Hit the Road, Juan

Given the boot: The city of Montgomery forced Maricruz Suarez and her family out of their apartment
Raoul Benavides

In November, Maricruz Suarez moved into a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Montgomery with her husband and three children. The residence was originally supposed to cost $500 a month, but because it was infested with cockroaches the landlord agreed to drop the rent to $450. The apartment had other significant problems, according to Suarez. There was no heat throughout the winter. Then when the snow finally melted earlier this year the whole building flooded.

But as wretched as the family's living conditions were, they've recently taken a turn for the worse. On June 1, the city of Montgomery, roughly an hour southwest of the Twin Cities, will become the new owner of Suarez's apartment building. The burgeoning town of about 3,000 people is also purchasing two other dilapidated apartment complexes in the downtown area by issuing up to $760,000 in municipal bonds. One of the conditions of the purchases is that the apartment residences must be vacant before the city takes over ownership. This means that roughly 100 people in 15 units are being displaced, almost all of them Latino. Never mind that the city has yet to determine exactly what to do with the buildings.

That's why on this Thursday afternoon in late March, Suarez is preparing to move in with a friend. That way she can save money and search for a new apartment. In two days her family of five will be sharing a single bedroom in her friend's place.

Suarez is originally from the Mexican city of Aguas Calientes. She moved to Minnesota three years ago from Los Angeles because of the job prospects, but employment has proved elusive. She currently receives $532 a month through state welfare benefits. It's the family's only income.

"My husband is not working right now," she explains, seated in a conference room at the Catholic Charities' office in Montgomery. A toddler in a baby seat sleeps at Suarez's feet, while a slightly older daughter claws at her knee. "He works regular jobs," Suarez says of her husband, "but right now he doesn't have one."

Not surprisingly, her prospects for landing a new residence are slim. Suarez tried to get a slot at a nearby trailer park, but was rebuffed because of insufficient income. She's got a line on a two-bedroom apartment in nearby Le Sueur that might be affordable.

The plan to sell the three apartment buildings and evict the tenants is the most visible example of a social rift roiling Montgomery. It has long been a farm town populated primarily by people of Czech ancestry, but in the last decade or so many Latinos have become permanent residents. The primary draw is the Seneca Foods vegetable cannery: It employs up to 750 people during peak vegetable season in the summer and fall.

Hispanic residents and their allies in the community believe that the plan to shut down the apartment buildings is simply a racially motivated ploy to boot them from the city. "We have tried all channels," says Juan Medina, who moved into one of the ill-fated buildings just two months ago with his family, of efforts to stop the dislocation. "This is the answer we got: Latinos, get out of here."


Last month, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, which is representing 11 of the displaced families, sent a letter to Montgomery Mayor Mick McGuire laying out concerns about the city's actions. Attorney Michael Hagedorn argues that under state and federal law, Montgomery must pay relocation expenses for the impacted families because the city's actions led directly to their evictions. In addition, he cites concerns that the city is violating the federal Fair Housing Act by targeting Latino residents.

"We want to just sort of look and see what the rationale was that led up to targeting these three particular buildings," says Hagedorn. "It doesn't look very good to us right now and we want to know what the answers are."

In the letter, Hagedorn also highlights the recent case of Bound Brook, New Jersey. Last month the city settled a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice by agreeing to pay up to $425,000 in penalties and implementing a host of changes to municipal polices in order to make up for past discrimination against Latino residents.

Some people worry that Montgomery is engaging in a similar pattern of biased behavior--if not outright social engineering. Last year the town passed a loitering and curfew ordinance that many Latino residents felt led to police harassment. Currently city officials are considering implementing a rental code for the first time in Montgomery history. Most notably the proposed ordinance, modeled on measures drafted by Twin Cities suburbs, would limit the number of occupants per square foot permitted in a rental unit. Because many Latino residents live with extended families, they would likely be adversely affected. The measure is slated to come before the City Council within a month.

Hagedorn and others are watching the proposal closely. "To whom does it apply?" he wonders. "To what parts of the city does it apply? Is it being applied fairly and across the board?"

Naturally, city officials paint a very different picture of the events taking place in Montgomery. They feel that they're being unfairly attacked by, as Mayor McGuire puts it, "outside forces." He and others insist that the town's recent actions are part of a multi-year planning process designed to help Montgomery adjust to rapid demographic changes that are beyond the city's control. They note that the city has already issued 50 building permits this year--compared to an average of roughly five annually throughout the 1990s--and that the town's population is expected to nearly double by 2010.

"What happened is the Twin Cities just kept getting closer and closer, like a glacier, and all of a sudden the glacier melted and it turned into a tidal wave," says City Attorney Tim Warnemunde. "We don't necessarily want to become more cosmopolitan, but it's been foisted upon us and we either react or we don't."

A central part of Montgomery's reaction is redeveloping the downtown area, which was virtually abandoned in the past two decades as the town's population withered. City officials want the downtown to serve primarily as a commercial corridor and to reduce residential density. "It's not a case of discrimination," maintains city administrator Michael Martin. "It's a case of too many people in too little space."

That may be the case. But along with the discrimination controversy, the city's purchase of the three buildings has also raised conflict of interest charges. Two of the apartment complexes are currently owned by Roger Heyda, a member of Montgomery's Economic Development Authority. Although merely an advisory board, the panel recommended that the city move forward on the purchase.

Martin insists the city's on solid ethical ground. "[Heyda] has abstained from every vote regarding this and the discussions," he says. "It's a small town. We gotta take who we can get to serve on some of these boards."

But Montgomery's not as small as it used to be, and it's clear some new residents are finding their neighbors less than welcoming.

Juan Medina moved to Montgomery from Arkansas with his wife and daughter two months ago to become pastor of the Faribault Church of God, a Pentecostal Spanish-language church. He says that five families from his church have been displaced by Montgomery's redevelopment plans. Medina is now looking for housing in Faribault, which he's found to be more hospitable to Latinos.

Medina's experience in Montgomery has left him disgusted. "Is this Montgomery, Minnesota, or Montgomery, Alabama?" he asks. "I think I'm in 1961 in Alabama. It's a shame that we don't have Martin Luther King anymore."

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