The Power of Positive Thinking

You can't fault the good folks at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) for feeling a tad beleaguered these days. For four years they've been toiling away at implementing the 1995 court order, known as the Hollman decree, that requires them to revamp North Minneapolis's public-housing projects. And every step of the way, they've had to contend with nattering naysayers.

When the city bulldozed 416 townhomes and apartments in the Sumner Field and Olson projects, critics complained that the tenants were being thrown to the rental-market wolves. When officials touted their plan to spend $135 million to reconstruct the neighborhood as a "mixed-income" development complete with "signature amenities" including a brand-new lake and a parkway, the whiners cried gentrification. And from the paroxysm of bellyaching that ensued when contractors began demolition of an additional 306 housing units in the Glenwood and Lyndale projects Tuesday, you'd have thought the entire corps of Twin Cities housing advocates had just eaten the same batch of bad tuna salad.

Some people are just never satisfied.

Fortunately, the MPHA is staffed with folks who are assiduously trained in the art of positive thinking. Which brings us to a press release the agency issued last month, aimed at setting the record straight on its Hollman-related accomplishments. As a public service, and in order that our readers may fully appreciate the blinding degree of skill that goes into looking at the bright side so consistently, we have annotated the document.

Near North Families Exercising Greater Housing Choices

Note the shrewd use of the terms exercising and greater. The former emphasizes volition on the part of the displaced residents; the latter, while clearly pointing to an increase of some sort, carefully leaves that matter open to interpretation. Greater than what? No one's going to ask.

Nearly 70 families purchase their first homes

No need to remind everyone that the most prominent of those homebuyers--Lucy Hollman, the woman for whom the Hollman decree was named--just made the front page of the Star Tribune because the house she was finally able to buy was worth about half what she paid for it, and was headed for foreclosure.

Altogether, 388 families who used to live in the Sumner-Olson and Glenwood-Lyndale housing developments have completed the relocation process and secured the housing option of their choice.

Another fine use of the word choice. Though almost half of the former Hollman-area residents surveyed in a 1996 MPHA-commissioned study indicated that they'd rather have their units renovated than move, if staying is ruled out everything else constitutes an "option."

This apt phrasing also neatly sidesteps the issue of what transpires once such an option has been "secured." A good number of the families the MPHA relocated have publicly complained about their new apartments; in a 1997 Urban Coalition survey, 25 percent of the former Sumner/Olson residents questioned said their housing quality had worsened, and 78 percent said the move had separated them from friends and family. More recently, families have picketed the MPHA offices, saying the agency broke its relocation promises. Some are preparing to file formal complaints with HUD.

The further good news is that nearly 70 families who formerly lived in Near Northside public housing developments are now first-time homeowners.

"I'm very pleased to hear the good news that hundreds of families are using their relocation benefits to find better housing choices," said City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes. "It demonstrates the City's commitment to find housing for these families."

It's hard to imagine how else these families might have managed to spend money earmarked for this specific purpose--but there's no law against stating the obvious.

The 388 families were relocated by the redevelopment of a 73-acre site on the Near Northside that includes Sumner and Olson developments, which have been demolished, and the Glenwood-Lyndale developments, where demolition is pending.

Use of "site that includes"--as in "including, but not limited to"--is not accidental. In all, the city is using Hollman to obliterate close to 1,000 units--770 in the projects and nearby "scattered-site" homes, plus 188 in the Bryant Towers high-rises. And don't even bring up the additional low-income buildings--including the Cecil Newman Apartments, a few blocks from the Hollman site--city officials want to bulldoze while they're at it.

The redevelopment is part of the requirements--called a consent decree--from a 1992 lawsuit, Hollman vs. Cisneros, which alleged the City pursued discriminatory policies by concentrating public housing on the Near Northside.

And which also alleged that the MPHA allowed tenants' roofs to leak, walls to crack, and playgrounds to become overrun with rats, that windows stayed broken for months at a time, ceilings were green with mold, and yards were full of bare, and lead-laced, dirt. Why go into unpleasant details, when the whole mess is being torn down anyway?

The lawsuit was filed in the summer of 1992. The Fourth District Court in Minneapolis approved the settlement by issuing a consent decree on April 22, 1995, which outlines the terms of the settlement.

What's left elegantly unsaid here is that the settlement didn't "outline" the demolition of the Olson and Glenwood-Lyndale units; it simply required a redevelopment "action plan," to be created with input from the neighborhood. A community focus group recommended bulldozing all the units, then reversed itself and begged the city to leave them standing. Too late, said officials.

Plans for the $135 million redevelopment include up to 450 new housing units, new park spaces, and a parkway boulevard connecting south and north Minneapolis.

That $135 million sure looks like a nice chunk of change. Especially when you consider that about $80 million of it comes from federal, state, and local coffers--a subsidy of almost $180,000 per house, townhome, or apartment, in a development where 75 percent of units will rent and sell at market rates. Had the cash simply been distributed among the 650 or so households displaced by the demolitions, each family would have seen a windfall of $125,000--enough to buy a small house in southwest Minneapolis. If you add in the money being spent to build public-housing replacement units around town and in the suburbs, Hollman's price tag comes to around $140 million, or almost $215,000 per displaced household. Now you're almost talking Kenwood!

Of course, that would be ridiculous. The way to spend redevelopment dollars is to give them to developers. And McCormack Baron, the St. Louis-based company the city picked to build the new Hollman neighborhood, brings vast experience to the table, having spent public money in places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Little Rock.

And let's not forget those 450 new housing units. The consent decree called for the construction of "up to 368" new public-housing units on the Hollman site. The City Council decided that that meant it should build 450 units, and that only 112 of them should be public housing. That's an almost 90 percent reduction in the number of MPHA units in the area. Who says you can't win the war on poverty?

The following is a breakdown of the housing options chosen by the 388 families:

67 families--17 percent

Other public housing:
154 families--40 percent

Section 8 rent assistance:
163 families--42 percent

Market-rate housing:
4 families--1 percent

Positive thinking can take you only so far. But if you've got to present hard numbers, you may as well re-emphasize those options and choices--and maybe no one will notice that 82 percent of the Hollman families have ended up back in public and subsidized housing, meaning that the families who have spent years on the waiting list for those same homes will just have to wait a bit longer. (And the 770 units in middle-class city neighborhoods the decree requires to be built as replacements for the Northside projects? Funny you should ask: After four years, 47 are ready, according to the MPHA.)

The Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, which along with the NAACP represented the families in the lawsuit, has continued to work with 13 of the 17 families named Hollman plaintiffs.

"Has continued to work with"--indeed. For months now, critics have circulated an internal MPHA memo stating that three of the original seventeen Hollman plaintiffs were homeless, three more had been evicted from their new apartments, one was on the waiting list for an MPHA unit, and two couldn't be found. The agency's response has been to call the memo an inaccurate draft. Now, apparently, it's time to straighten things out.

The other four plaintiffs left town, discontinued contact, or said they no longer needed assistance.

That's almost 25 percent out of the way right there.

Of the 13 plaintiff families the Legal Aid Society has continued to work with, four purchased homes, five are using Section 8 rent certificates, or vouchers, three live in public housing, and one is in a transitional housing program.

There. No one sleeping under a bridge or crashing on a sister's couch. Okay, a few families "had brief periods in which they were homeless," acknowledges Timothy Thompson, the Legal Aid attorney who represents the plaintiffs. "But those were due to things that had nothing to do with Hollman."

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