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?

You get a lot of experimentation in an area that is considered "transitional," explains Laura Lambert of the city's Planning Department. "That happens where there is less stability and high turnover. There's historically been a lack of strong planning presence there." Meanwhile, according to Edwards, an entire business district was wiped out with the expansion of Olson Memorial Highway in the 1950s. More businesses left the area after the so-called Plymouth Avenue Riots in 1967, which saw some businesses burned and looted. Many closed and never reopened.

Zoning provisions continued to change, allowing more and more industry to mingle with housing. You can see the encroachment on maps through the years; currently, small factories have almost surrounded the family projects. They came to the area, says Lambert, as part of a natural expansion from downtown and to be near the railroad tracks. Of course the industry in question was sold to northsiders with promises of jobs. Many of these companies--especially those in the Northgate development--received tax breaks in return for employing residents from the community. But the jobs never came, according to a 1992 report commissioned by the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council. "We found that of the 500 jobs created in the area, about 12 percent went to neighborhood residents," says NRRC director Matthew Ramadan. "Almost all of those were by one employer, Microtron."

The city continued to place more and more subsidized housing on the north side, claiming that it was one way to funnel federal money into the area and revitalize the neighborhood economy. By 1992, the near north side had 1,028 public and assisted housing units. Linden Hills had two. Kenwood had none.

Numbers like these, along with the terrible conditions at projects like Sumner Field, led to the Hollman suit. The idea was simple: Force the city and the federal government to place subsidized housing in other areas. In other words, provide choice. "Choice" is a popular word in housing policy circles; HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros wants to provide choice. State Representative Myron Orfield favors choice. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton likes choice.

The so-called grandaddy of all deconcentration suits was the 1976 Gautreaux case in Chicago, which resulted in the relocation of nearly 4,000 minority families. More than half were moved to the suburbs, and a subsequent study of the program reported mixed results. Kids did well in school, though they were more likely than their classmates to be placed in special-education classes. The housing was better and mothers were more likely to find jobs. There were complaints about transportation, though--and Chicago has a much better mass transit system than Minneapolis--and suburban hospitals often wouldn't take Medicaid.

It's hard to know exactly what local residents think about the possibility of being "deconcentrated." Their voices have been mostly absent from the discussions except for a court-mandated "fairness hearing" and one large-scale community meeting. And those representing them all say something different: Mona Moede, who has worked in the family projects for nearly 30 years and whose organization has a contract with MPHA to provide relocation services to residents, says everyone wants to move, "except for four families who want to stay in the projects forever." Lee Pao Xiong, executive director of the State of Minnesota Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, says Asian residents--who currently make up the majority of rowhouse tenants--keep coming to his office wondering what's going on. "I've talked to residents in the family projects," he says. "They know something is happening, but they don't know what to do next or how it is going to impact them. Many of the residents say they don't want to move."

The MPHA commissioned a survey toward the end of settlement negotiations to find out what residents thought about their housing and what they would like to see happen, but they won't release the findings, claiming they are confidential.

Hollman was settled by way of a consent decree, an agreement between plaintiffs and defendants that will act as sort of a blueprint for the future. Signed in March, it sets out two phases of demolition that will affect a total of 770 units of public housing. The first calls for the razing of the 350 units of Sumner Field, four units in the Glenwood project, and 48 scattered site units sometime in the next three years. The decision to demolish came in part because the design center estimated rehabilitation costs of up to $116,000 per unit. The second phase--which won't be announced until after the January focus groups--will most likely include demolition of the rest of the 220-unit Glenwood project, the 66-unit Olson project, and 86 units from the Lyndale project (see map, page 14).

If all goes as planned, all the residents who need to be relocated will have housing by winter 1998 and all the properties that are going to be demolished will be leveled by fall 1999. New uses for the land will be determined long before those things take place, by spring 1997. And replacement housing will come much later; the MPHA has six years, basically until the fall of 2001.

The tearing down of so much housing--parts of which are already vacant--means there will be as many as 570 families displaced from their homes. Where will they go? The answer, such as it is, is buried in bureaucratic schemes. To begin with, the decree states that up to 368 of the units included in phase two could be replaced on their current site if there's a demonstrable "overriding need." But so far, Minneapolis is only obliged to build 80 units in non-concentrated parts of the city. They're trying to pawn the rest off on the suburbs.

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