Jim Smith and Wendy Wiegmann, of Simpson Housing, have been thwarted in their efforts to build affordable housing
Michael Dvorak

Last spring Simpson Housing believed it had located an ideal spot for a new housing development serving poor, formerly homeless families. The lot was located in the 4100 block of Bloomington Avenue in south Minneapolis on a busy bus line. Partnering with two experienced nonprofit developers, West Bank Community Development Corporation and Community Development Housing Corporation, the organization made plans to build townhouses.

The nonprofit partners had a purchase agreement in place, but the deal was ultimately scuttled following an environmental assessment. The plot of land was determined to be a swampy bog, making construction prohibitively expensive.

Then early last fall Simpson Housing set its sights on an empty, triangular lot at the intersection of 42nd Street and Hiawatha Avenue that seemed suitable for the housing development. The two-acre patch of land, owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, was especially attractive because it is located right next to the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line, providing convenient access to jobs and shopping.

Since the land was seized through eminent domain, MnDOT can only sell it to another government entity. Last fall the transportation department agreed to a deal whereby the city of Minneapolis would serve as a pass-through agent to the nonprofit organizations.

The project appeared to clear a crucial hurdle in March when a report by the city's Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) department recommended that the nonprofit partners be granted exclusive development rights on the land. Simpson Housing believed that plans for a 16-to-20-unit townhouse development serving families who make no more than 30 percent of the metropolitan area's median income--roughly $23,000--were well on their way to becoming reality.

But after a couple of heated community meetings and weeks of fervent opposition from residents of the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood, that recommendation was nixed. Last week Simpson Housing and West Bank CDC (Community Development Housing Corporation is no longer affiliated with the project) were informed by CPED that they would not be granted exclusive development rights to the land.

Kevin Dockry, a project coordinator at CPED, says that the decision was made in recognition that the development did not have the support of the City Council. "Management has said that if we don't have the votes then we shouldn't go forward with what could be a contentious issue," notes Dockry.

This bureaucratic reversal effectively kills the proposed low-income housing project. The nonprofit partners had hoped to apply to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency for funds to back the development deal this year. But with that application process closing at the end of June, there is little chance that they will be able to do so.

City officials say that the parcel of land intended for the housing project will now likely be part of a larger study looking at development along the Hiawatha corridor and in the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood. There are several other plots of publicly owned, undeveloped land along the LRT line. "I think right now there's probably going to be some city effort to work with the neighborhood on a more broad basis, not a site-specific basis," says Dockry. Ultimately, a request for proposals from developers interested in the land at 42nd and Hiawatha will likely be issued. It's unlikely that many of the parties applying will have poor, formerly homeless families as their target market.


Supporters of the low-income housing project view the recent development as simply a means to placate neighbors. "It's hard not to think of this RFP as a smokescreen and the problem with smokescreens is you don't know what's behind them," says Tim Mungavan, executive director of West Bank CDC. "It's a poke in the eye to Simpson Housing."

The derailing of the Standish-Ericsson project is particularly galling for low-income housing advocates because of the city's shoddy track record in supporting such ventures. In 2001, a "City/County Task Force on Homeless Families" determined that there was a substantial shortage of supportive housing available for low-income families in the area. The panel set a goal of creating 665 units of supportive housing, affordable at 30 percent of the area's $78,000 median income, in Hennepin County by the end of 2005. But as of January, according to the Corporation for Supportive Housing, only 140 such units had either been built or were in the pipeline.

What's more, the recent spate of housing developments along the LRT line has largely ignored the needs of poor people. Of the 611 units of housing built along the suddenly valuable Hiawatha corridor between Lake and 50th streets in recent years, only 32 of them have been affordable for people who make 30 percent of the area median income.

"We talk a lot about affordable housing, but when the rubber hits the road, it doesn't happen," says Wendy Wiegmann, Simpson's family housing director. "It's basically up to the leaders to act with some integrity."

The primary stumbling block in getting the deal approved is a lack of support from Ward 12 City Council member Sandy Colvin Roy. She initially met with the project's supporters in October, but ultimately determined that the parcel of land should be subject to an open bidding process. "It shouldn't be the first person who comes through the door and asks gets it," Colvin Roy says. The ward leader also notes that she had concerns about the project from the outset because it was intended exclusively for poor families, rather than being a mixed-income development. "I asked them if they would consider another configuration and they weren't willing," she says.

The housing project has also failed to garner support from City Council member Lisa Goodman, who chairs the community development committee. Her concerns about the development are less clear, however: Goodman refused to comment on the record for this story.

Residents of the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood who oppose the project argue that Simpson Housing didn't make a good-faith effort to inform them of the proposed housing development. There have been four public meetings about the project, but resident Michael Moran says that the nonprofit developers failed to provide adequate notice of the gatherings. "The gut-level, visceral reaction of people was, 'You're trying to put something over on me,'" says Moran, who moved to the neighborhood seven months ago to be closer to his grandchildren after retiring from a job in southern California. "The perception was created that they were doing the minimum amount necessary to create the impression that the neighborhood had been informed."

Simpson officials believe such arguments are simply a red herring. "We've spent six months working on this and meeting with neighbors," notes Wiegmann. "For what? It has totally to do with neighbors opposing this." She is also bewildered by Colvin Roy's recent insistence that the parcel of land be subjected to an open bidding process. "If she wanted an RFP for the project, we wish she would have mentioned that in October," Wiegmann says.

The nonprofit developers are now seeking to meet with city officials in hopes of getting the project back on track. But they've also spoken with an attorney and are contemplating suing the city. "We do think that it's a violation of fair housing laws," says Mungavan. "But Simpson Housing wants to be providing housing, not suing people."

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