By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
THE MELTING SNOW brings kids to play in the puddles outside the red brick buildings next to Olson Memorial Highway. It's the second-to-last spring ever at Minneapolis's oldest public housing project; two years from now, no one will be living here. Then the bulldozers will come and return Sumner Field to the muddy ground that's been pulling at its foundations for more than half a century.
Officials call this a groundbreaking experiment in the "deconcentration of poverty." If all goes according to plan, former residents will fan out to middle class neighborhoods in the city and the suburbs. In return the city gets to demolish Sumner and up to 430 more units of public housing from the near north side. But almost exactly a year after the so-called Hollman settlement (named after a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Legal Aid against the city, state, Met Council, and federal government) was announced, a lot of questions remain.
For one, proponents insisted that residents of the public housing in question couldn't wait to get out; Mona Moede, executive director of the Sumner-Olson Residents Council and a longtime worker in the projects, told City Pages last September that everyone wanted to move "except for four families who want to stay in the projects forever." Last month, however, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority finally released the results of a study it conducted among northside project tenants back in the summer of 1994. The survey found that of 164 households sampled, almost half (46 percent) would have liked to stay--provided that the premises were renovated. Asked about the survey data, Moede says she didn't hear about them until recently, and that her statement was based on what tenants were telling her. Moede's organization has a contract to provide relocation services in the projects, and she says it so happens that "right now, everyone who didn't want to move has moved."
They don't have much of a choice. Under the decree, all of the 259 families living in Sumner Field must leave by the end of 1997. Moede says 125 families have moved so far. Fifteen bought homes; close to 80 families took other MPHA housing or Section 8 rental certificates; the remainder chose "options outside the settlement"--renting market-rate housing, moving in with family, or just disappearing from radar.
Moede says her organization is following each family, and that she's not aware of any complaints. But some others who deal with the tenants--especially Southeast Asians, who make up more than 80 percent of the project's population--say they've heard different stories. Foun Manivanh, of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, says he knows of a number of families who moved without relocation help; all they understood when news of the decree came, he says, was that "you must leave, and they didn't want to be left without a place to live." Kao Lee, of the Southeast Asian Community Council, says "deconcentration" is proving to have a dark side: Some families who moved to the suburbs found themselves far from friends and family, in school districts where their kids never see another Asian child or an interpreter. "We don't want people scattered all over," he warns, "and then after six months or a year they come back, and they have to start all over again."
Meanwhile, though the decree's proponents promised that all the housing it eliminates would be replaced, specifics have yet to materialize. Chuck Lutz, who's in charge of Hollman implementation at the MPHA, says there has been much "groundwork" discussion on replacement, but so far the only concrete result is a Hollman subsidy for six units in a long-planned Minnetonka project called Boulevard Gardens. Similarly, of the 80 new units the decree is supposed to create in "nonconcentrated areas" of Minneapolis, none has yet been bought or built. Right now the MPHA is working under orders to find "blighted" buildings to renovate or tear down--meaning that it could remove still more low-income housing in the name of Hollman.
Plans to figure out what should happen to the land on which the projects now stand are also proceeding slowly. "Community input," which critics said was missing when the original settlement was negotiated behind closed doors, is supposed to be provided by a series of focus groups that started back in January. But of the 30 focus-group members chosen by parties to the lawsuit, only nine actually live in the projects. Southeast Asians, who make up a majority of residents both in the projects and the surrounding neighborhoods, account for only 20 percent of focus-group members.
Lutz says the MPHA is working with Asian groups and others to "involve them in the process." But critics warn that if the focus-group process is any indication, that promise may be little more than an afterthought. Northside attorney Lindsay Jones says he's been contacted by several current and former project tenants, who are considering challenging the decree in court to send everyone back to the negotiating table. For now there is no date for such an action, though Jones acknowledges that time--at least for Sumner Field--is running out.