«A Journal of Policy Development and Research HoPe VI Volume 12, Number 1 • 2010 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy ...»
Results of Flint, Michigan, Case Study As its population has fallen, Flint has changed dramatically. In some parts of the city, the rapid departure of people has resulted in a new pastoral landscape where houses once sat. In others, the derelict structures that once housed people now serve as a deterrent to investment and a haven for criminals. In each neighborhood, a certain percentage (often large) of the population has no place else to go. Many of the desperately poor huddle together and are stuck in an economic ghetto. In some parts of Flint, the ghetto is not just economic but also racial.
Putting socioeconomic and racial considerations aside, the analysis reveals that the Flint landscape has changed dramatically. The aim of this article is to probe the utility of using occupied-housing density as an indicator of residential land use change in shrinking cities. The following summary sketches the ways that residential land use changed in three of Flint’s neighborhoods9 as each faced significant population loss over the past three decades. For each neighborhood, the summary describes occupied-housing-unit density10 and then contrasts it against results from field investigations and interviews.
I selected the three neighborhoods because each had experienced high levels of depopulation since 1970. Preliminary investigation showed that each had some level of formal community engagement in place, either through active neighborhood associations or professional community development agencies.
Two of the neighborhoods studied, Carriage Town and Grand Traverse, share a single census tract.
For the Grand Traverse neighborhood, I validated the land use changes discovered through the census data analysis, through interviews, and by direct observation of current housing conditions.
Hundreds of housing units throughout the neighborhood underwent a process described in the housing literature as “filtering,” but with a unique twist. As “white flight” and employment cuts reduced demand for housing in Grand Traverse since the 1960s, single-family homes (which accounted for a vast majority of the neighborhood’s housing stock historically) were divided into multifamily homes and rented. This phenomenon, in fact, would be expected to increase the occupied-housing-unit density of the neighborhood, but the period of multifamily use was often quite limited. According to interviews with long-time residents, many of these multifamily homes did not receive care and maintenance from their owners, leading to accidental fires and alleged arson (exhibit 2). Over time, the neighborhood association, working closely with foundation and city resources, arranged for the demolition of many (if not all) of these fire-damaged structures, which led to a further decline in occupied-housing-unit density and to the emergence of a more open, pastoral landscape in the city (exhibit 3). One long-time resident, active in the neighborhood association, celebrated the new feel of his neighborhood, expressing an idea similar to the blotting
process described by Armborst, D’Oca, and Theodore (2005):
We’ve been able to sell a lot of side lots to homeowners, so it’s expanded the size of their properties and they have nice big green space on the side…. They use it for gardens and bigger yards.
Exhibit 2 This home was partially damaged by an accidental fire in the Carriage Town neighborhood. (Photo credit: Justin B. Hollander)
A pastoral landscape graces the Grand Traverse neighborhood. (Photo credit:
Justin B. Hollander) Other researchers have examined blotting or sideyard acquisitions as vacant-land management approaches; in this article, I tie that action to a measurable change in housing density. In Grand Traverse, because some residential parcels are more than 2 acres, the neighborhood feels more rural than suburban (the blotting has been part of how the neighborhood moved from a suburban-quality 3.6 units per acre in 1970 to a very rural 1.4 units per acre in 2000). Perhaps more important, the active control and management of vacant land and abandoned buildings have contributed to a sense in the neighborhood that it is safe from crime. One long-time resident
commented on the issue of crime and safety in the neighborhood:
The main social change is, I think, that crime is way, way down. It used to be scary to go out at night and it just isn’t anymore. There are a lot more people active and aware; a lot more eyes on the streets. I think that has been a real improvement and I attribute that to the removal of the worst of the housing. There are just very few places for criminals to hang out anymore.
Two other factors that influenced land use change in Grand Traverse during this time period are the conversion of homes to offices and the conversion of homes to group living quarters. Grand Traverse is strategically located in close walking distance to city, county, and federal courthouses and, during the 1960s and 1970s, several dozen homes in close proximity to the courts were converted into office use for local attorneys. At the same time, local and regional social service agencies orchestrated the conversion of dozens of owner-occupied and rental housing into group living
quarters for mentally disabled adults throughout the Grand Traverse neighborhood. Although these new uses can have a range of effects on the neighborhood, ultimately, they bear little overall effect on the broader shift toward lower occupied-housing-unit density in Grand Traverse. In sum, the quantitative results in exhibit 1 accurately reflect the widespread change in the physical form of Grand Traverse, with dramatically fewer homes and new vast stretches of open space.
Carriage Town: The Historic Preservation Conundrum The Carriage Town neighborhood is located within a city-designated historic district. The benefits that accrue to the neighborhood due to that designation are accompanied by restrictions placed on the demolition of derelict structures. As a result, Carriage Town has an inordinate number of derelict, historic structures in contrast with Grand Traverse. Direct observation of neighborhood conditions, as well as interviews, validated the quantitative evidence presented in exhibit 1 that Carriage Town has experienced a dramatic fall in occupied-housing density over the past several decades. Unlike the Grand Traverse neighborhood, where that change was accompanied by demolition and the creation of wide-open spaces, the Carriage Town neighborhood has experienced that same change with restrictions on demolishing historic structures, which means that far fewer derelict (or even partially burned-down) structures have been razed.
As with the homes in Grand Traverse, single-family homes in Carriage Town have historically accounted for most of the neighborhood housing stock, and as with the homes in Grand Traverse, scores of these homes in Carriage Town have gone through a process whereby owners convert them into multifamily rentals; then, because of owner neglect, the homes are (partially) consumed by fire. Also, like Grand Traverse, the Carriage Town neighborhood has seen a major influx of group homes. Despite restrictions on demolishing historic homes, Carriage Town has still experienced massive population and housing unit decline over the study period. “There are now half the homes in our neighborhood as there were 30 years ago,” said one long-time resident. Both new and long-time residents agreed that, as demand for living in Carriage Town dropped precipitously, the neighborhood halved its supply of housing over the past three or four decades.
Although the rural feel of Grand Traverse is absent in Carriage Town, the remaining residents are comfortably spread out on large lots with ample green space, providing somewhat of a suburban quality to the neighborhood form (exhibit 4). Just as happened in Grand Traverse, homeowners in Carriage Town bought abutting parcels after the homes were demolished to add additional yard space or room for more parking, blotting the physical form of their neighborhood. By reclaiming these abandoned spaces, residents leave no space untamed, no place in which to hide, and few structures for turning into criminal havens. The residents that I interviewed in Carriage Town did not perceive crime to be a serious issue in their neighborhood. One resident recounted what happened when he invited friends from the suburbs over for dinner: “They can’t believe how beautiful my home is. ‘We don’t feel like we’re in Flint,’ they always say. Which on the one hand feels good, but on the other it’s like ‘what do you mean it doesn’t feel like Flint?’ ‘Why is Flint a bad thing?’” These friends from the suburbs were accustomed to the idea that Flint was a dangerous place; in fact, neighborhoods such as Carriage Town, although they have depopulated and have lost huge numbers of housing units, have become quite attractive places to live.
The Carriage Town neighborhood reflects a distinctive suburban quality. (Photo credit: Justin B. Hollander) Max Brandon Park: Lack of Community, Lack of Commitment Max Brandon Park, the final neighborhood studied, was different in four main ways from Grand Traverse and Carriage Town: (1) its location is outside of walking distance to downtown, (2) its racial composition (exhibit 5) is not diverse, (3) it lacks a vital neighborhood association or even large numbers of homeowners, and (4) its population is almost twice that of the other two neighborhoods combined. In the three census tracts that make up Max Brandon Park, the occupied-housing-unit density fell by 27 percent from 1970 to 2000 and the population dropped 40 percent.
Unlike the Grand Traverse and Carriage Town neighborhoods, which are diverse racially and in terms of housing tenure, the residents of the Max Brandon Park neighborhood are primarily African American and their housing tenure is primarily rental. Houses throughout the neighborhood have been demolished, but many derelict structures remain. Unlike the unimproved lots in Grand Traverse and Carriage Town, which are adopted by neighbors or used for park space, the lots are mostly left fallow in Max Brandon Park (exhibit 6). Large tracts of vacant land are untamed and uncared for. These wild, vacant lots provide habitat for vermin, hiding spots for criminals, and dumping grounds for others.
Exhibit 6 As with most empty lots in the Max Brandon Park neighborhood, this lot is overgrown with weeds and appears unattended. (Photo credit: Justin B. Hollander)
Discussion The inability of the city or the neighborhood association to effectively reuse or demolish abandoned buildings makes Carriage Town susceptible to higher levels of criminal activity than Grand Traverse.
For example, one neighborhood leader in Grand Traverse said she could count on a single hand how many drug houses were in the neighborhood. In Carriage Town, however, the squatters, who occupy the vast supply of abandoned and semiabandoned structures, are more commonplace.
Interviews with long-time residents revealed that homeowners in Carriage Town hold the neighborhood as beloved because of its historic charm, but property owners’ ability to demolish or rehabilitate derelict structures is limited.
Both in Grand Traverse and Carriage Town, local residents and community development professionals have successfully used the blotting process to change their urban appearance, while moving from high-density to low-density neighborhoods. From the Max Brandon Park case, we learn that the lack of strong community organizing and low levels of homeownership may have played a role in a different outcome. There, few examples of blotting are apparent and what typically succeeds a demolished home is perhaps qualitatively worse than a derelict structure with the presence of dumping and overt criminal activity. Where both Grand Traverse and Carriage Town have recoded their neighborhood physical form to be more rural and suburban, respectively, after decades of declining occupied-housing density, Max Brandon Park remains a high-crime, predominantly rental, and an unstable community. Both Grand Traverse and Carriage Town have evolved into a rural-to-suburban density level (1.4 units per acre), signaling perhaps a slowdown in their continued depopulation. Max Brandon Park, however, was still a somewhat urban neighborhood, with 3.6 units per acre in 2000; it likely will experience more shrinkage in the near future.
By closely investigating three Flint, Michigan, neighborhoods, I successfully confirmed the results pertaining to occupied-housing-unit density analysis: substantial change has occurred in the physical form of each neighborhood. The occupied-housing-unit density metric masks the different outcomes from each neighborhood because shrinkage has affected each differently.
Conclusion The case study of Flint shows the value of using occupied-housing-unit density to study depopulating neighborhoods. By examining census data, ground observations of neighborhood conditions, and interviews with local officials, residents, and community leaders, I can make some conclusions about the value of using occupied-housing-unit density in studying and planning for shrinking cities.
Although each neighborhood witnessed change, the change was most painful in the Max Brandon Park neighborhood. This finding suggests that depopulation, physical neighborhood deterioration, and decline in quality of life are not all perfectly correlated but, rather, are subject to variation. As a neighborhood’s occupied-housing-unit density declines, quality of life does not necessarily fall concomitantly. By focusing on the value of the single occupied-housing-unit density measurement, it is possible to capture all the social, physical, environmental, and economic forces at work in a neighborhood that are shaping its physical form, while allowing for varying outcomes in quality of
life. Some places will shrink well, while others will not—community development and planning interventions can potentially make the difference.