By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"We knew it from the start," says Belair. "The minute the project was opened up for proposals, we knew that NeDA was going to find some way to get back in there." After all, Belair and other critics note, many of the people charged with gathering "community input" were not necessarily neutral on the matter: More than half the members of the WSCO board who voted to give NeDA the nod had personal or business relationships with the development group--having been on its payroll or board, having sold houses for and from Miller or NeDA, and the like. Julie Cruz, the co-chairwoman of WSCO's Concord Square steering committee, is the cousin of Lupe Serrano, NeDA's executive director. Tom Sanchez, the city Planning and Economic Development staffer who deals with the project, is Cruz's cousin.
Sanchez, however, sees no problem. He says neither he nor Cruz stand to gain financially from whatever happens with Concord Square. Cruz echoes that assessment, adding that "you have to remember, this is a small community, and people tend to stay for a long time. We have a lot of large families, a lot of people who are related. We've decided that if we want citizen participation, we're going to have to put up with that. You can't make everyone abstain who is someone's relative." As for other potential conflicts, she says, "There's something in the bylaws, but we're taking a look at that."
NeDA's proposal for Concord Square still is no shoo-in. There are a lot of questions, Miller acknowledges, over things like financing--more than half of the projected $4.5 million price tag would require government assistance--and the exact number and location of units. It's also possible that the City Council will want to take a closer look at the three other groups that have submitted proposals, including the St. Paul Urban League. Its plan scored highest at community meetings, and there have been charges of racism over WSCO's decision not to endorse it: One member of the steering committee says other members told him the Urban League would "bring blacks into the community." (Cruz, whose children are black, says comments like that would not have been allowed to play into the decision.)
The biggest challenge for the NeDA proposal, though, are Concord Square residents, who have been getting rambunctious lately. Surveys conducted as part of the "community-input" process showed that more than 90 percent of the tenants interviewed wanted to live on the West Side, and almost 80 percent wanted to stay right at Concord Square. Some tenants have hooked up with a group called Community Stabilization Project, which advocates against demolition of low-income housing. And last week, the Concord Square Residents Council went to court with HUD over the condition of the property--claiming that, in effect, HUD had let the apartments go to pieces in deference to WSCO and NeDA.
A key piece of evidence in the lawsuit is a letter sent to the city of St. Paul last summer by WSCO, NeDA, and the area business organization Riverview Economic Development Alliance (REDA). The groups asked that for the time being, Concord Square units that became vacant not be re-rented, and that no repairs be made beyond "health and safety [matters] in occupied units." This, they explained, would help "preserve the broadest prossible options, including demolition of a part or all of this development."
There is evidence that HUD heeded that request--and thus potentially violated its mandate under federal law to keep its properties occupied as well as "safe and decent." Besides the residents, plaintiffs in the suit include a homeless man, and another man who says he remains stuck in an efficiency while the rest of his family lives in a one-bedroom. Both say they wanted to rent at Concord Square, but were told that no new leases were being issued. As for the repairs, the lawsuit notes that things got so bad the city of St. Paul revoked Concord Square's certificate of occupancy back in May due to a long list of code violations. (The deadline for repairs expired in June, but city officials say they're "working with" HUD on the matter.)
At a court hearing Friday, HUD argued it had spent more than $200,000 on repairs since it took over the complex, and announced that it had now committed to spend $300,000 fixing two of the four buildings and moving all the tenants there. That money, of course, would go down the drain if Concord Square were razed; HUD might also pay for demolition, to the tune of another $200,000. "It's ironic," says Howard Goldman, director of multi-family housing atHUD's regional office in Minneapolis, "but we're [making the repairs] because the city is making us do it. And we'd like some credit for working with the city and the neighborhood on this" instead of selling the complex to the highest bidder.
The way Lopez sees it, though, fixing up the buildings is what HUD and everyone else should have been concerned with all along. "We want some respect," he says during one of his regular rounds of the neighbors, "and not to be shuffled around like a deck of cards."