The Big Payback

A small town learns the cost of social engineering

On a recent Wednesday evening, roughly 25 people are gathered in a conference room at the Catholic Charities building in Montgomery, about an hour's drive southwest of the Twin Cities. After a brief prayer in Spanish, Michael Hagedorn, an attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, begins handing out envelopes. Inside each of the 13 envelopes: a check for $17,000.

"I know that you all feel a great sense of relief now that you've gotten this assistance," Hagedorn notes, as a translator relays his comments in Spanish "This is not a lot of money at all for what you've been through."

Margarita Trevino was one of roughly 100 people evicted last year after the city of Montgomery purchased three apartment buildings
Raoul Benavides
Margarita Trevino was one of roughly 100 people evicted last year after the city of Montgomery purchased three apartment buildings

What they had been through--and what the money is reward for--is more than a year of fighting with the City of Montgomery. In March last year the municipal government purchased three dilapidated apartment buildings in the downtown corridor and evicted the thirteen families living in the units. Roughly 100 people were turned out of their homes, almost all of them Latino (see "Hit the Road, Juan," 4/14/04).

The city's stated intention was to either tear down or rehab the buildings in hopes of sparking a downtown renaissance in Montgomery. As the town has steadily lost population over the last three decades, empty storefronts have proliferated on the city's main corridor. But in recent years the trend has started to reverse itself. Montgomery is increasingly seen as a bedroom community for Twin Cities commuters, and housing developments are sprouting up all over Le Sueur County. City officials hope to capitalize on this migration to rejuvenate the downtown.

But the fact that virtually all of the residents were Latino and that the town had no immediate plans for the buildings raised questions about the motives of city officials--it wasn't hard to read between the color lines. Working with Centro Campesino, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Owatonna, and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), the residents petitioned Montgomery for financial assistance to offset their moving costs. They also threatened to sue the city over federal housing laws.

"I thought they just wanted me out because I was Hispanic," says Maria Marquez, who has lived in Montgomery for 11 years. "I think everybody felt humiliated. I know I felt humiliated." Marquez says she eventually found a new apartment in Montgomery for her family, but that they had to borrow money for a $1,600 deposit.

Under the terms of the settlement, approved last month by the Montgomery City Council, the city agreed to pay the tenants a total of $221,000, or $17,000 per displaced family. In addition, the city pledged to build 30 units of affordable housing in the next year. Montgomery officials also committed to providing antidiscrimination training for all municipal employees and to holding a citywide symposium addressing race relations. The city admitted no wrongdoing, but in a statement included in the settlement, city administrator Michael Martin apologized to the displaced tenants.

Clifford Greene, an attorney who represented Montgomery in the matter, says that the city preferred to settle the dispute rather than engage in a contentious and costly legal battle. "No one at the city viewed the actions taken as intended to be hostile toward the residents who had been living in those buildings," he says. "They were looking at a logical opportunity for downtown revitalization."

Even so, the displaced residents feel vindicated by the settlement. "We weren't after the money," says Marquez. "We were after respect. They ran us off."

This assertion is bolstered by the belief that many eventually settled in other nearby towns. "They moved to cities all over the place," says attorney Hagedorn. "Some are in Faribault. Some are in Mankato. Very few of them stayed in Montgomery."

Roughly a year after the tenants were evicted, little progress has been made in transforming downtown. Of the three buildings purchased by the city, two remain boarded up. The third has been torn down and the lot is now empty. (Montgomery's community development director says that the city plans to put all three properties on the market this spring as part of "meticulous" planning.)

There are also some signs that the settlement might not be the end of the animosity in Montgomery. Shortly after the settlement, the editor of the Montgomery Messenger, Wade Young, penned an editorial that angered many Hispanic residents. In the piece, Young recounted a story from 12 years earlier in which he was forced to move out of his home with little notice because the landlord was selling the building. He noted that, unlike the Latinos, he received no government assistance at the time.

Young also criticized Centro Campesino and SMRLS for assisting the displaced tenants, wondering whether the dollar amount was related to high legal bills. The implication was that the city and the Latino residents were being swindled by a bunch of big-city lawyers. However, SMRLS didn't receive a penny for its services. All of the money went directly to the families.

Those at Wednesday's meeting still express concerns about their treatment in Montgomery. Virginia Nuñez, who has lived in the town for 12 years, says that the police continue to hassle Hispanic residents and that her children regularly encounter discrimination at school. "They're still being harassed by the American kids, the white kids," she says, speaking through a translator. "We're tired of it."

Nuñez says she intends to use the $17,000 settlement to purchase a mobile home--but not in Montgomery. "We want to move to another state," she laughs. "We want to move to Texas."

 
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