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?

Of course the suburbs have not proven eager to build projects for poor people. So the MPHA came up with the idea of suburban "incentive units." Up to 203 of the units wiped out in Minneapolis are slated to be rebuilt in the suburbs--for their own low-income residents, not the ones displaced from Minneapolis; in return, the suburbs would have to accept an as-yet-unspecified number of additional units for the people moving out of the city projects.

That's the carrot; in theory at least, there's also a stick. MPHA Director of Special Projects Chuck Lutz claims the suburbs will build ample low-income housing stock due to Met Council and HUD policies that link government monies to a municipality's housing policy: A suburb that fails to provide adequate low-income housing could miss out on other kinds of government aid, he says.

Hill calls that logic "whistling in the dark." "There are no prospects of its being fully implemented," he says. "The people who run suburban governments are the same people who don't want rental public housing or poor people in their neighborhoods."

Lutz admits there is a "theoretical possibility" that the suburbs might not bite. "We will do everything possible," he says. "If no suburb and no developer wants any of our units anywhere then they will be located in nonconcentrated areas of Minneapolis." The logic is ironic, since it was the city's legacy of resistance to the dispersion of low-income housing that prompted the Hollman suit in the first place. And a couple of years ago the city and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency were sued for failing to build the affordable housing required by state law.

A relocation benefit of around $5,000 is available to some of those who don't end up in subsidized housing, and it could be used as a down payment on a house; most residents, however, will end up having to rely on Section 8 certificates or rent vouchers. Certificates are a subsidy that can theoretically be used to pay rent anywhere, but among residents and housing advocates the horror stories abound: tales of families forced to leave the city to find any housing at all, of mothers and children sitting in shelters with vouchers in hand and nowhere to go.

The rule of thumb is that a 5 percent rental vacancy rate in any metro area is healthy; in the Twin Cities the figure is estimated to be just 2 percent. "We have a very tight housing market right now for people at 30 percent or less of the median income in Minneapolis," says Ed McDonald of Family and Children's Service. "The numbers I have from the 1994 housing impact report say there were 31,000 residents at or below 30 percent and only a little over 15,000 units to meet their housing needs." And the Hollman decree provides for another 900 subsidized housing certificates and vouchers to be added to the market.

According to a recent study by a group called Community Action for Suburban Hennepin, fewer and fewer landlords are accepting Section 8 renters: Only one in four suburban units surveyed had rents that qualified for the program and accepted the certificates. Of course, the study said, "with vacancy rates at about 2 percent, it is likely that few of the units where Section 8 is accepted are currently available."

The settlement decree mandates relocation counseling and landlord recruitment--certificates can be a nightmare for property owners, who have to survive a federal inspection and often have to wait months to get reimbursed for damages--but has no answers for tenants with criminal records, bad credit, or poor rental histories. And tenants moving out of the projects will be almost exclusively minority families, who have the hardest time finding apartments. Moede says that it took only five weeks to place 22 families from the Sumner Field homes and that she doesn't think the rest will be a problem, but other programs designed to expand the options of inner-city tenants have come up short. The Met Council's HomeChoice program, cited in the consent decree as a model for placement services, has been able to place only four out of an enrolled 100 families since July.

But maybe that's the point, says McDonald. The certificates issued as part of the settlement can be used nationwide. "The options are going to be reduced for low-income people who are here and want to make a go of it," he says. "I think some will be forced to leave the city. I think they will have to move out of the state. My understanding is that the vouchers can be used anywhere in the U.S., so it creates that option. If that is available, then that suggests there is some underlying intent. It almost leads me to believe that there was some orchestrated malicious intent toward low-income people--that low-income people have been hoodwinked."

"This is putting people on the streets under the guise of civil and human rights," says Nellie Stone Johnson, who's been working in the community for most of her nearly 90 years. "This is what has settled into people's thinking. Instead of raising people up, you spread them out. You get the picture out there that Tim Thompson doesn't know what he's talking about. People in the community may be poorly clothed, but they know better what they need than he does."

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