For Natalie Pruett the job is both business and personal.
An independent planning consultant for the City of Flint, her vision for the community helps shape its future. But as a resident and hometown native Pruett’s work also affects her and her neighbors.
She authored Flint’s five-year blight elimination plan, initiated in 2015, as a framework for attacking one of the city’s biggest problems. The strategy identified 5,000 residential and 500 commercial structures as neighborhood nuisances. In just year two of the strategy Flint’s abatement staff and resident volunteers have reduced the number of neglected properties by about half and combined with Genesee County Land Bank to make dramatic progress.
“When you think about what that looks like, 2,800 dangerous, blighted structures, and what thousands and thousands of neighbors no longer have to look at, it’s a huge accomplishment,” says Pruett.
The battle was uphill from day one.
“When it was adopted I would not say anyone in Flint or with the Land Bank thought, ‘This is what we’re doing in the next five years,’” says Pruett. “What we were saying is, ‘These are things that need to be done to eliminate blight.’ And, at the time, we were 90 percent short of resources we needed to begin that framework.”
Since waging the battle, the city has raised $28 million in state and federal support, but the first step was to take the community’s collective temperature.
“Our focus was engaging with Flint’s residents,” Pruett says.
About 120 Flint stakeholders were invited to a kick-off meeting, which was followed by a workshop series in each of Flint’s nine wards. The five-year framework was discussed and residents took part in a hypothetical exercise that gave them 10 tokens each for “blight budgeting” to spend in neighborhood nuisance categories.
“In every single workshop the activity that was most invested in was demolition,” Pruett recalls.
Residents were receptive to pitching in and mowing lawn at the vacant house next door, she says, but made a clear statement about their biggest concerns.
“They said, ‘I can’t do anything about a house where the roof has collapsed,’” adds Pruett. “That was very powerful for the city and the Land Bank because it affirmed what was important for understanding.”
Raul Garcia says nuisance abatement has been an ongoing campaign. A retired fireman, Garcia was hired as Flint’s blight coordinator in 2013 and told the job would last two years. Since then the department expanded, recruiting Joel Arnold as blight management analyst in 2015.
“I’m the guy who’s out in the community and Joel is my ace in the hole here in the office running the programs,” Garcia says.
In addition to targeting vacant buildings and abandoned vehicles, he and Arnold help coordinate voluntary cleanups by neighborhood residents.
“The city can provide, at no cost to a group cleaning up vacant properties they don’t own, support crews who help clear brush or assist them at properties that have really intense dumping problems,” Arnold says.
While the city crews don’t perform the actual cleanups, some residents have taken advantage of the program and another service that sends dumpsters into the community. During the past year about 150 dumpsters have been assigned to 125 separate volunteer efforts. Residents can request blight removal support through the web site www.cityofflint.com.
“People like to give me credit,” Garcia says. “But I think it’s the neighborhoods that do all the work. They deserve the kudos.”
Pruett agrees resident support has significantly contributed to the five-year strategy’s progress.
“Does it solve all of our problems? No. But it does make the community look better and contribute toward revitalizing our neighborhoods,” she says.
Creativity has also played a role.
The “decorative method” of painting a door or window onto plywood used to board vacant properties that cover the actual openings has gained surprising results. Pruett recently took a group on a tour through a blighted neighborhood where there was traditional plywood boarding, then a short distance away where there was decorative boarding – on the same number of houses.
“They said, ‘Oh, this block’s in a lot better shape!’” Pruett chuckles.
Through the Land Bank’s “Clean and Green” and youth employment programs about 400 houses were decoratively boarded this summer.
Innovative ways around the $7 million annual tally it would cost for the city to mow vacant properties have also yielded success. In barren lots where structures have been demolished, the city has begun planting clover, which grows no more than 12 inches and requires mowing just twice a year.
Code enforcement remains a challenge because of absentee property owners who only maintain vacant properties in the hope of eventually making profit. Challenges in the remaining years of the blight framework include holding owners accountable.
“We have laws about trash, we have laws about grass, we have laws about buildings that are dangerous,” Pruett says, reminding the community.
But, for a strategy that began under-resourced and daunting, few involved in the blight fight would dispute the woman who wrote the plan in her evaluation of Flint’s efforts.
“Those are some of the ways,” she says “in which we’ve really made progress.”
Photos by Paul Engstrom