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Flint, MI– Richard Oram has lived in his house on Arlington Ave since 1988.
He has stickers on his front windows that say “Stand up for Science” and call for gun reform in America. He keeps his big yard mowed, nice and neat. He’s a retired GM employee, and used to work for the fire department in Linden.
His view from across the street, is a half-burned down house with broken windows, and a charred front porch. The white sides of the house are covered in neon spray paint. He said it’s been there for more than a year.
That’s not the only case of a burned house on the block, either. Down the street there are four more, and even more around the rest of the neighborhood, too.
There’s a plot of land where a house once stood, but burned down completely, and is now prime real estate for people looking to unload their garbage. Two more houses were recently burned down on either side of the street, one of which happened just a month ago, and was deemed a suspicious fire.
“Living in this neighborhood is like living in a war zone,” Oram said.
Oram lives in Flint’s east side where there has been a recent spike in suspicious fires.
According to Fire Chief Raymond Barton, there were more than 10 fires at vacant structures in the area just last month that are currently being investigated as possible arson.
Oram said most of the house fires in his neighborhood have been at houses that are vacant, although one happened while the owner was out of town on vacation.
They worry about what this means for the other vacant houses on the block.
“We keep this yard mowed, and I’m thinking about getting a light to install in the front window to make it look like someone is home,” said a resident living next door to a vacant house.
Flint has had a history of arson problems, and according to Barton, this recent spike is nowhere near as bad as the massive spike around 2009.
Still, he said all arsons are a concern. He said it would be a good idea for residents to keep their porch lights on.
For residents in these neighborhoods, the problem is about more than just the fires themselves. It’s about the partially burned homes on the block that have yet to be demolished.
“These fires leave scars on our community. Burning a vacant building is not a victimless crime,” said Mayor Sheldon Neeley in regard to the recent spike in fires. “Neighbors do not deserve to have to live next to these hallowed out buildings and fear a fire could spread to their homes.”
Vacant homes on the street have attracted illegal dumpers, who the residents say come in the middle of the night, making it hard for them to be identified.
The yard at 1614 Arlington Ave, which was burned down last month, is full of trash– shopping carts, rotting onions, furniture, glass, broken technology.
Oram said he has thought about taking things into his own hands, and trying to hold a neighborhood cleanup.
“I’ve got two bad feet and a bad back, but I would help,” he said.
The neighbors decided that would be a bad idea, and didn’t want to touch some of the waste in the yard that could be dangerous. So they turned to the city.
Oram said he called the city asking the blight department to come out and clean it up, but was told that it is up to the homeowners to clean the yard.
“They basically said, they made the mess, let them clean it up,” Oram said.
But it’s not that simple.
If a property is privately owned, the owner still has property rights. According to the Director of the Land Bank, Michael Freeman, there are legal processes the city must go through before anyone could come on to a privately owned property and do anything to it.
If the property owner has insurance, Freeman said, the insurance money would pay for whatever demolition and clean up needs to be done.
“Another option is if there is no insurance money, and the property owner skipped town, the city can go through standard motion and forcefully go in and do demolition,” he said. “But that’s all dependent on if they have money, and they also have to go through the appropriate legal processes.”
If the city doesn’t intervene, Freeman said the land bank has to wait for the property to go into tax foreclosure.
“The only way the land bank gets properties is through foreclosure,” he said. “Once property taxes haven’t been paid for a specific amount of time, the treasurer does foreclosure.”
Freeman said houses that have burned down almost always end up going to the landbank because of the cost of demolition, but it can be a lengthy process.
“It could be years if the property owner continues to pay property taxes,” he said. “It might never happen.”
Once a property does end up with the land bank, there are many steps before demolition that take time too, Freeman said.
Properties are ranked by priority. If a property becomes prioritized for demolition, and burned out houses are the highest level of priority, the next step is environmental testing.
“We have to see what we’re up against and how much it’s gonna cost,” Freeman said.
For example, Freeman said the funeral home that recently burned on Flint’s east side will require a lot of environmental remediation.
“All the asbestos could become airborne…there was a basement with chemicals. We don’t know anything about how those chemicals were treated,” he said. “We have to do the appropriate remediation to keep people safe. It’s still an expense.”
Once environmental testing is done, Freeman said they have to get Consumers Energy to make sure utility lines are cut properly before demolition can start. He said they’re currently backed up, and that there aren’t always enough people to do these jobs, even if they had all the funding they needed.
“Millions of dollars doesn’t mean there are magically enough qualified contractors to do the work,” Freeman said.
As it is, the land bank owns more houses that need to be demolished than they can afford.
Last month, Freeman said there were 4,706 blighted properties in Flint that are candidates for demolition. The land bank owns 2,922 of them.
“To demolish everything in our portfolio would probably take $42 million,” Freeman said.
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The land bank just received a grant from the Mott Foundation of nearly half a million dollars to fund demolitions, but Freeman said that will only cover about 30-35 demolitions which are expected to take place next spring.
“We don’t get money at the level that we need,” Freeman said. “But we’re chipping away at it, doing our best.”
So what does that mean for the residents who live on the streets with blighted vacant properties and half-burned homes?
Oram said coping with the neighborhood looking this way is difficult.
“We try to keep an eye on the neighborhood, but it’s getting tough now,” he said.