FLINT, Mich.—I'm sleeping on the floor of a friend's vacant house in a neighborhood on the edge of downtown marked by Victorian-era homes in various stages of restoration, overgrown lots landscaped with "ghetto palms," and boarded-up fire traps. There's a drug house around the corner, and someone keeps depositing an empty pint bottle of Seagram's Wild Grape in the front yard. (For the uninitiated, it's "extra smooth premium grape flavored vodka.")
Hardwood floors are as advertised, and my Therm-a-Rest and L.L. Bean sleeping bag aren't exactly doing the trick. A loud thud scared me sleepless at 2 a.m., and I finally drifted off snuggling a bat I bought at a thrift store my first day in town. A siren served as an alarm clock this morning.
But before I try to pawn myself off as a minor league George Orwell writing a Rust Belt version of Down and Out in Paris and London, allow me this observation: The house where I'm "camping" is the fully restored former home of Charles W. Nash, the president of GM in 1912. Unlike many of Flint's empty houses, it has plumbing and electricity. Inexplicably, the house is painted pink, destroying any chance I had of establishing myself as some kind of Buick City Bukowski.
It's been 20 years since Michael Moore established the birthplace of General Motors as a town where residents sell rabbits for "pets or meat" to survive. Roger & Me premiered around the time I left my hometown of Flint, and I eventually settled in San Francisco. Today, Flint has a double-digit unemployment rate, and local leaders are floating a plan to systematically shrink the city by bulldozing houses and "re-naturalizing" neighborhoods.
I've returned on a quixotic mission. I'm here to buy a house.
As the veteran of a brutal San Francisco home-buying odyssey, there's no denying the appeal of a place where desperate Realtors sometimes offer up houses by the dozen. But this is more than a quest for cheap housing. I have an almost unhealthy attachment to Flint. I want to do something—anything—to help my hometown. Maybe a "summer place" in what has been ranked one of America's most depressing cities can pump a little life into the local economy. And I fear that after 15 years in San Francisco—sometimes described as 49 square miles surrounded on all sides by reality—I'm losing touch with my roots, drifting uncomfortably far from the factory town my grandparents moved to at the turn of the 20th century.
How do I know this? Sometimes I fret about the high price of organic avocados. After growing up driving a Buick Electra 225, I now own a gutless four-cylinder Toyota Camry. And then there's the fact that I'm so jittery in the place where I grew up that I'm sleeping with a bat.
I spend a rainy Monday morning driving around Flint with two local real estate agents in the cramped confines of a lime-colored Jeep Rubicon. Jennifer Tremaine is at the wheel, and Ryan Eashoo, who bought his first Flint home when he was just 17, is folded into the back seat. It's a queasy mix of nostalgia, tanking property values, and mild motion sickness.
The first thing we establish is that the infamous eBay houses going for $1,000 or less are in the most Dresden-esque high-crime areas, including my old neighborhood of Civic Park. Plumbing, windows, or an intact roof are highly unlikely. Besides, there are plenty of immaculate smaller homes in fairly decent spots where you can actually venture outside after dusk. We look at one with just under 1,000 square feet on Cadillac Street near Kettering University. It sold for $54,000 in 2003; somebody picked it up in February for $7,000 in a short sale.
But who wants to look at modest homes originally built for autoworkers when you've got a Californian in the Jeep? We soon find ourselves in Flint's best neighborhood, off Miller Road, an enclave of mansions and high-end houses built with GM lucre. During my unfortunate Great Gatsby phase in high school—when I embarrassingly wore saddle shoes and patchwork pants—I longed to live in one of these places instead of our modest home with faded green aluminum siding. I spot the sprawling house of a childhood friend, complete with an in-ground pool. I ask Jennifer if the family still lives there.
"Nope, we sold that to a stripper last year for a buck-90," she says.
"You mean like an exotic dancer?" I ask. "For $190,000?"
"Oh yeah, she got a good deal. I tell you, if you have a decent job, do what you're supposed to do with your money, save your pennies, and pay off your bills, you can have the world by the tail in Flint."
(I look up the specs on the house later that day: 5 bedrooms, 4.5 baths, 3 fireplaces, 1.6 landscaped acres, 3,870 square feet.)
A few minutes later I'm standing in the marble foyer of a nearby house owned by the former editor of the Flint Journal, which recently cut publishing to three days a week and laid off a big chunk of the editorial staff. He's moved on to a job in Ann Arbor, but his 3,159-square-foot house, with a new kitchen, a chandelier in the dining room, and inlaid mahogany floors, sits unsold. It's listed at $236,000. Using the stripper's place as a benchmark, I feel confident saying that the newspaper industry will post record profits before he gets that price.
"People ask me why I live in Flint," Eashoo says as he takes in the beamed ceiling and fireplace in the large den. "Besides the fact that I love it here, it's so cheap! I mean, you can afford to go to Florida on vacation or Chicago on the weekend."
As much as I want to avoid being one of those San Franciscans who works his personal real estate narrative into every conversation, in Flint I can't help it. I find myself telling people that my girlfriend and I unsuccessfully bid on nine houses—once getting outbid by $123,000—in our quest to break into the bottom bracket of the market in 2004. We were only preapproved for $550,000, I explain, and we didn't want to fork over our life savings for a down payment.
I try to build suspense by lowering my voice as I say we were about ready to give up when we lucked into a 700-square-foot house in Bernal Heights. The owner had rehabbed the place herself, and all the other interested buyers were contractors who planned to tear it down and rebuild. We wrote a syrupy letter gushing that we fell in love with the house the moment we saw it and that we'd be honored to live in a place so lovingly restored. (We didn't mention the $25,000 in foundation work we knew it needed or the fact the place shook when you walked through it too quickly.)
I consider this a triumphant tale, proof that a couple with a combined household income well south of $100,000 can conquer the Bay Area real estate market with thrift, hard work, and a series of very dubious no-interest loans. (A willingness to never eat out or to save for retirement also helps.) But it's clear Flintoids are left wondering how a seemingly bright guy educated in the local Catholic school system could be such a colossal dumb ass.
"Seven hundred square feet?" asks Bill Gainey, a commercial pilot I met at lunch one day who tools around Flint in a banged-up 1956 Buick Century. "My ballroom is bigger than that."
Yes, it appears the Hiram "Hardwood" Smith House, Bill's 7,200-square-foot residence in downtown Flint, does indeed have a ballroom. And a front door that's 11 feet high. And an entry hallway that's 40 feet long. And more than 70 windows, but who's counting? He sheepishly admits he paid $250,000 for it in 2007. He's a little embarrassed; he thinks he overpaid. And he clearly thinks I'm a little nuts.
He may be right on both counts.