Frank Street, Flint, MI 2016: A Story of Houses

Photo of blighted homes in Flint, Michigan
Photo from "On This Block, Worries Run Deeper Than Flint’s Tainted Water" by Julie Bosman, The New York Times, April 25, 2017 | Photo by Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The house across from me is vacant. My neighbors and I take turns mowing the lawn, but we can do nothing about the hole in the roof. Through the windows, we can see that the water is destroying the inside of the house. I find it ironic that we are all drinking bottled water now because the city water is bad, and yet even the rain here is causing irreparable harm. What should be a life-giving symbol, water, is poisoning our bodies and destroying the houses. We have replaced all the plumbing in our house, the water heater, the boiler, the faucets, because the corrosion ate it all away. I think about how the pipes in this house might have been okay because there was no water turned on here during the main crisis, but scrappers got all the copper and appliances out long ago. The owner of this house is in England; he bought it from the tax auction and has probably never even seen it. We went and looked him up on the city records. He has fallen behind on the property taxes, so ownership will go back to the city again soon. We try to mail letters to England to say his house is crumbling, but he never replies.

Directly next to the English guy’s house is the trash house. It is funny how wealthy people name their grand estates and how here in Flint we have our own names for the houses on our street. Sometimes, we call them by the address, 725 or 845. But usually they are called by the family who lives there or used to live there. The landlord who owns trash house finally kicked the tenants out. They left, but their garbage stayed. The house is full of rotting food, dog poop, and abandoned clothing. It smells terrible when you walk past it. You almost can’t smell the house next to it, which is the weed house. The renter there keeps up a brisk business with selling marijuana that he grows himself. I like to support local vegetable gardening, but I do not like his weed farming operation at all. When you grow marijuana, you need to have proper ventilation, or the moisture makes the house moldy. Someone who grew legally explained this to me. Again, here is water in another form that is being allowed to destroy the house from the inside out slowly but surely.

The next house is half gone already, the chimney caved and then the roof. This is the Old Lady’s house, she died, and no one remembers her name anymore. The trees have taken over here; they grow wild and give shelter to the people who use the backyard for dogfighting. That is illegal, but the police here do not have time to come out to stop dogfighting. We have had some success reporting them to animal control, but the best people to call are the animal rights group. They care more about the animals than any trespassing law and they will liberate a poor dog when the owner is not home. It sometimes reminds me of a wild west story from the past, because we take the law in our own hands to keep our street safe. Which brings me to the next house, a pretty yellow bungalow that has survived the downturn. The renter there has taken care of it but is getting ready to move. We worry, because we wonder who will move in next. Will they take care of the house, and by extension, our neighborhood? We must wait and see.

On my side of Frank street, my house is cute and neat. My neighbors to the right and left take even better care of their houses; they have both lived here for years, watching Mott Park fall from what was a solid middle-class area to what it is now. We all have flowers and pick up the trash daily that the people speeding way over the 25-mph limit throw out of their cars every day onto our mowed lawns. We watch each other’s houses all the time. Two more houses down, one of my neighbors is disabled, and he makes sure to know every car on our street, so he can watch for strange ones. He ignores the short visits that strange cars make to the weed house; those people run in and run out with their baggies of produce, and never stay long.

The landlord finally sends a handyman to check on trash house. I had complained to his LLC office about the stench, which is unbearable. The house reeks so bad that the handyman gives up and comes back out. The rats are going to multiply over there, and I don’t know what to do. All up and down our street is the same problem. The houses where people are trying hard to fix them up, and the houses where the people seem determined to let them rot.

My family has spent our lives repairing houses, and now have fixed up the one we live in. I talked to my neighbor behind me about the trash house, that I wish I could fix it. This neighbor had watched me repair our house in the couple years we have been here. She told me that if I can get the landlord to sell trash house, she and another neighbor will buy it, and my responsibility would be to buy the materials and do the labor to fix it. I went home shocked, she has not known me that long, but trusts me to do this? They scrape up the money, hand me a money order for $5,000.00, and I offer it to the landlord. He takes the money, and I now own trash house. I first get a 40-yard dumpster and hire a hoarder’s cleanout crew. They come to work, wearing hazmat suits and breathing apparatuses. They overflow the dumpster with garbage from inside the 1,200 sq. foot house. I hire someone else to wipe it down with heavy cleaners, and then my family went in. We had to get a second dumpster for the garbage in the yard and garage, as well as the broken windows. We painted the house by hand, because it was real wood clapboard siding. We replaced windows, doors, repaired electrical and heating. The bathroom had been annihilated, so that received a complete remodel. Painting inside, repairing wooden floors, and hauling out an ancient decrepit upright piano. We cut down the trees that were compromising the foundation and waterproofed the basement. New appliances and light fixtures, and all this has cost more than the house is worth, but the house is smiling. Neighbors now call it the happy house. Next door, the English house was approved for a mowing grant, and the old lady house is scheduled for demolition. I start to hope again, but then Hell came to live on Frank street.

A Californian landlord put the worse tenants possible in his houses, including the pretty yellow bungalow. Our problems before, even with the water crisis, seemed like nothing compared to what these tenants did to our street. The same landlord owned several houses up and down the Frank. One house burned partly down, and he let it sit so we could all look at one more eyesore. His two-story house tenants had a block party, not for the neighbors, but for everyone else. The woman tenant sold 25 cent alcohol shots and advertised on Facebook her own open house bar, no ID required. Our street was packed with strangers in unknown cars, strangers who peed on your porch and threw up on your flowers and walked around destroying everything. The elderly neighbors up and down the street were all in terror, and everyone was hiding in their homes texting each other on the phone, and of course calling the police station. The dispatcher said there was one officer on duty for the city, and he was unable to come, since he was at the scene of a car accident. One of the animal rights neighbors, a veteran, called the dispatcher and said, “This is like world war 3 out here!” The dispatcher repeated that there were no officers available, so the veteran said, “I am going out there with my gun and I will disperse this crowd.” The dispatcher said “No, you can’t do that!” and he said, “Send someone out to stop me.” He and another neighbor went in the middle of the street, fired up into the air and screamed “Police! Police are here!” Mayhem ensued as everyone ran and tried to leave at the same time, like after a firework show with honking horns and cursing as they went. I worried about the bullets, because what goes up, comes down. It was a tradition to fire guns up into the air, especially on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve, and I was amazed that the bullets never killed anyone on their way back down. It was not unusual to find them lodged in your car’s surface the next day.

This tenant had her one-time party and continued to plague her neighbors with new escapades every week. But the pretty yellow bungalow tenants were determined to outdo her, with daily and sometimes hourly flagrant disregard for the neighborhood. We knew right away when they moved in and trash was immediately thrown all over the lawn, that this looked bad. It escalated quickly, with drug deals done with waving handguns in the broad daylight and screaming and cursing day and night. The man, who was proud to say that he was fresh out of prison, would beat up his girlfriend in the front yard, and when police eventually showed up, she would claim a neighbor had beat her up. We all knew that you can’t get involved, because she would rather blame someone trying to help her, than her abuser. He was the father of some of her kids, who played in the street unsupervised of course.

I was working on the garden at the former trash house, now the happy house, when a toddler was in the street by herself. A car started to back up, and I ran and picked her up. She was tiny, not even talking yet. I called the police and reported that I had a child, and I did not know for sure whose, though I could guess. The police of course were busy and told me to just watch her. Maybe five minutes later, another child came by and said, “Hey that’s my sister!” I told her to get her parents, and along came drug dealer prison man. He ran up to me screaming, “Give me my kid you @#$%!” I said calmly that the baby was in the street and almost got hit by a car, and how did I know that you are the daddy! I was still talking to the police, who heard him cursing and threatening, and said to just give him the toddler. So, I handed her over, and off he went. I started to talk to the neighbor lady who had saw the whole thing with the car and the child. Back comes the angry man to yell at me some more. I ignored him, but the neighbor told him I had saved his kid’s life, and he should shut up. A week later, he drove past, rolled down the window and muttered something about he always played in the street, so his kids would play in the street so that was why he was mad that day. I guess that was an apology, and because I continued to ignore all his dealings, I don’t think he realized I was actually plotting with the neighbors to have him arrested if possible.

The police got called daily to the now poor sad yellow bungalow, which was looking bad with the front window broken in one of the fights, and trash everywhere. They usually did not come, but at least they kept a record of the complaints. The tenants did not seem to mind the police, they just lied or left or hid when the cops came. But we finally hit upon a new plan. The tenants had pit bulls, and they randomly either chained the dogs up or let them run. If the dogs were chained, we called animal control to give them a ticket for animal cruelty. If the dogs were running loose, we lured the poor starving animals with water and food and put a leash on them. We would then call the animal rights neighbors, who happily rescued the dogs and whisked them away. We also called blight enforcement, who would come by and fine the tenants for blight. I am sure they never paid the tickets, but they started to get very annoyed that they could not throw trash all over “their property.” The male tenant told my disabled neighbor that he hated our street. He could not “live in peace” without blight control, animal control, and the police bothering him all the time, plus his dogs kept disappearing. Again, I am struck by the irony of his viewpoint.

Our other tactic was taking turns calling the California landlord to complain about his tenants. When we called, he offered to buy our houses for dirt cheap, saying he was going to buy up the whole block and that he did not care what his tenants did to his houses if they paid, and they would pay, because he only rented to Section 8 who had government housing vouchers. He said our neighborhood crime rate was going up, and we should sell to him and get out now. At the time, I did not realize that this tactic, called “block-busting,” had been used historically in Detroit to get panicked whites to sell their houses when blacks were moving into the neighborhood. This landlord did not know our skin color, but he was very unethically using the same methodology to buy up the neighborhood.

We let everyone know about his tactics, and when a lady on our street needed to sell her house because of relocation, she sold it to me on a land contract. My son lived there until Kettering University got their housing voucher program set up. This was a really neat program where KU gave a grant to their staff trying to move into our neighborhood of Mott Park, which bordered the University on two sides. A young professor came to see the house, and I sold it to him. All this buying and selling and fixing was taking a huge toll on my debt funded budget. My husband was supportive of my attempts to stabilize our street, but I was further in the hole than when we moved to Flint. It seemed worthwhile when I finally confronted the Californian landlord on the phone that we had a neighborhood group that was going to collectively sue him for his tenant’s actions. I had the compiled police reports and records of calling him about the problems, and that he was not allowing us to live peaceably in our homes. He backed off, stopped answering his phone, and his tenants all moved away very soon after. The yellow bungalow tenant was already planning on leaving, and when the others left, the street seemed quiet again.

I started to sell the houses on Frank street, one went to a couple who had grown up in the neighborhood, another to a veteran and his daughter. I tried to sell the happy house to a young couple, who were first time home buyers. I knew there was a government program that would help them with budgeting and a down payment, but they refused to be in it. They had no car insurance and were in debt to Consumer’s Energy and could not get utilities in their name. I urged them that they could get help, but they insisted they could not. I ran into this situation repeatedly. Government programs need to realize the attitudes of the people they are trying to help. Often the poor see the government as the enemy, do not trust banks, and pay everything in cash, and thus have bad or no credit. They do this because they are on the run from debt collectors. They hide from their creditors, and their situation grows worse. Even a small debt seems insurmountable and trying to show them that the result would help them is ignored in their fear of being found.

The very people who desperately need a housing program are not helped. The same situation comes when their landlord mistreats them, the tenants will not say anything, because they finally found somewhere to live despite their bad credit history. It seemed to me like I was just one step ahead on the social class ladder in that I understood this fear but could not explain it to the folks I was trying to help, and in fact I always felt in danger of falling off the ladder into the same trouble these folks found themselves in.

I had become a “Flintstone”, an affectionate nickname for people who lived in the city. However, I was stretched thin, worn out like the constant dripping of water wears down a stone, of all the problems we had faced. I was home schooling my children because the public school was in such a sorry shape. My children no longer cared about the graffiti and stopped picking up trash; it was as if they no longer saw it anymore. I had houses I was trying to save. My grandfather’s health was deteriorating, and it took 30 minutes one way to drive over to help him. But the worst enemy of all was debt, always there, always growing, reminding me that no matter how much I tried to help my neighborhood, work hard, and be honest, that it was not enough. I finally had to give in, and sell the happy house to a local landlord, who was the only person who wanted to buy it. I paid back the purchase price in full to my two neighbors who trusted me to fix that house. In a destabilized neighborhood, peace is an elusive dream that violence, crime, or blight can wash away in a moment like water in a storm. Tonight, I wish the quiet will linger on Frank Street, and may we wake to see the coming day.

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