Flint: On the ground, part II (Houses and apartments)

From the Day 3 post, you got the general idea of what a typical Red Cross volunteer day was like. Over the next few posts I will touch on a variety of sub-topics and experiences related to working on water delivery in Flint.

Did you know that Flint was the wealthiest city by median income in the United States in 1980? The median income was $50,208. In 1980. That was greater than San Francisco ($42,047), Washington DC ($40,746), Chicago ($43,480), Houston ($43,028), etc. The city with the highest median income today in 2016? San Francisco at $63,000. Think about that in the context of inflation over 36 years. Puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?

This was because General Motors (GM) employed around 77,000 people (1978) in the Flint area and these were good-paying jobs. Flint’s population at the time was around 160,000. As of August of last year, GM employed 7,200 people. The population is now 99,000 and dropping at about 1,000 per year. I’m going to wing it and say the water crisis will cause another bump in the exodus, although many people wanting to leave can’t, because their house values have plummeted significantly and they can’t sell, because no one wants to move here.

There are not For Sale signs up absolutely everywhere, but they are not uncommon. With the amount of vacant homes, I can imagine that some people gave up on selling and just left (and long before the water crisis hit). For those on the market, it is easy to find a 1,000 square foot home for less than $10,000. This is an example of one set of the typical houses we deliver to (actually made a delivery a few houses down on this street the other day). Or like this. And you can see how much they are for sale.

But, we visit all sorts of different houses. Ones that are inhabited that look far, far worse than what are in those pictures. But, also houses that are immaculate, which are most often resided in by an elderly woman on her own who can’t get her own water (far fewer elderly men on their own). And houses everywhere in between.

On my 3rd day doing the rounds, we also visited one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Flint. Veritable mansions. This was only two of the 200+ stops I’ve seen thus far, but in these houses were women who had outlived their senior executive GM spouses (I was informed by the driver) and were on their own. They need water too.

It’s a great example of how water is a common denominator, one of the most important (along with air), for everyone on the planet, no exceptions. All require the precious resource (odd it’s taken for granted, no?) no matter if you’re unemployed and poor or sitting on a fortune, we all need water. At the same time, it also is an acute indicator of the inequalities that exist in our society, both in the United States and worldwide. Who will suffer most and be taken care of last in this Flint water crisis? The poor.


On to the apartments… What I’ve noticed is that there are very few apartment complexes in Flint. People were making such good money back in the 1970s and 1980s (and there was the space) that most residents of Flint had homes, even if they were small. This is my guess anyway. Of the apartment complexes that do exist, many are empty and abandoned. Many that are still around (that are not in the small city center or university dormitories – 20,000 students in Flint! (although I think I saw 10 while here)) are derelict and are cheaper housing solutions than even some of the houses. And people in them require water too.

On my second day, I went with the driver to one such complex. Some 30 or 40 buildings that had 12 apartments each. We had a dozen or so apartments on our list. There are a few hard parts to apartments. First, they don’t have elevators, so you’re carrying cases of water up and down several flights of stairs. Second, people see you delivering water and everyone wants some, even if they are capable of getting it themselves, and it’s difficult to see who has a car or not, because, well, it’s an apartment.

These apartments, and others I have since witnessed, take what I wrote about Day 3 and the poverty and pack it into a tighter space. One apartment, probably either a large 1-bedroom or maybe a 2-bedroom, had eight people living it, two adults and six children, one with Downs Syndrome, and packed high with stuff. People were smoking in the building. The walls were thin. People were yelling. One woman was screaming Bible verses non-stop for the 10 minutes I was in one building. And, again, overwhelming smells. This all has nothing to do with the water crisis, but when this is already people’s living situation, taking away something as basic as water, which keeps people healthy and clean, able to go to work and to school, providing an opportunity in this lead-contaminated water for developmental issues with children, you are also taking away people’s dignity.

While in Greece, I felt that volunteers were helping restore a bit of the dignity lost through the refugees’ fraught travel from their homes. But here, with many of these households, there is so much dignity already lost, dating back quite some time, it seems that the function we serve is just maintaining a level of survival that is actually below the status quo on a precipice from another level of disaster.

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