Before and After: $8.3-million investment transforms historic Flint building

FLINT, Michigan—Once home to auto industry pioneers, Swayze Court Apartments again is home to new opportunity in Flint.

Sitting in the Grand Traverse District Neighborhood, this building was built in 1924 by Willliam S. Ballenger Sr., one of the founders of Buick. However, the structure at Grand Traverse and Court streets fell victim over the years to neglect and abandonment until it eventually became just an unwanted eyesore.

Until an $8.3-million investment turned it into 36 affordable apartments. It is now a cornerstone for the neighborhood long-highlighted by the White Horse Tavern’s pizza, breakfast and beer—but more recently with events at the recently opened Totem Books cafe and used books.  

At the center of the effort to reopen Swayze Court Apartments is Communities First Inc.—a Flint-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing and community development. It is led by the husband-wife duo Glenn and Essence Wilson.

Jorain Hardman was in a homeless program when she found out she was eligible to live in Swayze Court, which also includes a number of amenities including a computer lab, job and education resources, and community programs.

“Not only did Essence and Glenn give me a place to stay, they gave me a home. They gave me an opportunity to better myself,” she said.

Hardman now has graduated from a nutrition program, is studying toward her GED, and continues working in a gardening program that brings fresh produce to residents.

“It’s more than an apartment building,” Hardman said. “It’s an opportunity for me to better myself to become productive in the community. I didn’t know all this was going on behind these doors. We need more stuff like this … we really do. This is more than just a home.”

Construction on the formerly blighted structure began in August 2015 and was completed in December 2016. The Wilsons say their development projects are designed to engage the community and help people in Flint gain opportunities.

“Swayze Court Apartments meets a very real need for quality, affordable housing in Flint,” said Glenn Wilson, president and CEO of Communities First Inc. “Residents have begun to move in, and they are enjoying their new home. They come from a variety of backgrounds and are forming a community that is supportive and positive, which is amazing.”

Swayze Court Apartments is a collaborative effort between Communities First Inc., RAD Conversion Specialists, Michigan State Housing Development Authority, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, City of Flint, Genesee County Land Bank Authority, Chase Bank, National Equity Fund, and Michigan LISC.

It also is repurposing a piece of Flint’s history.

Bill Ballenger, grandson of the building’s founder, was one of about 60 people who attended a March 31, 2017, ribbon-cutting ceremony at Swayze Court Apartments. He peered out a second floor stairwell window to look toward Church Street:  “Yep, that’s it. That’s my grandfather’s house.”

Swayze Court was once the home of Ballenger’s parents, a number General Motors executives and a number of other Flint professionals.

“I always saw all these pictures all these years of the outside of Swayze Apartments, but I never saw the inside until today,” said Ballenger, a former state senator. “I think Glenn and Essence have done an excellent job of resuscitating Swayze Apartments, giving it new life obviously.”

Prior to the reconstruction, the interior of the building was simply uninhabitable. The ceilings had collapsed into piles of rubbish. There were broken out windows and holes punched in walls. Any remnants of its former glory were simply lost to blight. 

“To think about where it started when Glenn and Essence first took me through here, I tell you it took a lot of courage to take on a project like that, and yet they believed in it … but what I love about it is what’s happening inside the buildings,” Lt. Governor Brian Calley said. “You got people who didn’t have a home before that now have a home. It’s a place to live, and it’s a great place to live, but it’s also connecting people to the things that they need to make the best possible future.”

Swayze Court Apartments is one of two completed projects their team has tackled. In 2014, Communities First rehabbed Oak School, just a few blocks away into Oak Street Senior Apartments, a 24-unit low-income senior housing facility. It opened September 2015.

“The fact that this has come to fruition, the fact that this development has taken place, sends a message to the people that I work with in Washington. It says: Look, we have to continue to support reinvestment in these older cities because it can work,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Twp.
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