Razing Minneapolis

The city embarks on a program of destroying low-income inner-city housing to save itself.

One afternoon a couple of months ago, a line of cars pulled up in front of the house at 3244 Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. A patch of day lilies was just about to bloom in front of the two-story, whitewashed stucco, built in 1901. In all, about a dozen people came to tour the house, which had been a low-income rental property for nearly a decade until the last tenant moved out in 1994. There were representatives of the mayor's office, the inspections department, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, and Central neighborhood's housing committee. They gathered to settle a dispute that had flared up just days before when the neighborhood group learned that the house was to be sold by the MPHA to the MCDA for a dollar and then torn down. The lot would be sold to a developer, who would build a new, single-family home with a likely price tag no low-income buyer could hope to afford.

           Central's housing committee was upset--at being left out of the loop, and at the speed with which the MCDA seemed to be doing the deal. "Before we could say jack," one member says, "that great house in our neighborhood would've been ripped down and the lot cleared--snap, crackle, gone. So we sounded the alarm, got on the horn, and hauled everybody with a hand in it down for a look. We wanted proof that this house was indeed deserving of its death sentence."

           Taped onto the front window that day was a bright yellow sign: Hazard. Lead-based paint. Authorized persons only. But no one in the tour group could say whether or not the house had been legally condemned for lead contamination. Even Brian Olson couldn't remember whether his department--Environmental Health Services, which issues lead work orders--had inspected the house. And in fact, it hadn't: According to Bill Patterson at the MPHA, the agency had hung the sign after calling on a private firm to do a walk-through two years earlier. Soon afterward, the house was locked up for good. When the tour moved inside, Olson examined the windows, which are the main source of lead contamination in older houses. To his surprise, all the windows on the first floor had been treated with lead-proofing liners and painted. According to Olson, the interior of the house merited a clean bill of health.

           What the four Central residents on hand discovered inside was even more startling. Craig Anderson, who sits on the housing committee, had studied the "hit list" the MCDA had faxed over in May detailing seven about-to-be-wrecked houses in the neighborhood. Included with the addresses were rehab estimates for each house, ranging from just under $90,000 to twice that amount. In the case of 3244, the MCDA's price tag came to $97,982, or about a third more than MPHA had figured just two years earlier. Anderson thought the figure seemed wrong, so he took a slow walk through the house that day, looking for clues. The electricity was still on. The refrigerator was running. Lights worked. The furnace looked to be in operable condition. The walls and ceilings were newly treated. The floors downstairs had been refinished and were so clean you could see your reflection in the tongue-and-groove boards. For that matter, the entire place, except for an upstairs bathroom and the front porch, looked like it had already been renovated--recently.

           And for that matter, it had. According to Patterson, substantial rehab work was done just over a decade ago, with further public money spent in the past five years on cabinetry, painting, and code compliance. "Ninety-seven thousand dollars?" said Wizard Marks, another Central resident on the tour. "You must be joking. That house was just about move-in ready. We were shocked. Whoever did all the work had gone full-tilt boogie--new baseboards, new door frames. There was still masking tape up where the painting was done."

           "Those conclusions may be true," says Jerry Boardman, who directs the MCDA's housing division and who was also part of the tour. "But as far as that goes, this house in question was for us just another vacant property. Word was that 3244 had been empty a long time. And in those cases, we go in and we say, 'Hey, we've got to gut this place.' We don't care what it looks like." Vacant houses like this one are usually left to sit without heat, he adds, and in Minnesota winters that means plaster walls freeze and thaw, crack and crumble, and before you know it, they're on the floor. "That's one reason we believe it would cost too much to renovate them now--for more than they could ever sell it for on the market."

           But that kind of reasoning hasn't flown in Central. Since the first "hit list" of houses slated for demolition arrived, dozens of other properties that Public Housing is now trying to dump from its portfolio have come to the attention of neighborhoods like Central. In early June, a second memo came through identifying 40 more houses set to be transferred for a dollar to the MCDA. Just three weeks ago, an MPHA official disclosed that nearly 100 more are in the pipeline, with still others to follow. By next year, she concluded, over 150 residences that used to house low-income tenants in the inner city will have "finally outlived their usefulness." Is the MPHA still in the business of providing affordable rental housing for poor people in Minneapolis? "We are washing our hands of these properties," she said, "and will leave that call to the MCDA, the City Council, and the mayor's office. Our push now is to get, you know, poorer people into areas outside the city. I mean, places that aren't impacted."

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