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Checkout Time

County Commissioner Gail Dorfman knows there's a fine line between improvement and gentrification
Daniel Corrigan

Chili George had heard the rumors for nearly a week: The Rodeway Inn, where she lived with her two teenage daughters, was being sold to its neighbor, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She and her girls had moved into the motel only a month earlier, after a stint at a downtown Minneapolis shelter where the harsh chemicals used for cleaning had aggravated her asthma. On this day in late March, they were still awaiting word on their application for permanent housing, which they'd submitted to the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority the previous month. Now, worried that she might be evicted at any moment, George and a few fellow residents marched across Third Avenue to the Institute of Arts and demanded to know what was going on.

It was true, museum officials told the group: The institute was purchasing the property and intended to raze it and pave it over as a parking lot. In fact, all of the 42 families living at the Rodeway would have to vacate the premises by April 2.

A week later, with only days remaining before the deadline, families were stuffing their belongings into trucks and U-Haul trailers when an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis persuaded the motel's owners to let residents stay another month. Still, George and her neighbors are angry--and anxious. Given the severe local housing crunch, they wonder, where are they going to go? And why weren't they warned about the impending eviction?

"If I had known we were going to have to move [again], I would have asked them to please put me somewhere else," George says. "It's hard for me to breathe and get around, and my kids are both in school right now."

In Hennepin County, families with children are guaranteed emergency shelter, explains Pat Mack, program director of the family division of Hennepin County's Office of Economic Assistance. The Rodeway, located at 24th Street and Third Avenue South, a few blocks west of I-35W in the Whittier neighborhood, had been one of the local motels that agreed to accept county vouchers for sheltering homeless families. For a family of four, the Rodeway charges $70 per day, $385 per week, or $950 per month; the cost includes soap and toilet paper, plus cleaning and linen service. The county does not get a break on motel fees and there's no negotiating. "They set the fees and we pay them." Mack says, adding that last year the county paid more than $117,000 to area motels for providing temporary shelter. (As for amenities, Mack confirms Rodeway residents' complaints that the motel discontinued maid service several weeks back and guests must now take their linens to a laundromat and purchase their own soap and toilet paper.)

According to Mack, it wasn't until March 13 that the Rodeway's owners informed her office that the motel was being sold, and that the place had to be vacated by March 21. "We called back and asked that the date be extended until April 1," she says. But the Rodeway didn't respond immediately. "Since no date was final, we didn't give notice to residents."

Steve Nosek, attorney for the motel's Tennessee-based owner Natu Patel, says that in hindsight he has some regrets about the way the matter was handled. "Believe it or not, we haven't tried to negatively impact these people's lives," Nosek maintains. Though he's not overjoyed that his client must now wait 30 days before closing the sale, he says a visit to Hennepin County Housing Court in Minneapolis gave him an uncomfortably up-close look at poverty and homelessness. "I wasn't aware of the realities facing these people. We've gotten ourselves into a pretty bad situation here," Nosek admits. "In all fairness, it was partly our own doing. But things have been straightened out now, I hope."

Once the Rodeway is gone, the museum will begin accepting bids from developers interested in the site, says Kaylen Whitmore, communications director for the art institute. Though it remains unclear what will ultimately replace the parking lot, Whitmore says that whatever it is will be affiliated with the museum in some way.

 

Housing advocates fear that the Rodeway families may be only the first of many low-income Minneapolis residents to be displaced along Third Avenue. Last year city officials hatched a $20 million plan to link the Institute of Arts with the convention center and downtown by creating a so-called Avenue of the Arts that is to include art installations, information kiosks, performance spaces, and a whole lot of landscaping. As the dream of a tidied-up thoroughfare begins to take shape, Chili George and her fellow Rodeway guests are packing their belongings with scant hope of finding decent lodging in a city where apartment vacancy rates hover at one percent and the shelters are overflowing.

"The bottom line here is that there's no place for these people to go," says Diana Faiella, a housing advocate at Lutheran Social Services. "There's a 40,000-unit shortage of affordable housing in the metro area right now; the motel is right in the path of the Avenue of the Arts project, so it has to go: It's the classic gentrification story."

Colleen Moriarty, chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, begs to differ. For one thing, she emphasizes, the Rodeway is a private purchase by the institute and is not part of the Avenue of the Arts plan. "There are no plans to force anybody out for this project," Moriarty asserts. "It's more just a beautification plan."

And for many neighborhood residents, the Avenue of the Arts represents the city's gift to an area that has received its share of lumps. "We deserve to have something beautiful here," declares Becky Olson, who for the past 30 years has lived in and managed the Fair Oaks Apartments across 24th Street from the Rodeway. "We have always been going through a really, really bad time with that motel," says Olson, noting that for several decades the 44-year-old inn that until recently was known as the Fair Oaks Motel has been virtually synonymous with crime, drugs, and prostitution.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman admits that the issue is tricky. A member of the committee that will design and implement the Avenue of the Arts, Dorfman views the project as "a way to use art to link together neighborhoods running along Third Avenue. It is supposed to honor the people who live there," she adds. "If it ends up causing gentrification, then we will have failed."

But Dorfman has met with families at the motel (which is in her district), and she echoes Faiella's assessment of that situation. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, places like the Rodeway have been torn down every time a new development came along--like the Target Center and the convention center," Dorfman says. "We tear these places down, and sometimes they were the only places where some people can live because of criminal histories or unlawful detainers [evictions] or no past rental history. We can't go on doing that."

According to Dorfman, commissioners were aware in February that the Rodeway was going to be sold. "But we had no idea what the specifics were until we saw it on the news in March," she says. "We knew we were going to have to find housing for those folks fast.

"It's my first year on the job, and all I hear about is housing," Dorfman goes on. "People don't have affordable housing. I went to Lincoln Elementary School the other day and the kids told me how two and three families are living in a small apartment. They said they're all sleeping in shifts."

On this Tuesday afternoon, with just over three weeks to go before her eviction, Chili George is resting in her room at the Rodeway, having spent an exhausting day on the phone seeking shelter. She just received her Social Security check, which means that until that money runs out, she must pay for her own accommodations. After that, says the county's Pat Mack, George will be issued another voucher.

George says she has no problem with paying. She just can't find anywhere to go. "I'm trying to find a more affordable motel or all my money is going to go fast," she says. She's breathing heavily; all the stress has aggravated her asthma. She has doubled up on her steroids, which helps some, but she worries she might end up in the hospital. And if that happens, how will her daughters be able to make the move without her? She has already called the housing authority asking for news about her application. A staffer told George that with more than 6,000 applications to process--this is the first time the agency has taken applications since 1996--there's no telling when they might get to hers.

She'd like for her family to be out by Friday, George says. That gives her two more days. "How will the people at public housing find me if I don't live here anymore?" she wonders. "It's just so much pressure. I feel like I'm screaming and it's just coming out of both ears."


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