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Ciao, Belle

The cleanup crew: Herb Frey and Dan Cain, of Alliance of the Streets and RS EDEN
Michael Dvorak

In the tight-knit world of neighborhood activism, certain announcements of news soar so fast and so far that they become little creatures of their own. Such an animated tidbit took flight this month in Ventura Village, the north end of Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, when Donna Ellringer made it known that she plans to evacuate her not-quite-rehabbed Victorian home on Park Avenue South. For years Ellringer, who envisions Victorian splendor with doily-draped antique furniture and afternoon teas on the lawn, has been a most vocal, most aggressive proponent of reducing crime and drug abuse in the blocks surrounding her home (see City Pages' March 1 cover story, "The Belle of the Block"). In the four-plus years she has lived there, Ellringer has maintained that she would stay until the neighborhood turned around, from a gang and drug hotbed to the well-manicured utopia she has crusaded for with ceaseless enthusiasm--a shotgun on the porch and a cell phone in her fist.

What then, could have happened to make her abandon all that rhetoric and start hunting for another Victorian dream house, this time in St. Paul?

At a March 14 meeting of Ventura Village, the group that has splintered off from the rest of Phillips, Ellringer was one of some 70 people who came to hear about a couple of proposals for housing developments in the area. One sparked considerable controversy: a plan by Alliance Housing (a subsection of Alliance of the Streets) and RS EDEN (formerly Eden Programs) to build a "sober" apartment complex on the corner of East 19th Street and Portland Avenue South (one of the sketchier strips of the region, and a block from Ellringer's house). Both developers are nonprofits that strive to help people break the cycle of alcohol and drug abuse and to secure jobs and housing. Although the housing will not be exclusively limited to recovering alcoholics and drug abusers, it is geared toward single mothers who are trying to break those habits.

To some Ventura Village residents, the project, called Portland Village, sounds ideal. What could be more important than a brand-new affordable-housing development for families? To others, it's a sign that the neighborhood is taking a downturn: It means taking people who have had substance abuse problems--and their children--and placing them in a high-crime area with much drug traffic. This, they say, is simply setting them up to fail. After considerable debate that Tuesday evening, Ventura Village voted to support the project, 38 for, 16 against, with 12 abstentions.

The $5 million undertaking, funded through such sources as HUD, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, will have two nine-unit apartment buildings and one eight-unit building, connected by lawns and playgrounds for the 75 kids expected to live on the site. The two developers say they will purchase and raze two existing single-family homes, and also acquire several vacant lots to accommodate the new structures.

The rules for prospective residents are strict: They must agree never to use alcohol or drugs either on or off the premises, explains Dan Cain, president of RS EDEN. At the time they move in they must take a urinalysis drug test and document that they have not used alcohol or drugs for at least 60 days. Tenants may be tested while they live in the development if their behavior appears questionable, Cain adds, although he does not advocate random testing. Residency is open to any family that agrees to live sober and meets the income restrictions ($31,800--half of the area median income for a family of four). Cain says, however, that at Alliance Apartments, a slightly larger sober apartment complex on East 16th Street, about 85 percent of the residents--all adults--are in some type of recovery program, while the balance simply need affordable housing and agreed to live without drugs and alcohol. The apartments at Portland Village will be two-, three-, and four-bedroom units; one will be reserved for a police officer to live in, one will be for the "foster grandparents" of the complex, who, according to Cain, will be charged with looking after the kids of parents who've had a relapse and need to go into treatment. There will also be on-site daycare, youth programming, and case managers.

"We develop communities that have as intrinsic values both sobriety and work ethic," Cain says. "Our philosophy, to rebuild the community from within, has some value."

Tell that to Donna Ellringer. Installing housing for recovering addicts in the middle of the city's drug ground zero makes no sense, she figures--and will cause property values to plummet. One of Ellringer's greatest complaints about her immediate surroundings is that the streets are often overflowing with trash, with ill-behaved kids playing noisily in the street during all hours of the day and night--and she expects those problems to worsen with the new development. Besides, Ellringer adds, bringing more poor people and more social services into a neighborhood that already has plenty of both is just plain foolish.  

"I don't know how they ever could believe that putting even more concentration of poverty in this area will help anybody," she declares. "It's just training them up to be gangbangers."

Supporters of the project, however, say that the inner city is already where recovering substance abusers are likely to live anyway, so building a new project that promotes sobriety is a good idea. "Many people who are in rehab are of moderate means," says 6th Ward Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland, who was pleased to hear that Ventura Village supported the new housing development. "They need affordable housing. There's a concentration [of that housing] in the inner city. That's a reality."

Even the project developers admit that in a neighborhood where alcohol and drugs are so readily available, people who are already vulnerable might be more prone to relapses. Since Alliance Apartments opened in December 1997, there have been many occasions when residents have resorted to drug and alcohol use and as a result have been evicted, says Herb Frey, program director of Alliance of the Streets. "People slip. They'll slip anywhere," he explains. "You can make a case that it's easier here because it's all around you."

But the point of the housing is to create a community of sobriety that helps support the individuals and families living there. Although the family housing, Frey says, will probably be a little more lenient so that the children aren't immediately thrown out for the relapses of their parents, "we're not going to be patsies. It's for people who want to make a change and need support."

That said, Frey's word hasn't exactly reassured the neighborhood, and that, in part, is why Ellringer distrusts the new project. On more than one occasion in its three years at East 19th Street and Portland Avenue South, Alliance of the Streets has upset its neighbors. Ellringer says the organization didn't honor the promises it made when it sought to move onto that corner. Because it's a drop-in location, where people in need of services might come for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a housing referral, there are often stragglers--sometimes drunk, sometimes on drugs--loitering around the building and milling around the adjoining blocks. "They won't run a good program," Ellringer predicts. "Some day, in ten years, I'll drive by and it'll be the same. If not worse."

Frey admits that Alliance of the Streets hasn't done a good job managing the chronic homeless drug and alcohol abusers who hang out there, upsetting the neighbors. "We have tolerated too much--in their eyes, and in our eyes," he says. "A lot of the stuff we do is because we're compassionate and we don't have the money to do it right."

Still, as a condition of Ventura Village's support of the new family housing development, Alliance of the Streets must vacate its current premises and promise not to relocate within the boundaries of Ventura Village (which are I-94 on the north, 24th Street on the south, I-35W on the west, and the Soo Line Railroad tracks on the east). With that stipulation, Ventura Village member Jim Graham says the new development will benefit everyone in the area.

"Would you rather have drug abusers and drunks living there or have families where the parents are trying to go straight? They need to be in an environment where they can clean up," he says. He has seen the other sober housing units run by Alliance Housing, and is confident that the new project will be well-monitored, and that if residents don't adhere to the rules, they'll be kicked out. Besides, Graham says, the housing project is directly in line with Ventura Village's vision of creating more homes for children and families--and as a bonus it gets rid of the troublesome Alliance of the Streets. "Why vote to keep Alliance of the Streets?" he asks. "We want the neighborhood to get better. Some of us are mired in the wars of the past."

But for Ellringer, at least, the war is very much in full swing. She has been seeking an audience with the mayor and is also exploring a potential lawsuit calling into question the further concentration of low-income housing in the neighborhood. But despite those ongoing efforts, the project has earned official support from Ventura Village and has most of the funding it needs to get going. Groundbreaking is scheduled for this fall, with a planned completion date of August 2001.

Even while she continues to oppose the plan, Ellringer is casting about for a new home on new turf, perhaps across the river in St. Paul, or a suitable lot in another Minneapolis neighborhood where she could relocate her house. So who knows? By the time the newcomer families start to move in down the block, Ellringer might have gotten the $150,000 she says she's asking for her Victorian. And, in keeping with the changing face of the neighborhood--unless there's a turnaround that somehow prevents the rise of Portland Village--Park Avenue may simply find itself, for better or for worse, without Donna Ellringer.

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