House of Hollman

CARMEN BROWN NOTICED the yellow "No Trespassing" signs tacked onto the buildings across the street right as she moved into her four-bedroom townhouse off Olson Highway in North Minneapolis. Did that mean, she asked the manager from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, that she'd have to move? No, she was assured--those signs were just for the Sumner Field complex slated to be demolished under the Hollman lawsuit.

Four months later, Brown got a letter from the MPHA telling her to move. Her place, and Olson Townhomes' 65 other units, were also coming down. She was promised relocation assistance, but so far, nothing's materialized.

Now, Brown's counting the days until the deadline--MPHA officials say there is none, but she says she's been told Aug. 2--and slapping roaches. Ever since she moved in, she says, she's complained of everything from a bad furnace to torn screens--plus the bugs, which at times crawled over the food in her oven. "They said, 'Why don't you take it out when it's done?'" she growls. "I said, 'No, this is while it's cooking.'"

Those are pretty much the same complaints that in 1993 prompted a group of tenants from Sumner, Olson, and the adjacent Glenwood and Lyndale townhomes to sue the MPHA. They claimed that Minneapolis had jammed most of its public housing into the Near North Side, then left it to deteriorate. Before the case went to trial, Legal Aid negotiated a settlement with the MPHA and other government entities. Under it, tenants would get better housing, Near North would get development, and the Twin Cities would become less segregated.

At least that's what they said. Reality, so far, has yielded little but the displacement of hundreds of low-income families into one of the country's tightest rental markets. Along the way Hollman has turned into shorthand for a host of initiatives limiting low-income housing in poor neighborhoods; the promised flip side--more such housing in wealthier areas--has been slow in coming. Almost a year after the MPHA emptied Sumner Field's 350 units, only 16 replacements are currently being built. MPHA Special Projects Coordinator Chuck Lutz says 160 more are "in the pipeline," but that's far short of the 770 units the MPHA wants to tear down.

Nothing in the court decree forces the MPHA to demolish all those units; except for Sumner Field, they are eligible for rehab. But Lutz says that would be going against the community's wishes as expressed in a series of MPHA focus-group meetings; besides, soils on the sites are bad. Yet, notes Kirk Hill of the Minnesota Tenants Union, the MPHA's own studies show that only some buildings have soil problems. Many could be fixed to go another 30-plus years for less than the cost of rebuilding.

Documents the MPHA submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that the agency plans to replace only half of the units with new homes or apartments; the rest, it says, will be taken care of with Section 8 certificates, through which the federal government pays private landlords a rent subsidy. But tenants are already having trouble getting landlords to accept the certificates. Even the MPHA has acknowledged that as a result of Section 8 deregulation, "very few [public-housing families] have been able to use their mobility certificates."

Still, Hollman's scope continues to expand. The MPHA has added a number of "scattered-site" units in Near North to the demolition roster, as well as the nearby Bryant Towers. More recently, the Legislature allowed the MPHA to create a tax-increment financing district including the Sumner-Olson-Glenwood-Lyndale tract. Inside the district, values of condemned properties, both public and private, could be drastically lowered, allowing the city to borrow against taxes from future developments. The legislation is vague enough to include parcels anywhere in the city. Lutz estimates the district could raise between $3 million and $6 million in development subsidies.

All of which, Brown says, leaves her in a lurch. At least, she says, the MPHA has been picking up the trash around her house since a TV reporter started calling a few weeks ago. But they haven't told her where she's moving. "Until this all happened, I never heard of Hollman," she says. "To me it's unbelievable what they're doing."

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