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Flint, MI– In spite of the falling snow, Flint residents brought the heat to a community meeting at the Hasselbring Senior Center to discuss how incoming COVID-19 relief funding should be spent.
“We keep allocating all these funds to different organizations and it’s a ripoff. … It’s not fair. I deserve some funds in my neighborhood,” said north Flint resident Kalida Durrett at the meeting on Feb. 7. “I deserve to have a good lawn. These kids deserve to be able to play. They can’t even play in this area with shootings every other day. It is not safe.”
The dozens of residents in attendance applauded, yelling out “That’s right,” and got in line to take the microphone and say their piece about where the money should go.
This was the first of what will be four community meetings hosted by the Flint City Council to hear from residents about their priorities for the $94.7 million Flint is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act fund.
In March of 2021, the city learned that it would be receiving the funding as part of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package intended to aid the country in recovering from the pandemic.
The money has specific eligible uses which are outlined in a 437-page document, and if it is spent incorrectly, the city will have to pay it back. So far, the only item the council has voted to spend the money on is a one-year contract with a compliance firm to help ensure the rest of the spending is done correctly.
During the Jan. 19 council meeting, Brian Jarzynski, the executive director of the compliance firm Ernst & Young, said the first step in deciding how to use the funds should be to determine the city’s priorities. From there, the council, administration, and compliance firm can work together to evaluate the best way to fund the priorities, whether that’s through ARPA dollars or other potential sources of funding.
“My view is that you would want to go through and put the ideas together first, and evaluate, and prioritize from there,” Jarzynski said.
The community meetings hosted by the council are an effort to take that first step.
“There’s a lot of things that’s going on, and our community needs to heal,” said Councilwoman Tonya Burns. “This is your time. Please share, openly and honestly, what you and your family and friends have been going through. … You matter. You voted us in and we have got a job to do.”
Here’s what residents had to say:
Multiple residents spoke about using the money for housing in some way, whether it be renovating existing housing, building new housing, or partnering with organizations who can provide volunteer and job opportunities for people while improving housing in the city.
Shearese Stapleton, the founder of Mothers of Joy University, asked if money could be used to build new apartments for those with housing vouchers and nowhere to go.
“And there are tarps on housing of people who can’t afford to get their homes fixed,” she said. “They are older people within the city. Is there anything that can be done for that?”
Flint resident Arthur Woodson spoke out against giving money to the Genesee County Land Bank, since they already own a large portion of properties in Flint. Instead, he suggested a partnership with local organizations.
“See if you can partner up with the Land Bank to get some of those houses back and refurbish the houses,” Woodson said.
Specifically, he suggested partnering with the Veterans Association to get a match for funding to fix up a house, and then give the house to a veteran.
“I mean we can refurbish the houses and put them back on the tax roll, instead of just giving them away,” he said.
Councilwoman Judy Priestley said she thought this would be a perfect way to improve housing and engage the community in a positive way.
“I have several organizations that have reached out to me wanting to rehabilitate homes and teach young adults a trade,” she said. “So maybe we can help fund those … and not only give back to the community that way, but help these young people learn trades so they can support themselves.”
Two people spoke about organizations they were a part of working to do exactly that.
Eric Eggleston, the founder and CEO of Youth Development Corporation, said he has done property refurbishing in Saginaw through a partnership with the state, and is looking to do it in Flint.
“That partnership would look exactly like what I structured in the city of Saginaw, where they’ve given us 41 properties. The state has given us the funds,” he said. “We are building brand new houses, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, solar … It don’t cost the citizens a dime, it don’t cost the city a dime. Then we sell those homes to the residents of the city at an affordable rate.”
Eggleston said he will be meeting with the Michigan Land Bank Authority on Feb. 17.
“So the work is being done and is getting ready to be done here,” he said. He asked the council to use a portion of the ARPA funds to help him get properties to refurbish.
Pastor Derrick Watkins also spoke about similar work his organization, Active Boys in Christ, is doing to renovate blighted houses.
Watkins said he’s purchased three properties from the land bank, including a home that had become a “drug trafficking” house next to a church, a community center, and across from an elementary school. Watkins said he purchased that property, and tore it down, but was able to transform another property on the demolition list into a place that is habitable.
There are more properties Watkins said he’d like to purchase to renovate, while teaching young people skilled trades, and then putting the properties “back into the system that they are utilized by our community.”
Community centers and community volunteers
Like the two residents speaking on behalf of their organizations working with housing, many speakers said they’d like to see money go toward creating community centers, and supporting volunteers, block clubs, and neighborhood groups who have been working to improve the city.
Tracy Frazier said she would like to see Roy Wilkins Elementary School be turned into a community center. Woodson said he’d like to see Williams Elementary School on Flint’s east side be turned into a community center, as well.
Woodson also specifically requested that money go to four centers, St. Mark Lutheran Church, Bethel AME Church, Asbury Church, and Greater Holy Temple, where he said a lot of seniors spend their time volunteering.
“They know they don’t get paid, but can y’all just take a couple of dollars out of that ARPA fund … and show them our appreciation because they were out there during the height of COVID reaching in people’s cars giving water and food out,” Woodson said.
Johnny Morse, who was recently awarded a certificate by the council for his volunteering, also requested funds be used to support efforts like his. He said he’s getting calls all the time from elderly people, people who can’t leave their homes, people who can’t drive, who need food and water.
“That’s why I need help. You know, I’m doing it for your guys’ people, your mothers and your fathers that are out there, your kids. … I need something good to drive and I need something good to put all this stuff in,” Morse said.
Council President Eric Mays said it was possible the council could award money to an organization that could then disperse funding to volunteers like Morse.
“When you look at these guidelines, we can fund nonprofit businesses, we can fund for-profit, you can team up with a nonprofit that we can funnel money through, or you can have a non profit, we can fund that activity,” Mays said.
Jeanette Edwards, the president of the Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood Association, asked that the council allocate a portion of the funds for block clubs.
“We are out here doing the work,” Edwards said. She spoke about the clean ups her group has done, the free library they created for the neighborhood, the food and water they’ve helped to donate to people.
Durrett said she’d like to see the funds used in neighborhoods like hers, and not just in the downtown area.
“This is my home. I’ve been over here for 30-something years. I’ve seen this be one of the most predominant neighborhoods in the city of Flint, to being one of the most worst neighborhoods in the city of Flint,” she said about the north side.
One speaker, Bernard Drew, said that he hoped the funds would be dispersed to “the people in the trenches,” like the volunteers and community organizers who spoke.
“My ask is we do not only allocate funds to help support their operations, and the infrastructure for their programs … but can you also allocate and set aside some funds to help build capacity,” Drew said. “Can you set aside a certain amount of funds to ensure that the money that’s received now doesn’t just get spent and dissipate, but is creating a track record with people who are here to continue to thrive not just now. But down the road?”
Flint resident and activist Claire McClinton spoke about how this money could be used to help residents pay their water bills– in more ways than one.
“I know that some of that rescue money can be used for assistance to help people pay the water bills. We’re not against people getting assistance with their water bill,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we would like to see y’all set up stands from the agencies down in City Hall, or in the mini-stations to help residents fill out those convoluted, complicated applications to get help with their water bills.”
McClinton pointed out that a lot of residents don’t have the internet or Facebook, and need in-person assistance that they can get their hands on. But she said this was a temporary solution.
“If you pay my water bill today, as high as our water rates are, I’ll be right back there in three or four months so we have to do something better than assistance,” she said. “What we have been proposing is a water affordability program in the city of Flint. A water affordability program means that your water bills are tied to your income and not your usage.”
McClinton said that if people have fair and reasonable bills to pay, they’ll pay them. She also asked that the council push the administration to suspend water shut offs.
“Your partners are sitting out here. They’re not downtown, we’re the partners. … So I hope that you all will listen, because the issues that were brought up tonight should not exist after all that money got dumped into this city,” McClinton said.
There will be three more community meetings with the council held in different parts of the city. The dates and locations have not yet been announced.
Residents can also give input on how the ARPA funds should be used through this online survey.