Help Wanted

Blind oversight: Hollman watchdog Natonia Johnson
Geoffrey P. Kroll

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.

"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."

Nonetheless, a review of public records by City Pages shows that none of the workers hired were former Hollman residents. No former residents even applied for the jobs. Nor are any of the new laborers graduates of the city-funded job-training programs.

This confirms the worst fears of Johnson and of Natalie Johnson Lee, another committee member (and no relation to Johnson). "They basically just held the same old hiring thing they do every year and said it was going to benefit Hollman residents too," says Johnson Lee. "Well, it's pretty clear that it didn't." Johnson Lee is a candidate for the area's Fifth Ward city-council seat, which is currently held by council president Jackie Cherryhomes.

A look back through minutes of Oversight Committee meetings shows that members of the panel have repeatedly asked the city officials appointed to the committee to explain how Public Works was planning to handle the hiring. But until last week's meeting, neither Bob Boyd, director of special projects for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, nor Public Works's Lokkesmoe ever explained that hiring for Hollman would simply be folded into the department's general recruitment.

Boyd says he can understand the committee members' frustration over the flow of information. "We don't always just say yes or no to something because, well, that's just hard to tell people," he says. "So we tend to give equivocal answers, and I can see how that would be confusing."

But, he continues, critics are wrong about the city's intentions. Technically, he insists, the city has kept its promise. More than 30 percent of the 58 new seasonal workers met the qualifications for a federal program called Section 3. Initiated in 1968 by HUD, the program pushes local agencies receiving federal money for public-housing projects to do their best to ensure that jobs and other economic opportunities are made available to the poor. (Contractors hired to work on the redevelopment will also be asked to comply with Section 3.)

In the case of the Hollman redevelopment, HUD specified four groups to target for recruitment under Section 3 and the order of priority in which they were to be considered: former residents of the public housing demolished on the north side, anyone living in any of the city's public-housing units, participants in a HUD program called Youth Build, and Minneapolis residents whose family income does not exceed 80 percent of the metro median income, which is $50,200 for a family of four.

None of the new hires came from the first three priority groups, says Boyd. Instead, the city met its Section 3 goal by hiring people who fit the low-income criteria. It's unfortunate that no former residents were hired, he admits, but the city made every effort to let them know that the jobs were available to them. "Every single public-housing resident, including those from the near north side, got a letter from MPHA telling them about the job fair," he says, explaining that the notices went to people's last known addresses. "I don't know why they didn't apply, but many of the people who used to live on the north side were single mothers with children, and they're not interested in that kind of hard physical labor."

Johnson and others say they don't believe Boyd. At numerous times during the six years since the settlement was reached, the housing authority has been forced to admit that it lost track of the former residents. "The city has admitted in several different meetings that they don't know where all the residents are," says Ron Edwards, who represents the NAACP on the city's Hollman Implementation Committee, the more powerful panel that is supposed to oversee the redevelopment as a whole. "Yet when it comes to this issue they suddenly know exactly where everyone lives. It's an outright lie, and I think it will eventually be proven that the city has no idea where most of these people are, now that this process has dragged out so long.  

"Once again," he complains, "something has happened to confirm the NAACP's position that promises made to former residents are a sham."

And, he and other critics contend, an expensive one. In 1999 the MPHA contracted with the Minneapolis Urban League to provide job training to people seeking employment under Section 3. As he and Johnson Lee recall, it was clear that the idea was to train people to get jobs on the redevelopment.

To date MPHA has paid the Urban League $788,000 to provide training. The north-side agency used some of that money to subcontract with two other training centers, Summit Academy O.I.C. and Dunwoody Institute. According to a recent report released by the Urban League, 61 graduates of the 14-week training program have now gotten jobs, mostly in the trades. But city records show that none of the graduates applied for work with Public Works. And because the construction is behind, none have been hired by private contractors to do other work on the site.

It would have been great if graduates of the training programs could have gotten jobs on the Hollman site, says Boyd, but the MPHA did not invest money in training specifically for that purpose. "At the time we entered our contract with the Urban League we thought the construction would be starting sooner that it has," he explains. "Since it didn't, the Urban League had to find graduates jobs elsewhere, and we think that's a remarkable accomplishment." It is also important to note, says Boyd, that some of MPHA's money was paid directly to participants in the programs, who received a stipend of $100 per week while taking classes.

This doesn't appease Johnson Lee. "We keep getting different stories, and I wish they would just tell the truth," she says. "This city is acting just like a lot of cities when it comes to Section 3. They pretend to make an effort, and then when nobody who was supposed to get hired gets a job, they say, 'Well, we did our best. That's all we can do.' They spent almost $1 million on this training, and what did we get?"

Right now crews from Public Works are busy grading the area where the first phase of the new development will be built. The department will hold another recruitment drive next spring; whether any former public-housing residents are among those chosen remains to be seen.

Given the scale of the redevelopment and the amount of red tape that comes with federal funds, it is easy to see how misunderstandings can happen, says Natonia Johnson. But a few simple, straight answers would certainly help, she says. "I've never seen a committee like this," says Johnson. "We can ask the same question and get a different answer every time. We're supposed to oversee this project and be sure they're meeting their goals. They hand us these reports and say everything is going well, but we don't agree and our opinion doesn't matter."

Johnson arrived at the committee meeting last week armed with a letter of resignation. But when she told colleagues of her plan, they argued that she should stay on at least until the end of the year because the process needs a watchdog who won't quit demanding information. Johnson agreed, but she's not happy about it.

"There's no way in the world the City of Minneapolis thinks they're doing the right thing," she complains. "The way they've explained things like how they hired for Public Works is just an excuse for them not doing what they said they were going to do. They don't give a rip. If the people of north Minneapolis knew what was really going on, they wouldn't be happy about this at all. It's just a bunch of crap."

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