A Flint leader’s effective formula to repair his hometown
February 13, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
“We have a financial crisis because of our land use policies,” says Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee. “We are growing the cost of government seven times faster than we are growing taxpayers to pay for it.”
Since launching a countywide effort in 1999 to transform blighted and abandoned landscapes in and around Flint into useful, attractive and revitalized neighborhoods, Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee has been a man on a mission.
Mr. Kildee, a former social worker and college instructor whose government career began as an 18-year-old member of the Flint Board of Education, has attracted national notice for developing Michigan’s first practical program to speed the return of tax-reverted properties to productive use. Mr. Kildee’s contribution to a problem that has stymied cities for years was to produce an efficient process to identify abandoned properties, clear titles, and prepare them for sale on the market.
The program proved so successful that two years ago the state Legislature approved and Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm signed a new law to establish a state land bank, giving other communities the same capacity to more easily redevelop their downtowns. Mr. Kildee was named the State Land Bank Authority’s president.
Mr. Kildee, who is 47, married, and a father of three, was raised in Flint and educated at Mott Community College and the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. From 1985 to 1997 he served as a member of the Genesee County Board of Commissioners, including five years as the chairman. Mr. Kildee also is the chairman of the Democratic Party in Michigan’s 5th Congressional District, which happens to be the political territory roamed by his uncle, Dale Kildee, a respected Democratic Congressman. “We are very close,” said Mr. Kildee of his uncle. “I manage his congressional campaigns.”
Technical expertise, combined with a warm and winning temperament, have earned Mr. Kildee wide recognition as one of the state’s most effective local government officials. In 2003, Governor Granholm named him as one of the 26 members of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan committee charged by state leaders to recommend ways to slow sprawl, redevelop cities, and strengthen Michigan’s economic competitiveness.
Of late, Mr. Kildee’s land bank ideas are attracting national attention. He recently completed a Fannie Mae Foundation fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He leads the Genesee Institute, the county land bank’s research and technical assistance affiliate, which has provided services and expertise in land banking to 10 communities nationwide. And there’s another national role that Kildee plays: Advisor to the National Vacant Properties Campaign, a Washington-based non-profit collaborative working to make vacant property reclamation an attainable goal nationwide.
The growing national interest in land banking as a tool to revitalize older urban areas reflects Mr. Kildee’s role in encouraging Michigan to become the first to create a state land bank. His challenge now is the same as the state’s: How to make this innovative governmental reform, as well as the tax dollars it reclaims for communities, available to more Michigan core cities, such as Benton Harbor, Muskegon, and Detroit.
In a candid interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Mr. Kildee described opportunities for economic revitalization and his hopes for the Great Lakes state.
Question: What was the impetus in 2002 for the creation of the Genesee County Land Reutilization Council?
Mr. Kildee: We were created primarily as a result of the reform of tax foreclosure laws in 1999. We realized we would soon be receiving thousands of properties through tax foreclosures.
Our fear was that the new tax foreclosure system – while it was a significant improvement – could have resulted in a more efficient replica of the former system. So we went to the Mott Foundation and asked for help to design a system that would best use this new law as a community stabilization tool.
During Genesee County’s early efforts, how did the Land Reutilization Council engage businesses and citizens in this redevelopment effort?
At the beginning and since, we placed high priority on public participation – developing a series of sessions where all citizens of a neighborhood are invited to participate in a plan for their community. We have had literally thousands of citizens participate in neighborhood meetings to education them on what we can do, and also gain their input on what they see as their neighborhood’s future.
What productive efforts resulted?
We quite literally designed the programs of the land bank through their input. Those neighborhood meetings were matched by other stakeholder meetings. And between the two, we designed programs that worked for everyone.
Let’s fast forward to 2003 and the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. As a council member, what did you envision as a measurable benefit to the enactment of a state land bank statute?
First, to come up with a rational process of disposing of state-owned properties that respected local communities and allowed that land to be used for its highest purpose instead of being sold to the person with the greatest financial resources.
Secondly, I thought it was important to provide a mechanism for county land bank authorities – a mechanism to deal with new properties in the same manner.
Since the state’s 2004 enactment of the land bank legislation, you now serve as president of the State Land Bank Authority. To date, how would you characterize local interest in land banks?
I would say it’s very strong. Aside from Wayne County and the City of Detroit, there are five communities in the process of forming authorities: Calhoun, Jackson, Grand Traverse, Berrien, and Muskegon. Saginaw and Ingham counties have already formed authorities. There are others who have expressed interest.
What are the plans and priorities for the state land bank?
We want to continue institutionalizing the state authority’s existence. It’s still really new, and we’re still formalizing procedures.
Even so, we want to encourage re-use of properties, particularly with the involvement of nonprofits. We also encourage the creation of more county land banks where there is interest.
If citizens or local officials are not quite certain as to whether a land bank would be beneficial for their community, what advice would you offer?
I would encourage citizens to keep in mind the alternative to a land bank – a system that has delivered land to its lowest use, and spread blight. That would be number one.
Secondly, I would say become involved. Communities become their best when citizens are directly involved. In Genesee County every neighborhood in every community was and remains extremely important to our success.
It is my understanding that Genesee County’s Land Bank operates some six programs affecting tax-reverted properties ranging from demolition, to housing renovation, rental management, and more. Among these programs, is there one that has been utilized more than others? Are any designed to be ‘user-friendly’?
They are all designed to be as user-friendly as we can possibly make them. And in that regard, we are in constant improvement. We do change our programs, based on citizen input. Their input is critical.
To pick one program that has generated widespread and sustained support, I would say the Clean and Green program is particularly significant. We had 550 properties, managed by a partnership between the land bank and neighborhood-based organizations. The result is that we, the land bank, share financial resources with neighborhood organizations to support their mission. It also cleans up the property that we own and creates a new standard for the neighborhood. We are unbreakingwindows.
As a member of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, you were a vocal redevelopment advocate. Since the August 2003 adoption of the council’s report, what do you consider to be the council’s greatest achievements?
I’m very proud of the land bank statute, and the amendment to brown fields. Those are direct results from the council report with very immediate results.
In a larger sense, I would have preferred to see more progress. The council connected open space preservation, farmland preservation, and the preservation of our urban landscape. We helped people understand that those three seemingly distinct elements of our landscape are interdependent, and cannot succeed on their own.
Conversely, what are the biggest challenges to making more of the Council’s recommendations reality for all of Michigan?
The biggest challenge is in helping people to understand that land use decisions are also budget decisions; they are school decisions; and they are economic decisions. The way we develop our land affects the way we deliver government services, the way we finance education, and the way we grow our economy.
I’ve been personally frustrated that people think the land use debate should be set aside because of the financial crises faced by state and local governments.
The point I’m trying to drive home is that we have a financial crisis because of our land use policies. We are growing the cost of government seven times faster than we are growing taxpayers to pay for it.
What resources are required to return economic vitality to Michigan’s older communities, and cities in particular?
One is, if we pursue policies that value urban land and that attempt to develop that land, the resources follow. The policies of the last 30 years devalued urban land and drove away financial resources to develop strong neighborhoods.
Very often we forget we need to create an economic model that places a high value on urban land. And if we do, we develop our own resources.
Charlene Crowell, a journalist and policy specialist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s state policy director, based in Lansing. Reach her at email@example.com