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."

While the staffers at the design center have become anointed experts on the near north side, the people who actually live there have been almost completely left out of the planning process. Catherine Brown of the center says it couldn't be avoided in light of the lawsuit and confidentiality concerns. Some residents will be included in a round of focus groups, she adds, scheduled to begin meeting in January.

According to the center's slide show, there are three "legs" to a community: economic, social, and physical. In most respects, it seems, the north side is barely hobbling along. The land is bad. The area is marred by a combination of poor housing and industrial facilities, poised uneasily side by side. There is pollution and no greenspace. Development projects have failed, businesses have closed down--to the point where there is only one decent-sized grocery store to service the entire area.

As the show rolls by, one architect points out that the family projects sit on some of the worst soil in the city. Not only are they built on an old riverbed (Bassett Creek used to run right through there until it was dubbed a "sewer" and funneled into pipes running under the city in the early 1900s); they also sit on a glacial deposit. It's true that the projects are in rough shape. The foundations have cracked, porches have fallen off, windows and doors sport holes and stress cracks around their frames.

Geology may have been the reason the projects ended up where they are in the first place, but politics figure in the equation, too: The north side has a long history of being the wrong side of the tracks. "Since the turn of the century," says Dziedzic, who grew up in northeast and got his first job picking weeds when he was 7, "the elitists in this city, the powers that be, have always felt that one side of town would be the bedroom community, with the lakes, and the other would be for the working people. They have always said that on the south side we're going to get the lawyers and the upper echelon of people, and on the north side we'll have the blue collar workers. They could put industry next to houses and put all the DPs [displaced persons] on the north side along with the minorities. These people were so happy to just be here and have a job that [the city] felt they could do whatever they wanted up there. That still holds true today."

North Minneapolis has been a gateway for newcomers. According to a 1965 city report, it was home to the first Germans, the first French, the first Finns, and the first Scandinavians. It also served as the point of entry for, as the report puts it, "two ethnic groups whose opportunity for upward social mobility and cultural assimilation were more limited--the Jewish and Negro migrants." More recently, Southeast Asians have found themselves living in near north; in the last 10 years, the population in the family projects has shifted dramatically. Sixty-seven percent of the current residents are Asian.

Developers made attempts here and there to put a dent in the north side's decidedly downscale nature. Early in the century they built two upscale enclaves: Oak Park in the Grant Neighborhood, which had winding streets and suburban-like green strips, and the Homewood Addition in the Hay neighborhood, which tried to maintain its appeal by placing strict social and ethnic restrictions on home buyers. Neither was able to retain its cachet.

By the 1930s, many Jewish families were moving out of north Minneapolis; eventually about half the families who remained were African American. This was allegedly the impetus for a giant 1938 Public Works Administration project in which 29 acres of houses, junkyards, and industrial storage lots were leveled to make way for the city's first public housing project, the Sumner Field rowhouses. According to a news report from the time, the location was chosen because it was covered with dilapidated shacks, had a high level of tax delinquency, and featured the highest disease rates in the city. In the words of one editorialist, "It offers, therefore, an excellent opportunity for the government experiment." It was promoted in the local papers as a "new order of life" for those who would move in.

The Sumner Field projects weren't the first "experiment" in the area and they weren't the last. In the mid-1960s, nine city blocks just west of the rowhouses were leveled as part of a multimillion-dollar federal project. Newspapers ran artists' renderings of the townhomes, apartment buildings, daycare centers, and shops that would adorn the block; of the three or four formal proposals for the space, says Brown, none was ever built. Much of the 47-acre site sat empty for years; it's currently home to Bethune elementary school, a few apartment buildings, The City Inc., a Head Start program, a bakery, and a lot of vacant land.

Community commentator Ron Edwards, who grew up in the area, can remember at least four other renewal projects that never happened. "There was a company that was going to develop all that property on the corner of Plymouth and Penn," he says. "There was going to be a big shopping center and a mall. There was even a groundbreaking."

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 Gautreauxcase 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.

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."

The MPHA counters that if they can't find housing for everyone, they simply won't tear down the units. Says MPHA attorney Jack Cann: "If the housing market is such that all 259 families [in Sumner Field] can't be relocated using certificates in two-and-a-half years, then they're not going to move. The main thing that is pushing this is not our desire to get the units down. It is the residents' desire to move."

But that possibility seems more and more unlikely as the city goes ahead with its planning process. The Hollman decree promises to open up a 73-acre parcel of land that, despite its soil problems, boasts close proximity to downtown. It's got City Council members talking about "real opportunities" and "grand visions." Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was even quoted in a local newspaper as calling the $100 million settlement a "grant" from HUD during a public address.

The redevelopment schemes center on three general ideas: opening the area to more light industry; turning the area completely or partly into parkland, which may involve uncovering Bassett Creek; and building houses, some of which could be exclusive and upscale. Lambert of the Planning Department says she's heard some elected officials talk about building high-buck housing there, though she declines to name them.

"I'm excited about the proposal to uncover Bassett Creek," says 6th Ward Council Member Jim Niland. "What the Hennepin Community Works is talking about: massive greenspace to spur housing and economic development." (Hennepin Community Works wants to turn nearby Plymouth Avenue into a parkway, with trees and more "greenspace"--the hot topic in development circles these days.) "One problem we have had is a real intermixture of industrial and housing," Niland continues. "This would create a buffer between those two uses. It would help create a mixture of housing, low-income to upper-scale homes. I think if you look at Lake of the Isles, how the lake has those fingers--if you had an area that had fingers then you would maximize the number of developable housing spaces."

"I think we need to be more bold and visionary," he adds. "One house on a block at a time doesn't work. I think this is a chance to dramatically change the geography of the north side. Instead of being a place where we've dumped undesirable uses, polluting industries, it could be part of the grand round."

Opening up Bassett Creek poses its own problems, like cleaning up the Superfund sites at the Irving Avenue Dump and Warden Oil. It would mean taking out some light industry and some of the public housing in Hollman phase two. And there are always funding questions, since the HUD money is only supposed to go for relocation and housing replacement. According to Lambert, though, "There are different funding sources. MnDot is looking for places to put wetlands. There might be some opportunities through the Livable Communities Act. There might be state money to reconfigure."

Council Member Dziedzic has a homey view for the area: He'd like to see baseball diamonds and a golf course. "Other parts of town have walkways and parks," he says. "We have the opportunity to do that on the north side." Jackie Cherryhomes, who represents the north side's 5th Ward, couldn't be reached for comment.

NRRC's Ramadan originally thought building low-income housing on the site was out of the question--the lawsuit was about dispersion, after all--but has since changed his mind: "We're hoping to build homes for people who live in the community," he says. "One of the things that NRRC has discovered much to our embarrassment is we don't know all the ramifications of this settlement. We made some assumptions early on regarding what we would like that included reopening the lake there, moderate-income housing and light industry around it. We are taking a secondary position and asking the residents what they want."

Louis King--whose company, Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center, owns the only piece of private property in the Hollman settlement area--worries that the neighborhood will get the shaft. "Take the Plymouth Avenue corridor," he says. "They want to turn it into a boulevard. If they do that they are going to displace a lot of housing again. We think there should be job creation. We need more businesses here. The people who live here and work here had to live here and work here when times were bad. So we don't think we should have to move when things get good."

And that's the concern: that all the talk about recreating the north side and improving the tax base is really about getting rid of the people who already live there to make way for a more "desirable" population. The same argument came up in the 1970s, when the City Council was considering an early proposal to tear down some of the family rowhouses to open up Bassett Creek. Lou DeMars was a council member at the time: "That was met with opposition from people who felt it would be gentrification. We had a consulting engineering firm study opening Bassett Creek and building a lake. The fear was that if we built a lake, the rich people would end up living by it and the poor wouldn't have access. There was opposition and it just died. They are using portions of the study for the current proposal."

So far, nobody is willing to commit to what exactly is going to happen to the newly available land. Talk is always framed in pie-in-the-sky terms, and the process has been driven by consultants working behind closed doors. To marshal support and guard against a public backlash, Dziedzic has been trying to recruit local leaders from the community to go over and see the design center presentation. He called Ron Edwards, but so far Edwards hasn't made it over. To him, the objectives already seem clear enough. "We're talking about a very far-reaching and comprehensive plan of action," he says. "I don't think the folks have been honest about their intentions. They have been after that area and the extrication of the black community from that area since 1945. With its proximity to highways, downtown, and the suburbs, it's the kind of area that if I was with Edina Realty and we were talking about $200,000 homes and mid-level executives, I'd want to say, 'Come out to our new Olson Circle, to our Sumner Point, to Bassett Gardens. We can assure you we have cleaned the area up.' This is part land grab, and in the minds of some of us, it's also part of the city's gentrification and racial cleansing process. That's really what it is, pure and simple."

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