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There's new controversy surrounding the Hollman project: Who's getting the jobs?

Last fall Natonia Johnson accepted an appointment to an obscure little City of Minneapolis panel known as the Community Oversight Committee. The $200 million Hollman redevelopment, the reconstruction of an entire neighborhood on the city's near north side, would create a host of jobs. She and the other ten volunteers on the committee are supposed to make sure that city officials keep their promise to give priority to job applicants who were displaced from the area when their homes were torn down.

An aide to Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, Johnson was chosen by the Minneapolis City Council to sit on the panel because she is a resident of the city's near north side and also because she has experience with minority hiring issues.

But last week, when the group held its ninth monthly meeting at Sumner Library in north Minneapolis, Johnson showed up intending to resign because she felt the group's best efforts were not paying off. Countless discussions have been held with city officials regarding hiring plans and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on job-training programs, but to date not one resident of the now-demolished housing project has been hired.

Blind oversight: Hollman watchdog Natonia Johnson
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Blind oversight: Hollman watchdog Natonia Johnson

"I care too much to be on a committee that's not doing anything," Johnson says. "I don't feel that the City of Minneapolis was serious about getting people jobs when they created this committee in the first place."

In 1992 Minneapolis public-housing residents sued federal, state, and local housing authorities, charging that for years the city had crowded its poor minorities into a collection of rundown buildings on the city's north side. The suit was settled in 1995 by the Hollman Consent Decree, in which the city agreed to tear down the 770 units of substandard housing on the 73-acre site and replace them with better homes spread out across the metro area. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) came up with $117 million for the construction and has since agreed to contribute nearly $40 million more.

Since its signing six years ago, the Hollman decree has generated plenty of controversy. Intended to improve the living conditions of former public-housing residents, the settlement is widely seen as having opened a now-choice piece of real estate to developers who would rather build pricey homes. Critics have repeatedly lambasted city leaders for failing to provide timely replacement housing for the 519 impoverished families displaced by the redevelopment and for slashing the amount of affordable housing to be built in the new 900-home neighborhood planned for the site.

But so far little public attention has been paid to the city's promise to hire former residents to work on the redevelopment. Because federal dollars are being used on the Hollman project, the city is obligated to follow HUD's requirements for providing employment opportunities to the poor, especially those forced out of their homes when public housing was torn down. The requirements, known as Section 3, have caused controversy in other cities where officials have complained that there's too much bureaucracy involved in implementing the hiring goals.

In Minneapolis, however, officials declared that Section 3 would be a success; former north-side residents would be contacted, trained, and given jobs as they became available. Exactly how the city planned to make those promises a reality quickly became the subject of heated debate. Last year, after the dilapidated public housing had been torn down and actual work could commence, it was decided that an independent committee was needed to monitor the city's progress. That's when the oversight committee was born.

It was assumed that laborers would be needed last summer, but that time came and went as the city struggled to come up with the money needed to begin the massive project. In the fall, crews from the Minneapolis Department of Public Works tore up sidewalks and asphalt streets, but little else was done until this spring, when crews began grading the site and clearing trees. The actual groundbreaking for the first phase of housing construction continues to be pushed back and is now scheduled for some time next month.

Somewhere along the line the city decided to allow the Department of Public Works to combine hiring for the Hollman site with the department's annual recruitment process for seasonal laborers, many of whom are laid off at the end of the summer. In February Public Works held its yearly job fair to recruit seasonal workers, including some who will work on the Hollman site. The two-day effort drew 395 applicants. Of those, 58 were hired, says Brian Lokkesmoe, deputy director of Public Works, and a few more may get jobs if there's turnover yet this year. The city, he adds, is pleased with the diversity of this group of hires, which includes more minorities and women than in the past.

Lokkesmoe defends the decision to combine Hollman hiring with the seasonal recruiting because, he says, Hollman is just a small portion of what Public Works does each year. "Our budget is over $200 million a year," he explains. "Hollman is probably only about $2 million, maybe $4 million of that, and that work will be staggered over the next seven years. If we had hired with just that project in mind, we would have only had to hire a few Section 3 workers." By conducting just one round of hiring, the department was able to give jobs to a lot more people who fell into that category, he says: "I think the way we did it was 17 steps beyond what was even called for."

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