IN THE LARGEST public demonstration to date against the pending demolition of Minneapolis's northside Sumner Field public housing project, nearly 40 Southeast Asian residents and former residents showed up at the project last Wednesday with signs and tales of dissatisfaction. The messages on the handpainted placards were simple: "We are staying," "No more threats," and "Save the Sumner Field homes of many people."
The projects are due to come down as part of last spring's Hollman lawsuit settlement. Hollman, named after one of the residents who sued the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, and others for better living conditions, has been promoted as a plan to improve the lives of the poor by "deconcentrating" them--dispersing residents into more affluent city and suburban neighborhoods.
Mona Moede, Executive Director of the Sumner-Olson Residents Council, which has a contract with the MPHA to relocate tenants, told City Pages last fall that only four Sumner Field families wanted to stay; in the face of growing opposition, she now says that she was referring only to those few families who "refused to move." Months after she made that statement, a survey came to light that showed that almost half the tenants had wanted to stay in the projects if they were "renovated, repaired, and cleaned up."
A group of MPHA staff stood on the sidelines as the mostly Hmong protesters told their stories through a translator. Though Moede says everyone had a choice of where they wanted to move, former tenants told onlookers and news media that they were forced into housing that is either more expensive, in worse shape, or both.
Zoua Xiong, 66, who's been living at Sumner Field for eight years, broke down in tears. "I want to stay," she said. "If they want to relocate me I will just commit suicide. I cannot drive or even use the phone. I would rather die than face relocation."
"There is no chance they can stay," said MPHA Special Projects Manager Chuck Lutz from the sidewalk. "The Sumner Field homes are coming down. It's part of the decree." And the city appears in a hurry to get them down; though relocation was scheduled for completion at the end of 1997, 200 of the 260 families who lived there have already been moved, many of them into other public housing facilities, where they've bumped other eligible families down the waiting list.
Peter Brown, an attorney who used to work for the Legal Aid Society (which represented plaintiff tenants in Hollman), says there's still a chance to stop the Sumner Field demolition. "I think that among people and organizations throughout the Southeast Asian community, awareness is growing," he says. "It's the strategy of officialdom to make us believe that their plan is the inevitable winner, but this is very far from a done deal." He says one roadblock the city still has to face is the state's historic preservation process; Sumner Field, as one of the first public housing projects in Minnesota, has been deemed historically significant and worthy of preservation. At the very least, there will be additional public meetings.
Brown is working with a growing collective of organizations called the Sumner-Glenwood Reunification Alliance, which has voiced criticism about the lawsuit settlement. Last Friday, members of the group and tenants held a meeting at Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's office. She wasn't there, but the group requested, via her chief of staff, a 45-day moratorium on the relocation of Sumner Field residents until some of the questions can be sorted out.
Gary Sudduth, head of the Minneapolis Urban League, has joined the Alliance in their efforts and says he's met with city officials about a moratorium, especially with regard to tenants who don't want to move. According to Sudduth, "Tenants have told us that they are being asked to relocate based on threats and intimidation. They were convincing enough for us to support them."
MPHA representative Bill Paterson says putting the brakes on relocation "can't happen and won't happen, no way whatsoever." He says statistics show that most of those who have moved are happy with their new situations and blames discontent on a bunch of latecomers "who want to get involved in a process that's been going on for years.
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