Musical Chairs

A nonprofit developer sends poor tenants packing--to make room for other poor tenants

Darrell and Sandy Lego figured things were finally looking up. In 1980 the couple had lost a 9-month-old son who had spent six months of his life in the hospital; the resulting medical bills drove them $32,000 into debt. Next Darrell began experiencing seizures, and doctors told him he had to quit his job as a union roofer. When he found work again, as a caretaker at an apartment building, the couple's income was not enough to pay the rent, so they applied for the federal government's Section 8 rental subsidy program. Finally last year, Lego says, doctors figured out the right medications for his seizures, and he got a full-time job as a machinist. "We've been working to build ourselves up and get out the hole," he says, "and we'd just gotten off Section 8, when--boom--this happens, and we're right back where we started."

"This" was a letter the Legos received September 10 from Project for Pride in Living, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer. They and the 25 mostly low-income families living near them in seven red-brick fourplexes just off Bass Lake Road in New Hope would have to move, it said, so PPL could redevelop the buildings and create housing for other low-income families.

The project is part of a massive effort to create replacements for 726 Minneapolis public-housing units slated for demolition under the Hollman decree--the 1995 settlement that ended a discrimination lawsuit by public-housing tenants against the city of Minneapolis, the state of Minnesota, and the federal government. According to the decree, some 770 new units have to be built in largely white, middle-class neighborhoods of Minneapolis and the suburbs, 350 of them in the next six years.

But three years after the settlement was finalized, only 19 units have been created. Twelve of the 34 apartments and townhomes PPL wants to create at the New Hope site would be reserved for displaced Hollman tenants--which is why, says Kirk Hill, director of the Minnesota Tenants Union, officials are gung ho on the project. The problem, he says, is that the development amounts to a game of musical chairs. "All they're doing is replacing poor suburban tenants with poor urban tenants," Hill says. "It doesn't make any sense." Especially not, he adds, at a time when an affordable apartment is as hard to find as a snowman in July. For several years the rental vacancy rate in the Twin Cities metro area has been standing at a record-low 2 percent, creating few incentives for landlords to offer affordable rents.

With three weeks left until PPL's December 18 moving deadline, 10 of the New Hope families still haven't found new places to live. In the Legos' case, says Darrell, the search is complicated by the fact that his medical condition doesn't allow him to drive, so his wife must shuttle him back and forth to his job in Plymouth each day--in addition to commuting to her own workplace in Golden Valley. "We looked at a place in South St. Paul, but it's just too far away," he says. "And then we looked at a place in Golden Valley, but they want $800 for a two-bedroom. We've been looking every day for the last two months, but we still don't have a place."

Finding an affordable apartment can be difficult, concedes PPL director Steve Cramer, but it's not as though the Legos and other tenants had been thrown to the wolves. Under the federal Uniform Residential Relocation Act, he explains, tenants displaced by publicly funded projects must receive help to pay for apartments more expensive than the ones they're losing. If the Legos were to move from their $550-a-month apartment into one costing $800 a month, the government would cover the $350-a-month difference for more than three years, for a total subsidy of more than $10,000.

But while that sounds pretty good, says attorney Tom White--who is representing the tenants in negotiations with PPL--it still doesn't solve the immediate dilemma the Legos and other families face. Neither the rental subsidies nor the $650 per family PPL has set aside for moving costs will be available until after families have moved, he says. What's more, he adds, most landlords require a damage deposit and two months' rent; thus, in order to rent even a $500 apartment, displaced families have to cough up around $1,300.

Cramer says those hardships are the price the public pays for urban development. "It would be ideal if we had gotten a virgin patch of land and were able to build this from scratch," he says. "But cities tend not to offer up their best virgin land for public housing."

That's true, concurs Tom Streitz of Legal Aid--and it's one reason that progress on replacing the Hollman units isn't coming as quickly as many would like. "I can't say that we have suburbs lining up" for new public-housing units, he says. "It's not a disaster, but I don't want to oversell it. We still have a lot to do." Instead of trying to get developers and suburban governments to build brand-new housing, adds Cramer, planners are now focusing on "urban redesign" projects--often redevelopments of existing low-income buildings such as the ones in New Hope.

According to a November progress report compiled by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), only 19 of the 770 planned Hollman units have been built so far, and 93 more are in the "acquisition and construction" stage. The report says "planning is likely to occur" for another 207 suburban units and 182 in Minneapolis. No development contracts have been signed nor construction dates set for any of those units. "We're a bit behind schedule," Jacobs concedes, "but we're working on that."

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