Abandoning Flint, Michigan: As Homeowners Move Out, Fires Move In

June 18, 2009

Like the house across the street gone missing and the one at the corner stripped of its front door, the weathered brown bungalow at 1430 Jane Ave. bided its time, edging nearer to a meeting with a wrecking crew.

But in a city with more than 1,000 abandoned homes slated for demolition, it would have to wait its turn. Until, at 8:15 a.m. Oct. 8, the little house jumped the line.

When firefighters arrived seven minutes later, the front of 1430 Jane was already swollen with flames — the latest in a long, sad string of fires destroying scores of homes this half-empty city no longer has any use for.

Except this one was different.

Like the others, the owner had thrown in the towel. It was in tax foreclosure and ready to be forgotten.

But it wasn’t empty.

“Gordy!” neighbors yelled in to the flames. “Get out of there if you’re in there!”

Flint’s abandoned homes usually announce themselves by the boards covering their windows, walls ripped open and scavenged for pipes and aluminum siding. But at 1430, a pair of chairs hung from the porch. Blinds flapped from bedroom windows.

And as firefighters battled in, a terrible paradox was revealed. In a city and a nation awash in empty structures, one man’s abandoned home can be another’s man refuge — and sometimes his final resting place.

No Simple Answers

If a fire destroys a home that doesn’t really belong to anyone and is worth next to nothing, does it matter?

The nation’s housing and mortgage crisis is proving there are no simple answers to that question, just unexpected consequences and difficult choices.

Human activity — whether it’s cooking or smoking in bed — sets off most house fires. That explains why the vast majority happen in homes that are occupied. But foreclosures, on top of depopulation in struggling Rust Belt cities, have left millions of homes vacant.

Fire has begun creeping into the void.

Fires in vacant homes rose 11 percent to 21,000 in 2006 — the latest year for which figures are available — while all home fires rose just 4 percent, the National Fire Protection Association reported in April. More than four of every 10 vacant building fires were intentionally set, the group reported.

Some of that is arson for financial reasons. But in neighborhoods of sagging homes worth little, fires are often set by vandals, the homeless or people seeking revenge.

The threat grows as empty homes multiply, said John Hall, the NFPA’s division director for fire analysis and research. Vacant homes nationwide topped 19 million earlier this year, up from 15.7 million in 2005, according to the Census Bureau.

“The best way to prevent vacant building fires is to prevent vacant buildings,” the NFPA concluded.

That is easier said then done.

Fire complicates the calculus for officials in cities trying to stabilize neighborhoods pocked with abandoned homes.

Firefighters, pledged to a gung-ho culture that demands attacking fires head-on, increasingly confront dangerous blazes where the property is not worth saving and often the only lives endangered are their own.

Abandoned homes offer shelter to drug users and gangs, which can make them magnets for fire.

And then there are people like Gordon Yoesting, looking for a place to sleep.

Buick City

By the time Yoesting and 1430 Jane found each other, the neighborhood where both were raised was crumbling.

Even in its heyday, Flint’s East Side was far from fancy. It was a working man’s neighborhood of small lots and modest woodframes, built fast after World War I. You moved to the East Side because it was within walking distance of the massive Buick plant. You stayed because it was home, a close-knit haven of families.

“Everybody had kids on this street. It seemed like they lived here forever,” Dan Kildee says, driving slowly down Jane.

Kildee, who grew up to become the Genesee County treasurer, points to yards he used to play in and struggles to recall families now gone. He stops his car in front of a little yellow house — right next door to the charred carcass of 1430 — where his dad was raised, and muses about long-ago walks to his grandmother’s and countless Sunday dinners.

Then he looks at what’s left of the neighborhood — blocks lined with bruised homes and broken windows. Two streets over, someone has nailed a plywood sign to a tree: “No Prostitution Zone.” On three blocks of Jane, the city is targeting 14 homes for demolition, four of which have already been scarred by fires.

“My dad, he can’t come down this street anymore. … It’s too hard to see,” Kildee says. “Because his whole life was here.”

What was once Buick City is largely a cement prairie now, and General Motors, which once employed more than 80,000 in the city of its founding, has cut its Flint work force to about 6,000. Flint’s population, which peaked at 197,000, dwindled to 115,000 in 2007, and falling.

To stabilize the city, Kildee started the Genesee County Land Bank, which has taken title to 9,000 properties since 2002, tearing down 1,000 and selling or rehabbing others. The foreclosure crisis has made the job even tougher, leaving the Land Bank with at least 1,000 more abandoned homes to demolish.

But in a neighborhood left reeling, the old block of Jane Avenue hangs on. There are four or five empty or abandoned homes. Others, though, are carefully tended, lawns mowed and siding painted. The 1400 block is battered, but not yet beaten.

Maybe that’s why Gordon Yoesting found it to his liking.

Yoesting, too, was born to the neighborhood and raised the son of an autoworker. He returned at 46, a survivor.

He could barely see and walked with a shuffle, at least partly the toll of a long-ago beating in western Michigan by men who subsequently ran him over with a pickup truck. That was more than 20 years ago, and he’d never been the same since.

Still, Yoesting — Gordy to all who knew him — got by. He roamed the East Side, often shirtless and wearing shorts even in Michigan’s chill, suspenders strapped across a tattooed back. He mowed lawns for cash, mopped up at The Hideaway and Art’s Pub & Grub and cashed his disability checks. Most of what he didn’t spend on rent or child support went for beer or vodka, consumed by the gallon.

Yoesting was widely liked, a neighborhood fixture. If you needed furniture or boxes moved, he was the first to volunteer. When neighbor Dakory Cooper’s daughter had her bike stolen and Gordy heard about it, he made her a new one out of scavenged parts. He liked nothing better than trading stories and drink.

Yoesting bounced around the East Side — mostly renting cheap apartments, but staying in at least one abandoned house. Then, last March or April, he set his sights on 1430. Cooper had bought the house as a rental property. But upkeep and taxes were dragging him under. By the middle of 2007, he’d given up. The house fell into legal limbo as it moved through tax foreclosure. But when Yoesting asked after it, Cooper handed him a set of keys.

The house didn’t have water or electricity until Yoesting and a roommate jerry-rigged both. And the place was a horrendous mess, left behind by the last renters. But Yoesting and the little bungalow with the diamond-shaped window over the front porch looked after each other.

By summer, Gordy told his brother, friends and neighbors, he was fixing to buy the place.

Risk to Firefighters

When two of Flint’s abandoned houses caught fire in early 2007, it got Andy Graves thinking.

A firefighter was injured in the first. Soon after the second burned, the city tore down what was left. Nobody was in either. Were these places worth the risks firefighters were taking?

Graves, a primary captain for the Flint Fire Department, started tracking fires in vacant buildings and the scope of the problem became clear. Blazes in vacant structures accounted for 40 percent of all Flint’s fires and more than 60 percent of firefighter injuries.

Since then, vacant buildings fires have jumped nearly a third. In the 18 months ending in February, Flint saw 406 vacant building fires.

In a three-block stretch of East Alma Avenue, seven houses are slated for demolition — and five of them have burned. A vacant and vandalized apartment building on Second Street has been hit by 10 fires in two years.

“We were putting out fires and they would come by the next week and simply condemn the buildings to be demolished,” Graves said. “That’s when we said we can no longer continue to do this.”

Flint is hardly alone. But figuring out how to confront such fires is an uneasy challenge. In Detroit, it took a tragedy to prompt a reexamination.

Last Nov. 15, crews battled a blaze in an abandoned house on the city’s East Side. Investigators later concluded it had been intentionally set.

Engines beat back the blaze before firefighters charged in. Walter Harris was the second man up the stairs.

They appeared to have the fire under control, with men chasing hotspots in the attic. The only warning was a creak. Then the roof crashed in. Harris, 37, was killed.

Up to then, “there really hadn’t been a lot of thinking about this and we approached every fire the exact same way whether it was abandoned, whether it was vacant or whether it was occupied,” said Lt. Robert Shinske, who chairs the safety committee for the Detroit firefighters union local.

But “when Walter Harris died everybody was like, wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?” Shinske said.

Harris’ death has pushed Detroit toward adopting changes much like those other cities have already embraced. The new approach urges firefighters to assess fires before rushing in. If the building cannot be saved and they are certain nobody is inside, they should fight the fire from the exterior to limit their own risk. In Flint, such a change has cut the number of firefighter injuries in abandoned building blazes by a quarter, and reduced injury time by more than a third.

Ceding ground to fires, though, does not sit easy with firefighters. In San Antonio, the fire chief and the firefighters union battled this spring over a new policy. Firefighters have argued that it’s their job to go head to head with flames, and that the only way to be certain if a place is occupied is to go in.

In the overwhelming majority of abandoned home fires, while its often evident someone has been inside, they’re gone by the time firefighters arrive.

Nationwide, fires in vacant buildings killed an average of 50 civilians yearly between 2003 and 2006, according to the NFPA. In Flint, where crews have battled nearly 1,000 abandoned building fires since 2004, just five people have been trapped inside. Two were rescued, one jumped from a window, and two died.

But as the economy leaves more people homeless, they’re increasingly taking shelter in homes left untended by owners and lenders, said Eduardo M. Penalver, a Cornell University law professor who studies the causes and possible remedies of squatting.

“Squatting is dangerous for the squatters,” he said. “The illegality of it sort of causes people to cut corners. So a lot of fires are caused by people making fires to heat or cook, or setting up some sort of jerry-rigged mechanism for stealing electricity.”

The dangers, though, are often relegated to places we’d just as soon bypass.

Like the forgotten house on Cross Street, not far from downtown Dallas, where Earnest Sirls, 46, bedded down for the night in March after missing the curfew at the Salvation Army shelter. Hours later, firefighters doused flames consuming a house they believed to be empty. It wasn’t until five days later that Sirls’ sister and nephew found his body in the wreckage.

Or the boarded up house in Indianapolis where Sarah Campbell, 24, and Leroy McQueen, 52 — who’d met in the city’s homeless missions — were trying to stay warm on Feb. 28. They were killed in a fire investigators blamed on a heater.

All three were just looking for a night’s shelter.

But on Jane Avenue, Gordy Yoesting was convinced he’d found a home.

Police Tape

Yoesting spent hours hauling garbage out of 1430. He hung a Miller Lite poster in the kitchen and set photos of his sons, both grown, alongside the television. A roommate provided a recliner and an armchair.

“It looked like an honest man’s home,” says Elmer Crawley, his half brother.

Yoesting insisted it would stay that way.

“I’m buying me a house, Mom. You can come live with me,” Carol Lechnyr says he told her.

The plan, as Yoesting told it, was to buy 1430 from the Land Bank.

Land Bank officials say they sometimes sell to tenants who can show they’ll bring a deteriorating house up to the building code. Most often, though, in neighborhoods where houses are worth just a few thousand dollars, the agency keeps the house and eventually tears it down.

But Land Bank staff don’t recall Yoesting ever coming in or making an offer for 1430 Jane, said Doug Weiland, the executive director.

Yoesting was still in the house in mid-September when a Consumers Energy inspector, acting on a tip, shut off the pirated electricity. The Land Bank sent out an eviction notice, Weiland said. In the first few days of October an inspector came by 1430 Jane. Yoesting promised he’d be out by the following Monday or Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, Oct. 7, Yoesting lit candles to make the most of his remaining eyesight. He’d been drinking, and as the hour passed midnight, he tinkered with his lawnmower in the living room.

The next morning, Ron Morgan was pouring coffee when neighbor Dallas Freeman began beating on his door. Smoke! At Gordy’s place!

The men jumped the steps of 1430, then stepped back to kick the door in.

That’s when the place blew.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined, but police suspect the candles and the gas Yoesting kept inside for his mower. Thin rumors circulate that maybe someone had it in for Yoesting. So far, though, neither intent nor proof has turned up, said Sgt. James Hamilton, the arson investigator.

“That’s what frustrating about this job. At the end of the day, you have to walk away and say some of them you just don’t know,” he said.

Meanwhile, what’s left of 1430 — necklaced in yellow police tape– awaits demolition.

If only taking it down assured an end to Jane Avenue’s troubles, Kildee says.

“One of those houses is going to burn. One or two or three,” he says. “The question for us is will I be able to tear them down before they do?”

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.