Time for a Victims Fund in Flint?

Fixing Flint’s water supply won’t be enough to undo the long-term damage caused by the crisis.

Last week, Michigan senators stopped a comprehensive energy bill from moving through Congress, demanding the addition of millions of dollars to help Flint residents repair their water supply and to study the effects of lead on Flint’s children. The senators’ demands, however, fell short of direct aid to Flint residents – which some experts now say is also a must if the victims are ever going to recover fully from the crisis.

A coalition of 200 economic and civil rights experts recently sent a letter to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, asking for the creation of a “Health and Compensation Fund” for those affected by the crisis. The group proposes that the fund be modeled after the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which eventually paid out more than $7 billion to the survivors of the September 11 terror attacks.

As proposed, the Flint Victims Fund would cover residents’ claims for direct damages caused by lead-tainted water, as well as health screenings and treatment, research on the health and socioeconomic consequences of the crisis and outreach to potentially eligible residents. The experts, all of whom are members of the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative’s Experts of Color Network, include coalition organizer Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions as well as the presidents of the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Association, the National Congress of American Indians and a variety of prominent scholars and researchers.

The experts say that even after Flint’s infrastructure is repaired – if it’s repaired – it won’t be enough to compensate Flint residents for the long-lasting damage brought on by the lead-contaminated water flowing through their homes. In addition to the immediate health consequences of the water crisis, the group’s letter argues that the long-term side effects of lead poisoning, such as “lower IQ, poor academic performance and aggressive or violent behavior,” will limit the earning potential of those exposed, with lasting effects on their financial security.

Along with the creation of the victims fund, the coalition is asking Gov. Snyder to grant tax and other relief to Flint homeowners, whose homes are now virtually unsellable as a result of the water crisis.

“[Homeowners’] ability to accumulate wealth through their property has basically been stolen by ill-informed decisions,” said coalition organizer Rockeymoore. “And so everything from the pipes in the homes to the value of the homes, in terms of home equity, has basically been stripped.”

The loss of home values is especially devastating for Flint, which was only now beginning to recover from the impacts of the housing crisis. Records from the Genessee County tax assessor’s office show that the total value of residential real estate in Flint rose by nearly 7 percent from 2014 to 2015 after years of steady declines in the aftermath of the recession.

The experts say that Flint residents, at a minimum, should be allowed to write off existing debt and tax liability on their affected properties. However, the long-term damage to Flint homeowners’ wealth may never be fully repaired. According to a report by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, housing wealth accounts for 92 percent of African-Americans’ personal net worth. In Flint, Michigan, where 56 percent of the population is African-American, the loss of so much home equity means that much of the entire wealth of the city has disappeared.

“That means we cannot ignore the role homeownership plays in building economic security for families,” Rockeymoore said. “That’ll have repercussions for the rest of their lives.”

While Rockeymoore said the coalition did not have a specific figure in mind for the size of the proposed victims fund or the cost of homeowner relief, she said the fund would need to be “sizeable.”

Other than an acknowledgement of receipt from Snyder’s office, Rockeymoore said the group has not yet received a formal response to its letter.

But she also says she doesn’t doubt that if the Flint water crisis had happened in a part of the country with a different demographic makeup, the administration’s response would have been different.

“We know that Flint is a predominantly lower-income black and brown city, and so one might conclude that the treatment that they were getting was because they are not upper-income or white,” Rockeymoore said. “We’re not going to accuse the government of Michigan of racism; however, it does seem as if there is some kind of bias that has influenced their ability to make the right decisions.”

Lisa Schohl

Lisa Schohl is an intern at the Washington Monthly.