Playing Dead

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

Thursday night, the Minneapolis Urban League's headquarters was home to a special screening of Moving History 2: Breaking New Ground. A rapt audience sat through the 20-minute video documenting the history of a decade-old lawsuit over segregated housing on the north side, just a few blocks away.

The point was to provide background on Hollman vs. Cisneros, the landmark class-action suit filed in 1992 by the Minneapolis NAACP, Legal Aid Society, and public housing tenants against the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Named after tenant Lucy Hollman, the suit charged the city with creating a pocket of concentrated poverty.

In 1995, everyone involved agreed that the city of Minneapolis would replace the 770 housing units according to terms laid out in a court document known as the Hollman Decree. Some would be rebuilt on the same north Minneapolis site, while others would be scattered throughout the city and suburbs. HUD would help pay for the massive undertaking. Since then, the project has been marked by rumors of backroom deals, missed deadlines, and, until recently, precious little construction.

But none of this was evident in the upbeat video. When it was over, Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist and Hollman critic, quipped, "That looked like a cross between Birth of a Nation and The Wizard of Oz."

Skepticism continued throughout a post-screening Q&A, when Edwards, City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee, two city housing officials, and an attorney from the Legal Aid Society tried to make sense of what was supposed to be an update. Time and again, questions arose about why the new development on the site, Heritage Park, was behind schedule, whether the city was building enough units, and, ultimately, whether Minneapolis would finish the project.

Noticeably absent from the discussion, however, was anyone representing the NAACP. That's because two weeks earlier, Thomas J. White, the attorney representing the organization in the Hollman negotiations, asked to step down from the project. U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum signed off on White's motion, and the NAACP officially removed itself from the lawsuit.

In other words, the main watchdog in the Hollman consent decree slunk away after 11 years, tail between its legs, with little more than a whimper.

The decision angered many NAACP members, but surprised few. To them, it's just one more decision made by the organization's local and national executives without the consent of the rank and file. The housing lawsuit, along with another suit seeking better public schools for poor minorities, had long divided the Minneapolis chapter between an old guard with no desire to rattle the city's power structure and more activist members who felt that the organization had strayed from serving working-class minorities. The resulting class warfare had crippled the local NAACP.

In the last year, members of the NAACP's local chapter increasingly questioned the motives of their leaders. The executives responded by holding secret meetings, threatening to suspend members who talked to the media, and even expelling Ron Edwards, who once oversaw Hollman for the chapter. (See "The Classes and the Masses," 10/08/03.)

Last month, the NAACP's national office effectively took over the Minneapolis branch and cited the infighting as its reason for bailing on Hollman. "We feel it more important that the efforts of the plaintiffs, as well as the community at large, not be hindered by the ongoing distractions with the local branch," explained Dennis Courtland Hayes, general counsel for the national NAACP. "Internal matters should be resolved before the branch could be an effective voice in this case or other civil rights initiatives."

But many members say the local NAACP simply lacks any will to fight for civil rights issues at all, instead pandering to bourgeois blacks hoping to cozy up to city leadership. "These are people who did not move with the times," claims Larry Tucker, a disgruntled member. "These are not people who are stuck in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement. They are stuck in 1954, the pre-Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks days, when some blacks just wanted to overlord over the community, leaving the rest of us with no place to go."


The move comes at a crucial time. In September, the city announced that it would miss yet another deadline on Heritage Park, the controversial, more upscale development going up on the Hollman site, and that there is no money to build the last 38 units of low-income and public housing. The city wanted to go back to court to try to convince HUD to pony up another $7.5 million, claiming that the money HUD paid toward reconstruction wasn't enough because, among other reasons, it was pegged to projected construction costs in 1995.

Many observers doubt that HUD will fork over any more cash. (Another hearing is set for December 12.) And given how irritated Judge Rosenbaum has been with the city's past failure to simply build the homes, the NAACP had a lot of leverage over the city.

The latest estimates say the city may spend as much as $230 million in private and public money on the project, with $117 million coming from the federal government. Critics counter that too much money has been spent building market-rate houses at Heritage Park because the city wants to woo high-income buyers to the increasingly valuable land, while willfully ignoring poorer families in need of housing, including tenants from the original projects. Indeed, some 500 units have been built, but only 50 of 200 proposed low-income dwellings are done.

The original idea behind Hollman, though, was that financing for the project would finish the low-income housing first. And as plaintiffs, the NAACP and Legal Aid Society have been entitled to ask for fines against the city for any missed deadlines. But so far, it's never happened, and members like Larry Tucker say the NAACP won't hold the city accountable because the group has never understood its power. "The NAACP didn't know what to ask for," claims Tucker, who has been in real estate development for 30 years. "Nobody there understood anything about housing."

Legal Aid Society attorney Tim Thompson agrees with Tucker--to a point. "I don't think the NAACP's had any real oversight," Thompson concedes. "There have been varying levels of enthusiasm over Hollman." Thompson notes that Legal Aid is siding with the city in the current round of negotiations with HUD, arguing that while the project has been beleaguered, he wants to see it completed.

The city has until October 2004 to complete the rest of the low-income units. If that doesn't happen, he says, Legal Aid will seek financial compensation for the original plaintiffs. But because White's withdrawal means the end of the NAACP's ability to revisit the suit in any way, for this to happen, Legal Aid would have to take a far more aggressive role.

None of which pleases Tucker. Legal Aid was supposed to advocate on behalf of Hollman's Hmong and Asian tenants, he notes, while the NAACP was supposed to advocate for blacks. By walking away, the NAACP has made it clear where its interests lie. "This is another example of a civil rights group siding with the city," Tucker argues, "with no regard for African Americans."

Tucker and others believe the end result will be that the city will never fully replace the 770 homes demolished under the Hollman settlement. "They can make the case, for any number of reasons, that the replacement housing is not needed," Tucker concludes. "People have been hollering at the city on this, when they should have been hollering all along at the NAACP."


Suggestions, gripes, and tips should be sent to [email protected]

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