Habitat for Humbuggery

House-bound? If Minneapolis officials keep their latest promise, Habitat for Humanity may build affordable homes here next spring
David Fick

There will be no more delays, no more bureaucratic glitches. From now on, i's will be dotted swiftly. And by next spring, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency is going to have everything in place to allow the Twin Cities chapter of Habitat for Humanity to break ground on the first of 55 houses it has pledged to build on the city's near north side.

Never mind that the 10-year history of the so-called Hollman project--the redevelopment of the former public housing site on the Minneapolis's near north side--has been marked by bureaucratic foot dragging, inexplicable funding shortfalls, and allegations of cronyism. And never mind that even as Mayor R.T. Rybak and the city's top development officials were making a fresh set of promises a couple of weeks ago, there still wasn't even a detailed map of the neighborhood where Habitat was supposed to build the houses.

A year and a half ago, congregants from a dozen downtown churches approached Minneapolis officials with an amazingly generous offer. The worshipers were well aware that progress on the redevelopment was years behind and tens of millions of dollars short. In conjunction with the Twin Cities chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the congregants wanted to build homes for low-income families.

Habitat's offer must have seemed like a godsend to administrators at the MCDA and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. Handshakes were exchanged, and the churchgoers got to work. In record time, they had pledges of 200,000 hours of labor and more than $3 million in donations. They thought they were on track to break ground in May 2002.

Then nothing happened. For more than a year, the flock made no progress toward its date with the truckloads of prefab trusses at the site, which has since been renamed Heritage Park. Finally, in July, Fr. Michael O'Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary--and one of those leading the charge--mailed an angry letter to Mayor Rybak. "Unfortunately, our delight in the collective work of our congregants is offset by our profound dissatisfaction with the inexplicably slow pace of progress in construction," the rector wrote. "It is now virtually certain that no construction of Habitat homes will commence during the 2002 building season. We are deeply disappointed and frustrated by these delays and by the lack of information from the MCDA and McCormack-Baron as to how our commitment to produce 55 units will be implemented and scheduled."

Father O'Connell reminded the mayor of the gravity of the affordable-housing crisis--one of the key issues of Rybak's mayoral campaign--before listing his demands: "We expect more prompt progress and a greater sense of urgency around the production of affordable-housing units at Heritage Park. We expect more extensive communication and information about the progress of Heritage Park. We expect to be involved in the design and planning of the Habitat units that will be built at Heritage Park. We need real specifics, real schedules, real answers--real soon."

Recently Father O'Connell and Rybak sat down, along with Habitat's local executive director, Stephen Seidel, and representatives from the MCDA. According to those present, Rybak, who has vowed to make creating affordable housing and revamping the MCDA twin cornerstones of his administration, was aghast to hear what had been going on at the agency. "Someone from the MCDA said that we would be done building [the Habitat houses] by 2009," Father O'Connell says, "and R.T. got out of his chair and said, 'No, they're going to be built now.'"

In 1992, public housing tenants, the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, and the NAACP sued the city, state, and federal governments for creating a segregated public housing district along Olson Memorial Highway. The suit was settled in 1995 by a decree under which the city agreed to demolish the decrepit townhomes and apartments, and to spend $117 million creating new units in more affluent parts of the city and the suburbs by the fall of 2001. But more than six years later, the city had replaced a scant handful of the 770 homes razed and was scrambling to meet an extended deadline of September 2004.

In May 1999 the city gave the overall development rights for Heritage Park to McCormack-Baron, a St. Louis-based company that specializes in redeveloping former public housing projects. Within a year, the company and the city had produced a 100-page master plan: The city would build roads, sewers, and other infrastructure for Heritage Park; McCormack-Baron would coordinate the building of 900 units of new housing. For its role in managing the project, McCormack-Baron was to be paid handsomely: $15,000 to $30,000 a month, depending on what phase the project was in.

McCormack-Baron quickly drew fire by taking on a politically connected local partner. Legacy Management and Development Corp. is currently owned by Archie Givens Jr.; his sister, Roxanne Givens, is the firm's former CEO. One of the first contracts awarded by McCormack-Baron went to a company owned by Roxanne Givens' husband, Richard Copeland. (See "Erector Set," September 26, 2001.) The Givens siblings and Copeland had been frequent and generous donors to the campaigns of former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Sayles Belton's friend and close ally, former city council president Jackie Cherryhomes. As the council member for the Fifth Ward, where Heritage Park is located, Cherryhomes chaired the city's Hollman implementation committee and was involved with virtually every aspect of the project. She and Sayles Belton were both defeated at the polls last year.

Meanwhile, the first apartments were being built at Heritage Park. "In order to meet the [court's] timeline for the production of the rental units, we needed to focus on the rental phase," explains interim MCDA director Chuck Lutz. "So we put a lot of effort into speeding up that phase."

At the same time, it became apparent that McCormack-Baron had stalled on the portion of the redevelopment that would consist of for-sale market-rate and affordable houses. "When no progress was made, MCDA stepped in and took it back," says Lutz. Neither he nor anyone else interviewed for this story could explain why no one involved foresaw this possibility when McCormack-Baron was awarded the master contract more than three years ago.

In any case, Habitat for Humanity ended up stalled as well, as the MCDA went back to the drawing board. Right now the agency is soliciting bids from developers interested in working on the first for-sale housing portion of the project. Bids are due by mid-December, and it's hoped there will be a contract by late January or early February. "Once we know the developer," explains MCDA's Cherre Palenius, "then we can start major negotiations on what's being built and who's going where"--which houses are market-rate and which are affordable. If all goes "extremely well," she adds, construction might start in April or May.

All of which raises the question: Even given his reported state of righteous indignation, just how much can the mayor do to move this process along? Two weeks ago Rybak met again with Habitat's Seidel and with MCDA staff to talk about guaranteeing the volunteers something to build come spring, according to mayoral spokeswoman Laura Sether. If the MCDA cuts through its own red tape as quickly as promised, Habitat can count on building 16 to 20 houses next year.

But those unresolved details are legion. For starters, there isn't even a map of the for-sale housing portion of the new neighborhood, much less a firm idea. Nor is it clear whether the Habitat volunteers will build from the ground up or just do the finishing work on houses started by pros, Lutz adds. Indeed, Father O'Connell has heard that some the houses might not end up on the official map at all. "In the end, all 55 homes may not be built in Heritage Park," he says. "They may be built on vacant lots in north Minneapolis. And that's okay; they're all affordable houses."

For the moment, the volunteers have little choice but to assume that the new administration can make the trains run on time, Father O'Connell says. "We have to be grateful for what appears to be a major commitment," he concludes. "If it doesn't go right, this is going to be a really big story, really big and embarrassing. Nothing is going to get in our way, and if something does, there will be hell to pay."

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