Flint Michigan has had an extremely rough time these last several decades. It was once the headquarters of General Motors and after GM moved its headquarters to Detroit, remained the center of GM manufacturing. GM has been closing plants in Flint since the 1970s. Auto production now accounts for less than a tenth of the local employment it used to supply. Recently, Flint has survived a string of financial crisis and city-wide lead contamination of its water system. These problems have been thoroughly discussed and dissected elsewhere. I won't go into them in detail here. Flint interests me because it was so dominated by one firm, GM, who left. Flint is less interesting to me because GM has quickly demolished most of its closed plants to avoid paying property tax on improved land. This has left Flint with very little of its industrial heritage intact. The post-industrial landscapes of Flint are mostly comprised of vast empty lots. These lots are generally fenced and useless to the city and its residents. These spaces will likely remain empty. It is a clear case of capital annihilating space in the social and economic context of the city.
Flint would be a good location to study plant closures effect of real estate values. I haven't seen enough discussion about this. When a city loses 70,000 jobs and its main employer, as Flint has, real estate values dive. Home equity accounts for most Americans' largest source of wealth. A plant opening or closing can bestow or destroy the wealth of home owners throughout a city, regardless of where they work. Flint had close to 200,000 residents in 1970. At an average of four people per home that would be 50,000 houses. At an average of $50,000 per house that's a total of $2.5 billion in residential real estate. How much value or wealth did GM destroy when it relocated? If property values fell by half, then it was over a billion dollars. I wouldn't be surprised if the decline in value was as bad or worse than that especially as compared to or adjusted for stable market conditions. Did the closure earn GM as much money? Is this a transfer of wealth from the residents of Flint to the stockholders of GM? Is this a rational way for a society to allocate wealth? This is something I'd like to look into more thoroughly.
I had a chance to visit Flint briefly in the summer of 2017. I'd been to Flint before and expected, given all I'd been hearing about Flint's water crisis, that it would be doing much worse. I was surprised that this didn't seem to be the case at all. Flint, superficially, seemed to be doing better than it was 10 years ago. Downtown Flint was reasonably busy on a Sunday morning. The Flint Farmers' market was packed. Street maintenance was better than I remembered and much better than in Detroit. My brief visit suggested to me that Flint was managing better than many of its peers. But I didn't see the whole city. Flint has abandoned houses and abandoned industrial buildings like most Midwestern cities. But there were lots of promising signs of active efforts to reshape and revive the city. Somehow, through all of its troubles, Flint has seemingly maintained a functional civic culture. That, to me, suggests that it will survive these latest trials.
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