A Genesee County property sale could have a dire impact on Flint residents

The following is a Flintside opinion piece by Flint native Patrick Hayes. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected].
FLINT, Michigan — Flint and its surrounding areas claim a long and colorful history of government corruption that has often resulted in the collective subversion of the needs of the city’s people, especially its most vulnerable or voiceless people, in service to the whims of those in elected positions here.

Government corruption isn’t really unique to Flint, obviously – even among the most well-intentioned public servants, it’s not a stretch to assume that preservation of power and influence is a paramount concern, which can quickly veer into abuse of public trust. Politicians doing the easy, politically convenient thing over the hard thing isn’t exactly a new concept or one that is unique to any particular city.

But even with my admittedly cynical view of local politics, I still had the wind knocked out of me by a report in the Flint Journal about Genesee County bundling and selling 230 tax-foreclosed occupied homes in the county (190 of them in the city of Flint) to a single group of vulture investors. A new corporation called To Life Real Estate purchased the properties for $1.2 million (or a little over $5,000 per home) according to the report. To Life Real Estate was incorporated in Michigan on September 20, 2023, according to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), and purchased the properties just days later.

Reporter Ron Fonger noted in one of his stories that, one, this type of sale has never happened in the county before, and two, that the people (presumably mostly low-income people) currently living in the homes sold out from under them are just...sorta screwed. Here’s the advice offered by Genesee County Treasurer Deb Cherry in Fonger’s story:
“We’re telling people if they can, to work with the company,” Cherry said. “If they do have questions or need advice, contact an attorney.”
As if legal advice is easily accessible to people who are presumably already living in difficult economic circumstances. Oh, and there’s also a time crunch:
In the case of To Life, people living in the 230 houses received letters from the investor group just two weeks after the auction sale, advising them to contact the company within seven days about rental options or to prepare for eviction.
Add those factors together, and it is easy to imagine the dire impact this will have on families already struggling in difficult situations. Seriously, imagine trying to take care of your family under that kind of stress. But it gets worse. In a follow-up report, Fonger spoke directly to a family who could be evicted from the home that has been in their family for 55 years:
“I almost passed out and felt sick to my stomach,” (Sa’Terica) Simpson said. “I still feel sick to my stomach. I can’t sleep because it’s a very horrible, horrible, horrible situation.”

Simpson, 33, a mother of two, was adopted by her great-grandmother when she was 1.

“This is where I was born and raised at,” she said. “I never been in this situation before. I never lived nowhere else before.”
Click through that link and try to read Simpson’s entire story without sharing in her feeling of sickness. Further, I dare you to read it without feeling anything but rage at To Life Real Estate. Fonger’s stories are full of platitudes from To Life spokesperson Adi Asraf about seeing “potential” in the city, and that “communication is key,” and “trying to work as best as I can with people.”

The company appears to be Florida-based. If you search the name on the LARA filing, Haim Azizy, you find several property and eviction-related lawsuits in Florida. There is also a To Life Real Estate LLC in Florida under Azizy’s name that was registered in 2021.

Everyone involved in this situation will be quick to point to doing nothing wrong legally. Genesee County was just following state law when they offered up tax-foreclosed homes for auction. To Life Real Estate was simply making a savvy business decision when they bought hundreds of homes for about 3 percent of the median home price in Genesee County or 7 percent of the median home price in Flint. When you remove the actual human impact of things, some people can talk themselves into anything being acceptable.

But put the legal argument aside for a moment, think about this, and try to justify it solely from a moral perspective. It’s impossible. Here’s a more accurate descriptor for what Asraf and To Life Real Estate are inflicting on Flint: harm. This is actively going to harm people, and not just the people in those homes who now suddenly face an even more perilous housing situation than the one they were previously in. It makes the stability of entire neighborhoods even more fraught.

There is arguably no greater factor in the overall health of a community than home ownership. When homes are owner-occupied, neighborhoods are vibrant. Habitat for Humanity has a handy compilation of the many ways that home ownership helps communities thrive, ranging from greater civic participation to increased financial stability. This is potentially 190 homes that might not ever be owner-occupied again, or at the very least won’t be for a significant amount of time.

In Flint, homeownership rates, particularly among Black residents, have declined since the 1970s. There are specific catastrophic projects, like the construction of I-475, that can be pointed to as catalysts for large portions of that decline. But there are micro factors as well. To Life Real Estate might be the most egregious and brazen example in Flint of “investors” who have no roots in the community, gobbling up properties to turn them into long-term rentals, but that same concept has certainly been happening on a smaller scale for years.

Spend some time playing around in the Flint Property Portal for evidence. Last year, my mom bought a house on Illinois Avenue on Flint’s east side. Anyone who has spent time on any of the “state” streets knows about the challenges: blight, burned-out shells of houses, and crime making the neighborhood unstable despite the efforts of some longtime residents to hold on.

But on just the one block my mom lived on, nine homes were rentals, with four of the landlords living outside of Genesee County and two of them out of state. When you test that search in other neighborhoods in the city, you find the same phenomenon. Substandard housing, owned by unengaged landlords, many of whom have out-of-state addresses, whose goal is to maximize rental profits regardless of what that does to the health of the neighborhood. 

Flint certainly has major assets, something that Asraf acknowledges in Fonger’s story: 
“It’s a unique city the way I see it,” he said.

Flint’s past struggles have to be weighed against assets that include solid real estate markets in surrounding areas and the presence of colleges and other solid institutions in the city, Asraf said.

“The company sees potential in the city. There’s good people living in the town,” he said. “Hopefully, I’m not wrong.”
But Asraf’s company, enabled by our state and local government laws that permitted this type of mass sale with no accountability, is also directly depleting what is arguably the city’s best and most marketable asset, the opportunity to own a home here at a lower cost than just about any other place in the country.

The dream of home ownership is dying around the U.S. as even people with decent-paying jobs are rapidly priced out of what were once affordable, middle-class neighborhoods. Flint still offers that, and it is actually a huge selling point of living here. 

Major funding organizations like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Ruth Mott Foundation have directly funded and partnered with initiatives aimed at expanding homeownership. Genesee County has a chapter of Habitat for Humanity that builds and rehabilitates homes with the goal of creating more homeownership opportunities for residents. A primary focus of the Genesee County Land Bank is restoring tax-foreclosed properties and creating affordable homeownership opportunities.

Uptown Reinvestment Corporation has supported the construction and renovation of homes with the goal of increasing the homeownership rate here. Kettering University has long had a forgivable loan program for employees who want to purchase and live in homes in neighborhoods around the university. 

There are dozens more links and examples of this work out there because there is a virtually universal understanding that home ownership is a public good and that the promising reinvestment efforts underway in Flint will likely stall and go nowhere if our neighborhoods aren’t stabilized through homeownership.

To Life Real Estate is unequivocally and actively sabotaging the hard and difficult work so many people have done in this city to promote and find pathways to homeownership for current residents, and it’s probably too late to do anything about it. I hope that others in the city, particularly influential funders and elected officials, are just as outraged by this and do the legislative work quickly at the state and local levels to prevent massive harm like this from happening in the city again.

If anyone reads this and would like to voice their displeasure to our representatives, here are a few contacts:

Genesee County Treasurer Deb Cherry
Phone: (810) 257-3054 Email[email protected] 

Individual Contacts for Genesee County Commissioners | (Find your district)

Individual Contacts for Flint City Council Members | (Find your ward)

Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley
Phone: (810) 766-7346 Email[email protected]

State Representative Cynthia Neeley
Phone: (517) 373-0834 Email: [email protected] 

State Senator John Cherry
Phone: (517) 373-0142 Email[email protected]
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