Give me an R! Give me a T!

Happy to be compared to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, R.T. Rybak wants to use Minneapolis's top office to sell the city

"It certainly can't hurt," says David Fey, executive director of the nonprofit neighborhood-housing group Seward Redesign. "But realistically, until we engage the federal government, which really does have the power to influence the housing market, nothing is going to be enough. The next best thing is to create a specially designated city affordable-housing fund that isn't subject to the latest political dynamics."

Alan Arthur, president of Central Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit that develops, maintains, and rents 1,100 units of affordable housing in Minneapolis, is more blunt: "All this talk about codes and tax incentives; that's red-herring talk. If you're serious about affordable housing, you need cash for capital costs. To build a three-bedroom unit in this market, you've got to charge about $1,500 per month in rent to make ends meet. If you get all the breaks [Rybak's] talking about, you might be able to knock $200 off per month. That's still much more than a family of four making 50 percent of the metro median income can afford. And even if you do the minimum to fix up an old dilapidated house, at some point you're still going to have to replace that 20-year-old roof and that 30-year-old boiler. In the long run, it costs nearly as much on a monthly basis as a brand-new structure." Arthur adds that even when his organization is able to secure the entire capital cost of a project from various funding sources, the cost of maintaining the property and paying the taxes is beyond the reach of the poorest families.

On his campaign Web site, Rybak proposes the appointment of an "Affordable Housing Czar" who will marshal the city's resources and set targets for the number of housing units created and restored. But how many resources could the czar marshal? What would the target number of units be? It's not clear.

Diana Watters

As a benchmark for comparison, in the mid-Nineties, the City's Affordable Housing Task Force estimated that Minneapolis needed to spend $30 million per year (while leveraging another $70 million) just to keep up with the housing demand. Yet, when asked how much city money he believes it will take to effectively address affordable housing, Rybak is vague. "I will never create a program whose outcome is to spend money," he says. "So I couldn't possibly predict what it will take. I think we need to have funding sources....But the city cannot possibly pay its way out of this problem. That's why I am concentrating on private-sector incentives."

For years the staunchest advocate for affordable housing on the Minneapolis City Council has been the Sixth Ward's Jim Niland, who also supports Rybak's mayoral bid. "R.T. will dramatically increase the production of housing units for those making 30 percent of the metro median," Niland confidently states. "The smart codes are part of it. Another part of it is selling his agenda to other funders, like the county, the state, and the corporations. That has been sorely lacking in the mayor's office."

Niland's rigorous advocacy for affordable housing is a major reason why he has been the only Minneapolis City Council member ever endorsed by the Green Party. When introducing Rybak at the Green Party convention in June, he said, "I know where he is on the issues. I know where he is on the Kondirator. I know where he is on issues like putting the Guthrie [Theater] on parkland. I know where his heart is." Conspicuously absent was any mention of affordable housing.

The second of Rybak's top four priorities is headlined on his Web site as "reform development & spending." He proposes a bureaucratic overhaul of city development agencies, including the merger of the semi-autonomous Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) with the Planning Department, to be governed by a citizen board composed primarily of members of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). Right now the MCDA has oversight control of NRP projects. Rybak's realignment would essentially turn that relationship on its head, decentralizing the decision-making power down toward the grassroots.

Thus far Rybak has done a good job of finessing the ideological divide between neighborhood activists and the major corporate players downtown. Although highly critical of Target and Block E, he has pledged to be an active salesman for downtown, claiming he will "put down the checkbook and pick up the phone" in order to get businesses to relocate in the urban core. "Supporters of Sharon have tried to convince people that if you're not spending massive amounts of public dollars on bloated developments, you're anti-business," he says. Conversely, he has pointedly not made any specific commitments to financing the NRP's second phase of neighborhood projects so dear to the hearts of community activists.

"I simply don't fit into the ideological boxes that keep us from solving big problems," he says. "If I was simply this ideological cartoon, I wouldn't be supported by a Barry Lazarus [a Republican fundraiser and former member of Gov. Arne Carlson's finance committee] and by Sam and Sylvia Kaplan [the DFL's most formidable husband-and-wife fundraising team]."

After Rybak's appearance at a candidate forum before the downtown council in early June, council president Sam Grabarski remarked, "We saw a handsome, articulate candidate give an energetic, visionary speech. It was not hard to imagine that he was cut from the same cloth as a Norm Coleman.

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