When Tom Streitz told his boss that he wanted to take a year off from his job to go to work for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, both men knew there would be more than just your run-of-the-mill details to hash out. Streitz and his boss, Jeremy Lane, had to prepare themselves for the questions and controversy that would almost certainly come when people heard the news. After more than six years of tangling with MPHA officials over housing issues as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Streitz was seemingly switching sides. People were bound to be suspicious.
"Of course when he approached me about this we realized that some people would see his leaving as a sellout," says Lane, Legal Aid's executive director. "But I have absolutely no reservations. Tom has never pulled any punches. The housing authority came looking for him. He didn't go to them. You know, people see our agencies as enemies, and in a sense we are, because we are on opposite sides in court. But we really have the same mission, and that's to see that people have housing. If he is successful at MPHA our clients will win big time."
By all accounts, affordable housing advocates believe Streitz will be a positive force at MPHA. The problem, however, is that many of them looked to Streitz as one of only a handful of people with the power to force the city to make good on a chain of broken housing promises stemming from the 1992 housing-discrimination lawsuit known as Hollman. The suit, brought by Legal Aid and the NAACP on behalf of public-housing residents, charged that federal, state, and local governments had created a segregated slum along Olson Memorial Highway on Minneapolis's near north side. A settlement was reached in 1995 requiring the city to demolish the 770-unit housing complex and to spend $117 million to create new and better housing throughout the metro area for former residents.
Although many attorneys at Legal Aid have been involved with Hollman behind the scenes, Streitz is the attorney whom the plaintiffs know best. He was the one who attended meetings, listened to complaints, and reported back to Legal Aid. Though the decision on whether or not to take the Hollman case back into court was not exclusively his, Streitz had the day-to-day responsibility of keeping abreast of the massive redevelopment.
Over the past few years Streitz has made it clear to the city that the pace of building one-for-one replacement housing as called for under the decree was going too slowly, and that the lack of progress could provoke Legal Aid to take the city back to court. But the agency has always stopped short of asking the judge to reopen the case, says Lane, because Legal Aid doesn't believe that frustration over the way things are going has risen to the level of a violation of the settlement just yet.
Reached by phone last week, Streitz said he understands why some people question his decision. But to him, taking the MPHA job made sense because he has always seen his mission as being an advocate for affordable housing. And that, he says, hasn't changed. "Cora McCorvey said she offered me this job because she asked housing advocates around the community about who might be the right person and my name kept coming up," he explains, adding that he will not be working on any Hollman-related issues in his new position. "After all these years of Legal Aid monitoring what goes on at MPHA, I was surprised she asked me."
MPHA spokesman Bill Paterson says he and others at first greeted the news of Streitz's hiring with "raised eyebrows." But, he continues, he quickly realized that Streitz was the right choice. "Of all the folks out there working on housing issues, Tom is the most passionate one I know," says Paterson. "After doing a national search and finding a lot of people who had all the same things to offer, [MPHA's executive director Cora McCorvey] thought of Tom. He's been here a week and a half, and I can tell you that there isn't any grass growing under his feet."
Streitz was approached about the position by McCorvey last November, and started work as the agency's deputy director on February 20. His yearly salary of $80,000 is more than he was making at Legal Aid. (He declines to say how much he was paid at his former job.) But, he says, it is still far less than he could make in the private sector if that's where he wanted to work. In his new position he will analyze the housing agency's five-year strategic plan, which outlines ways in which the city could expand its housing program. The plan, completed last April, suggests such strategies as using Section 8 certificates for mortgage payments. In his absence, Susan Carrol, from Legal Aid's north side office, will be taking his place at many Hollman-related meetings.
Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Herron says he believes Streitz is being honest when he says he took the temporary job because he saw it as an opportunity to do something about the city's affordable-housing crisis. If anyone might be able to make a difference in that job, he says, it would be Streitz. But Herron, who represents Ward 8 in South Minneapolis, can also see why some people feel betrayed.