Last Man Standing?

True Believer: Critics say attorney Tom Streitz set himself a quixotic quest when he signed on to help Minneapolis's housing agency get its act together
Diana Watters

When Tom Streitz told his boss that he wanted to take a year off from his job to go to work for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, both men knew there would be more than just your run-of-the-mill details to hash out. Streitz and his boss, Jeremy Lane, had to prepare themselves for the questions and controversy that would almost certainly come when people heard the news. After more than six years of tangling with MPHA officials over housing issues as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Streitz was seemingly switching sides. People were bound to be suspicious.

"Of course when he approached me about this we realized that some people would see his leaving as a sellout," says Lane, Legal Aid's executive director. "But I have absolutely no reservations. Tom has never pulled any punches. The housing authority came looking for him. He didn't go to them. You know, people see our agencies as enemies, and in a sense we are, because we are on opposite sides in court. But we really have the same mission, and that's to see that people have housing. If he is successful at MPHA our clients will win big time."

By all accounts, affordable housing advocates believe Streitz will be a positive force at MPHA. The problem, however, is that many of them looked to Streitz as one of only a handful of people with the power to force the city to make good on a chain of broken housing promises stemming from the 1992 housing-discrimination lawsuit known as Hollman. The suit, brought by Legal Aid and the NAACP on behalf of public-housing residents, charged that federal, state, and local governments had created a segregated slum along Olson Memorial Highway on Minneapolis's near north side. A settlement was reached in 1995 requiring the city to demolish the 770-unit housing complex and to spend $117 million to create new and better housing throughout the metro area for former residents.

Although many attorneys at Legal Aid have been involved with Hollman behind the scenes, Streitz is the attorney whom the plaintiffs know best. He was the one who attended meetings, listened to complaints, and reported back to Legal Aid. Though the decision on whether or not to take the Hollman case back into court was not exclusively his, Streitz had the day-to-day responsibility of keeping abreast of the massive redevelopment.

Over the past few years Streitz has made it clear to the city that the pace of building one-for-one replacement housing as called for under the decree was going too slowly, and that the lack of progress could provoke Legal Aid to take the city back to court. But the agency has always stopped short of asking the judge to reopen the case, says Lane, because Legal Aid doesn't believe that frustration over the way things are going has risen to the level of a violation of the settlement just yet.

Reached by phone last week, Streitz said he understands why some people question his decision. But to him, taking the MPHA job made sense because he has always seen his mission as being an advocate for affordable housing. And that, he says, hasn't changed. "Cora McCorvey said she offered me this job because she asked housing advocates around the community about who might be the right person and my name kept coming up," he explains, adding that he will not be working on any Hollman-related issues in his new position. "After all these years of Legal Aid monitoring what goes on at MPHA, I was surprised she asked me."

MPHA spokesman Bill Paterson says he and others at first greeted the news of Streitz's hiring with "raised eyebrows." But, he continues, he quickly realized that Streitz was the right choice. "Of all the folks out there working on housing issues, Tom is the most passionate one I know," says Paterson. "After doing a national search and finding a lot of people who had all the same things to offer, [MPHA's executive director Cora McCorvey] thought of Tom. He's been here a week and a half, and I can tell you that there isn't any grass growing under his feet."

Streitz was approached about the position by McCorvey last November, and started work as the agency's deputy director on February 20. His yearly salary of $80,000 is more than he was making at Legal Aid. (He declines to say how much he was paid at his former job.) But, he says, it is still far less than he could make in the private sector if that's where he wanted to work. In his new position he will analyze the housing agency's five-year strategic plan, which outlines ways in which the city could expand its housing program. The plan, completed last April, suggests such strategies as using Section 8 certificates for mortgage payments. In his absence, Susan Carrol, from Legal Aid's north side office, will be taking his place at many Hollman-related meetings.

Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Herron says he believes Streitz is being honest when he says he took the temporary job because he saw it as an opportunity to do something about the city's affordable-housing crisis. If anyone might be able to make a difference in that job, he says, it would be Streitz. But Herron, who represents Ward 8 in South Minneapolis, can also see why some people feel betrayed.

"This could work out to be something really good, because Tom has been a good advocate for people in really bad situations, so he understands what's going on out there," says Herron. "My hope is that he will make real changes at MPHA because people often feel disrespected and demeaned within that system. But he's also been involved with the Hollman issue for a long time, and people are skeptical about whether he did all he could do to represent them if he was also negotiating this job. You can't help wondering whether he got co-opted by the city at some point--because this job couldn't have come up overnight."

As part of the housing advocacy group Northside Neighbors for Justice, Henrietta Faulconer pushed the MPHA to live up to its promises to former Hollman-area residents. In 1998, members of Faulconer's advocacy group, along with people involved in other local activist groups, stood in front of bulldozers poised to demolish housing on the Hollman site, arguing that the city's failure to build new affordable housing meant families would have nowhere else to go. To Faulconer, Streitz's job change is just the latest development in what has turned out to be a losing battle for those who were supposed to benefit from Hollman.

"Tom Streitz is sleeping with the enemy as far as I'm concerned," says Faulconer. "If he was going to clean up problems with public housing he had a golden opportunity as a lawyer before he was bought and paid for by the city."

Later this month, the city of Minneapolis is slated to release its annual report detailing progress made toward fulfilling its affordable-housing goals, and the news is expected to be grim. Last year, critics raged after officials released a preliminary version of the report that included shelter beds as examples of new affordable housing created, and that touted the number of new units not yet built under Hollman without noting that the construction is long overdue and was to replace homes razed years ago. When a similarly bleak report was issued last spring, Streitz reminded the city that it was in danger of violating the settlement. The threat was implicit: Legal Aid could reopen the lawsuit.

Faulconer notes that the NAACP, another plaintiff in the 1992 lawsuit, also has the power to ask James Rosenbaum, the federal judge overseeing Hollman, to take another look at the settlement. And she's convinced that the civil-rights agency, which tried to convince Rosenbaum to reopen the case in 1999, is unlikely to go back to court. "The president of the NAACP, Rickie Campbell, is the deputy chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department," says Faulconer. "He works for the mayor. So how is he going to stand up and fight for people and say the city is wrong? That's a real conflict of interest. The NAACP was supposed to be a watchdog and, like Legal Aid, they haven't done their job. It seems like nothing short of full-blown legal action by some outside agency would change things now. But who would do that?"

Streitz's critics are quick to say that if idealism alone is enough to ensure results, they'll owe the attorney an apology. In the meantime, Streitz himself is busy trying to prove their fears wrong. "People focus on Hollman exclusively. It's very important, but the need for housing in our community in general is much bigger," Streitz says. "In my position at MPHA I will be able to work toward that broader goal.

"The focus for many years at MPHA was just trying to get the basics right. Now they want to go beyond that, and they've hired me to get things done."

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