that this is done, and my concerns over the ability of this organization to survive, and to pay their bills is very questionable,’ said Flint City Councilwoman Judy Priestley. “However, how I feel is not what matters. What matters is our process.”
Flint City Council Vice President Allie Herkenroder also said this issue wasn’t “personal,” but was about following the law.
“It does not say that if it is not paid within 30 days, the House of Esther shall dissolve [or] it cannot exist. It’s simply saying that building, that property, shall be going through public bid,” said Herkenroder. “That is where we are at right now. This is not a matter of religion, or belief. It is a matter of following the law and what was voted upon by this council.”
But Flint City Councilman Eric Mays reminded the council that they have the ability to change and amend resolutions.
Ultimately, the council voted 7-0 on a resolution to do all things necessary to stop the eviction of two organizations at the property for 60 days, resulting in an uproar of applause from the audience. Flint City Councilwoman Eva Worthing and Councilman Dennis Pfeiffer were not present for the vote.
Some council members also proposed using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal grant program providing COVID-19 relief to municipalities throughout the country, to pay for water to be connected to the property.
Brian Jarzynski, a representative from the city’s compliance firm Ernst & Young, said he believed a “water hookup” would likely qualify for ARPA fund usage. However, the council did not vote on any resolutions to spend ARPA funds for this purpose.