Fighting blight in FlintA glimpse inside the office handling 4,000 complaints and 101 cleanups

FLINT, Michigan—Joel Arnold’s job is taking on blight in the city of Flint.

“Our plan is comprehensive, and it’s a team effort working with our community partners,” says Joel Arnold, a blight analyst in the demolitions office of Planning and Development. 

Sitting in a beige-on-gray City Hall conference room a la early 1970s interior decorating, Arnold is unfazed. And determined—noting the improvements Flint has made by working with residents to address blight issues throughout the city—but he also wants to make one thing perfectly clear:

“The job isn’t as cool as it sounds, and there isn’t any dynamite... that I know of,” Arnold says with a smile.   

The first thing you notice about Arnold is that he is very tall and overtly nice. Think of a millennial Jimmy Stewart, only somehow more polite and self-effacing. 
(From left) Suzanne Wilcox, Joel Arnold, and Raul Garcia, work together in the City's Planning and Development office to take on the big problems facing the city.
In 2016, his office assisted 38 different community groups, responded to almost 4,000 resident complaints, and supported 101 individual cleanup efforts.

“It’s about the numbers and the numbers show that we’re making critical improvements,” he says. Arnold pounds his index finger on the formica table: The city has “gone from resolving 33 percent of complaints received in spring 2015 to over 70 percent today.” 

Suzanne Wilcox, acting director of Planning and Development, says a key component to long-term solutions for blight revolve around establishing community partnerships and working with residents to inform them “how they can help us in bringing down and removing these structures—and we can’t do that without them.”

The city office works closely with the Genesee County Land Bank to identify properties that are, “in poor or structurally deficient condition.” Before the city proceeds with a demolition, an inspection is done and reviewed by the Building Code Board of Appeals. Property owners have an opportunity to appear before the board before a property is put on the city’s demolition list. 

Their strategy for combating blight in Flint is outlined in the city’s Master Plan, adopted in in 2013. The blight elimination framework is a 200-page section that covers everything from vacant lot maintenance to demolition, code enforcement, trash removal, and neighborhood clean-ups.

“It’s all laid out in Flint’s Master Plan,” says Arnold, who studied politics and urban policy at Michigan State University. “It was policy decisions that got us where we are today, and it will be focused policy decisions that lead to our future success.”

For people like Lorrie Knighten, blight removal goes beyond policy, spreadsheets and bulldozers. It is about taking pride in the community. 

“It’s safer and it looks better for the block when these (blighted homes) come down,” says Knighten, acting president of the New Community Block Club. “We’re pleased with working with the city because they address an issue with a property quickly.”

In past years, it would take the city months to address a blighted home, she says. 

“Now you see crews out in the neighborhoods, and they’re tearing down and leaving an area cleaned up. It helps you feel better about Flint when you see that happening,” Knighten said.

Raul Garcia, blight coordinator for the City of Flint, says the involvement of more volunteers has made a critical impact. 

“Prior to getting more community groups involved, it was just me out there lifting a mattress all by myself,” he laughs. “Before I might be out on Sloan Street, where I’m picking up garbage every week, now I have more people coming out to give me a hand. … The fact that there are more people helping me, is a really big deal.”

Garcia, like Arnold smiles and laughs a lot, he says he can see the attitudes of volunteers around the city brighten too. He admits there are downsides. The most frustrating is seeing an area get cleaned up and then, two or three weeks later, look the same as it did before their work. 

 “The other week I had a lady come in who does a lot of volunteer work. She said, ‘I’m getting tired of this. We do all this work and people are so inconsiderate.’ ” 

Garcia’s response: “Sometimes I feel that way too, but really it’s people like you that make a difference.I said to her, if you give up, and if I give up, then what kind of life does that leave for us in this city. I need your example.”

For Arnold, the day-to-day work is about securing a sustainable future for the city. A fourth generation Flint native, Arnold’s connections to the city run deep. 

“I think we’re on track for a much more stable future in Flint. We have great universities and hospitals that aren’t going to leave for cheaper labor,” he says. “But from an emotional standpoint, Flint has an outsized volunteer base that people tend to look past. The people here really care about their neighborhoods.” 

His finger pounds the table again: “That’s the best part of my job,” Arnold says. “Every day I get to work with committed residents, and when you do that on regular basis, suddenly, the challenges we face become infinitely solvable.”

If you or someone you know, needs help with blight, or planning a neighborhood clean, call Joel Arnold or Raul Garcia, at (810) 237-2090.

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

Signup for Email Alerts