Swept Away

The likely demolition of over 700 public housing units in north Minneapolis will scatter people who live there and open up 73 acres of prime real estate at downtown's edge. Is it a matter of civic renewal or a land grab?

Legal Aid attorney Tim Thompson took the stage at a September 22 community meeting looking dapper and believing he had won a victory for the people. He proceeded through a lengthy presentation on Hollman, et al. v. Cisneros, et al., the suit whose recent settlement requires the tearing down and eventual rebuilding of huge chunks of public housing in the name of offering Minneapolis's subsidized housing residents more "choice" in where they live. He had barely finished when the 60 or so housing advocates and northside residents crammed into the small meeting room turned on him.

Kirk Hill, director of the Minnesota Tenants Union, made his way to the front. "Considering the level of the city's affordable housing stock," he said emphatically, "we are really concerned that the demolition of the northside public housing projects is on a fast track. Somebody is real keen to get those units torn down as fast as possible. It's a risky strategy in the face of today's housing crisis to have those torn down before replacement housing is built. We don't trust it."

"To find enough units for people on Section 8 is hard enough," added John March, a housing specialist with Housing Connections. "Now you are talking about adding hundreds more."

A woman in the front chimed in: "These decisions are being made by people who are not in the community. But it's going to happen because it's about money and land."

Then another: "Where are the plaintiffs? Who are they? Why aren't they here?"

And another: "Who decided that it was wrong for black people to live together?"

"Why do we have to pay the suburbs all this money to let us move out there?" asked Pearl Faison, a northside resident who moderated the meeting. "We don't need to be dispersed. We need the money here."

Thompson and colleague Susan Carroll did their best to deflect the criticism, which centered on the fear that this victory would put hundreds of people on the street. As few as one-tenth of the demolished units will be rebuilt in Minneapolis, depleting an already scant supply of affordable housing. And even those that are rebuilt--the city hopes most will be in the suburbs--don't have to be completed for six years.

The room was full of generalized suspicion about what would become of the land and of affordable housing on the north side. A woman in the back said there are some new homes in near north that are sitting vacant because they are apparently too expensive for the local community. "Who can afford to buy those houses?" the woman asked.

"He can," said the woman near the front, pointing to Thompson.

The Hollman suit, which was filed in 1992 against the city of Minneapolis and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the names of 14 minority public housing families and the NAACP, was settled earlier this year; HUD agreed to spend $100 million to tear down and rebuild up to 770 units of public housing. In the first phase alone, over 250 families from the projects just off Olson Memorial Highway are scheduled to be relocated--or simply displaced, depending on whom you ask--in the next few years. Phase two is still up in the air.

Nearly two dozen similar suits have been filed around the country in the name of "deconcentrating" poverty and scattering poor people around the surrounding suburbs--putting them closer to more jobs and better schools, say the champions of these plans. Locally, Minneapolis officials have got the religion in recent years, but the efforts have met with stark resistance from the suburbs, where property values (and threats to them) are always one of the hottest issues.

Some in the crowd facing off with Thompson wonder aloud if there isn't a larger plan afoot. Namely, that the city--whose representatives have been a little too chipper about the settlement terms of a lawsuit accusing them of a longstanding pattern of discrimination--sees the tearing down of the northside projects as an opportunity to give the area a new and decidedly more upscale character. There's been talk of building a greenway on the spot as an amenity for business and expensive housing. "This is a way for the city to satisfy two goals," says Hill. "To combine deconcentration with drawing the middle class back to the city." He characterizes the whole thing as a land grab.

Almost two years before the settlement was even reached, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) contracted with the UM's Design Center for American Urban Landscape to take a look at the area where the family projects stand. They conducted studies of the land itself, compiled a history of the area, and made a 3-D model with removable pieces to show all the ways the space could be re-used. For a fee totaling $300,000, the center came up with a presentation that has wowed City Council members and city planners alike; it's served to turn eyes and aspirations toward a part of town that has for decades been poor, almost completely minority, and chronically neglected.

"I think the design center did an outstanding job," says 1st Ward Council Member Walt Dziedzic. "Everybody has been briefed. If I were a black leader in town, the first thing I would think of is this is a conspiracy to spread us out instead of having a concentration of the minority community. I was suspicious when I went in there. I thought they were going to tell us we needed to tear the projects down and shift people around because of the land and I thought that was a ploy. But I think everyone who comes out of the briefing will see the realities of doing the right thing with the land."

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