Let's Break a Deal

Did the Minneapolis NAACP botch its chance to save hundreds of low-income apartments?

The crowd at Minneapolis's Sabathani Community Center was motley, to say the least. A handful of Highway 55 reroute protesters were lodged in the very center of the auditorium; one of them paced the room, dreadlocks trailing the scent of stale tobacco. A row ahead sat three people in American Indian Movement jackets. African-American community activists and housing advocates stood in the aisles, awaiting their turn at the microphone. And perched at the end of a row of chairs was a Star Tribune reporter, busily clipping his fingernails with the scissors attached to his Swiss army knife.

The stakes at the NAACP membership meeting were high. In question was whether the civil-rights group, fresh from a brutal yearlong internal battle, would be able to force the city of Minneapolis to stop demolition of hundreds of units of public housing. Most of the 50-some people gathered that evening, September 13, were at Sabathani to tell the NAACP that it risked losing whatever bargaining power it had ever had on the matter. Few could have guessed that two weeks later, a federal judge would agree--and render their entire discussion moot.

In 1992 the NAACP had joined forces with public-housing tenants and the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis to sue the city, state, and federal governments for creating a segregated public-housing district along Olson Memorial Highway on the Near North neighborhood. The suit was settled in 1995 by a decree under which the city agreed to demolish hundreds of townhomes and apartments, and to spend $117 million creating new units in more affluent parts of the city and the suburbs.

NAACP leaders vowed to keep watch over the government agencies to make sure they kept their end of the bargain. But according to some former residents of the projects, the group never followed through on complaints that the deal had left them homeless. By the time buildings were actually being razed, the local branch was enmeshed in a power struggle over a contested election for its presidency. One faction, lead by then president Leola Seals, wanted more concessions from the city. The other, which ultimately won out, enjoyed the support of numerous city officials and veteran DFLers. (The fight was the subject of a City Pages cover story, "Black Like Us," March 17.)

This June, when the NAACP was still busy trying to swear in new officers, the city began demolishing the last 300 of the 770 units covered by the Hollman decree. A group of area residents and African-American clergy blocked the bulldozers, and Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton called a halt to the work. Meanwhile the NAACP went to Federal District Court Judge James Rosenbaum, who had issued the original decree, asking that the city be prohibited from tearing down any more housing.

In early September all of the groups that had signed the decree were due in Rosenbaum's courtroom to argue the matter. At the eleventh hour, lawyers for the NAACP, Legal Aid, and the government agencies announced that they'd reached a tentative settlement; they just needed time to run the deal past their various constituencies.

The problem was that the proposed deal had been floating around for several weeks and had already been widely denounced--in part because, critics charged, it had been authored by the very people the NAACP was supposed to be challenging, the attorneys representing the Minneapolis Public Housing Agency and Legal Aid. The executive committee of the NAACP's local branch had already approved the proposal once, only to have the general membership reject it; to complicate matters, no one seemed to know whose vote was final.

That kind of Robert's Rules dilemma was nothing new for the NAACP. The January presidential election had been so hotly contested that the group's national office had appointed a special "administrator" to monitor the Minneapolis branch. Politically, members say, the national office took a decidedly cautious line, avoiding confrontations with the city officials and local corporate boosters who had helped finance the 1995 NAACP convention in Minneapolis.

"National really opposed us right from the beginning," says one disaffected member who was present for some of the closed-door meetings. "National was pressured to thwart this--even by taking over the branch." He won't specify where the pressure might have originated.

When the executive committee finally presented the deal to the membership once more, at the September 13 meeting, those in attendance were not pleased. First of all, argued one speaker after the other, the settlement didn't require the city to do anything except what it was already under court order to do: Make sure minority-owned businesses got some of the redevelopment contracts, develop replacement housing, help the former residents find new places to live. If those things hadn't happened in the four years since the decree was signed, the critics asked, what made officials so sure it would happen now?

Worse, they said, the NAACP was about to forfeit the only bargaining chip it had ever had: Under the proposed settlement, the group would specifically sign away its right to challenge any future demolitions of "Hollman-related" housing--a phrase that might cover even units not currently slated to be razed.

In the end, the meeting drew to an anticlimactic close. National administrator Frank Humphries declared that he and the local executive committee had the right to reverse any decision that didn't sit well with national. "This august body does have the right to vote," he conceded. "But I hope that at the conclusion of this meeting you will trust and vest in the executive committee the authority to decide this matter."

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