The fight over the Minneapolis housing project that sits on gold

Glendale residents are tired of dealing with frigid units, ignored maintenance requests, and "mice piss."

Glendale residents are tired of dealing with frigid units, ignored maintenance requests, and "mice piss."

On a January afternoon, the Luxton Park Recreation Center reverberates with the footsteps of children just released from school. The staccato slap of basketballs in the gymnasium reaches through the walls of a meeting room above.

There, a hodgepodge band of residents from the adjacent Glendale housing projects sit opposite their landlords: three executives from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. They're all a little tired and tense in the jaw.

Michelle Montbriand crosses her arms as she peers down the bridge of her nose at the execs.

"I don't even know where to start," she says with a deep sigh. "I have so many things going through my head right now. I'm just... I'm just.... Bear with me. I'm being really nice. I'm not gonna yell, or holler, or anything else."

Montbriand was a cook and single mom never able to afford her own place until Glendale offered her a one-bedroom townhouse 14 years ago. When arthritis forced her into early retirement, her job became raising grandchildren while their parents worked. She climbs to her feet and lifts a plastic bucket from under the table.

"You have stopped bringing in people to bait for mice and roaches," Montbriand declares in the slow, over-restrained tone of one trying to suppress more volatile emotions. "In my pantry, I would like everyone to see here, we have mice piss."

James Young, originally from north Philadelphia, has been a Glendale tenant for 14 years.

James Young, originally from north Philadelphia, has been a Glendale tenant for 14 years.

She cracks the lid of the bucket. A nostril-searing stench invades the room. Inside is a pile of tattered index cards, stained with yellowish blots.

"These are all my recipes that they have shredded. Shred-ded."

Alarm crosses housing manager Mary Boler's face. She raises a hand to her nose. "Michelle, this is horrible, I agree," she tries to interject.

"Hold on," Montbriand persists. "I have been going through this since 2014. I have complained. I have put in work orders. I sweep. I take out all this and wipe it off. And I should not have to go through this."

"I agree, I agree," Boler echoes. "Can I say something?"

"No. I'm not done." Montbriand holds the bucket across the table like an offering. "Because that's what I found in my pantry. Smell it. Take it out."

Boler recoils, murmuring that she can smell fine from her seat.

Montbriand's frustration was built from years of living with relentless infestation. There are feces in her pantry, in her food, in her drawers where she keeps the coloring books and crafts of her grandchildren. Her cupboards are a crosshatch of pulp from the rodents' constant chewing.

It used to be that the housing authority would deploy workers to spray for cockroaches and bait for mice every six months. Even if homes were pest-free, workers sprayed proactively.

But they haven't been around for about four years now, Montbriand says. These days, maintenance staff rations her strips of cardboard slathered with glue, which she folds into mouse traps to line the kitchen walls. The traps look like they came from a dollar store. They don't work.

For families in Glendale's sprawling 15 acres, there is a shared sense that the housing authority's increasing indifference is leading to wholesale deterioration of the neighborhood. Their 184 townhomes share patterns of decay: mold in the bathrooms, blinds that are falling apart, holes in the walls and cracks in the doors, stoves that leak gas, and basements prone to flooding.

Everything seems broken at Glendale. It's almost as if the housing authority is purposely letting the place go.

"If you were a private landlord, and you were getting a complaint of water coming into the building, you would get fined so fast by the city," says state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who lives a block away.

"And the plot," she accuses housing officials, "is that the decay of Glendale has been due to the neglect, so that you could make a stronger argument for tearing it down."

An island in a storm of change

Glendale Townhomes is Minneapolis' oldest public housing complex, the only one reserved for families. It is burrowed in Prospect Park, a high-end neighborhood in southeast Minneapolis that stretches between the University of Minnesota and St. Paul.

James Young, originally from north Philadelphia, has been a Glendale tenant for 14 years.

James Young, originally from north Philadelphia, has been a Glendale tenant for 14 years.

In 1952, when Glendale was built with the blessing of the wealthy homeowners associations, architects made a special effort to depart from the claustrophobic, cellblock tenements of the past. Each of its 28 structures is a stand of eight little townhomes with their own stoops, yards, and basements.

The first to arrive were G.I.s starting families. Then came black families migrating from the South during the Civil Rights Era. In the 1970s, America's Hmong and Lao allies in the Vietnam War sought refuge here, fleeing communist persecution back home. Somalis escaping civil war joined the mix in the 1990s, followed by the Oromo's flight from systematic murder by the Ethiopian government.

Today, there are nearly 600 people living in Glendale, half of them kids.

With each successive generation, Glendale's affordable and peaceable environment gave new Americans a leg up. Today, its corridors are filled with the chatter of at least five different languages. It's a rainbow colony of immigrant families who walk their children together to nearby Pratt Elementary.

But this serendipitous arrangement may soon end. When the Green Line arrived in Prospect Park two years ago, it came with the promise of a reinvigorated University Avenue. As the skyline clutters with luxury student condos, private developers have pledged a billion dollars to transform 100 acres of industrial wasteland nearby into a garbage-powered utopia, replete with urban farming, high-density housing, and retail centers with the potential to create 7,000 new jobs.

In this midst of this renaissance, the land on which Glendale sits has become gold.

In 2013, the Minneapolis Housing Authority broached the idea of demolition. It was armed with a study by the university, which showed it possible to increase Glendale's density six-fold by converting it into a glossy, 21st-century mid-rise apartment complex that could attract wealthy renters.

Glendale currently houses about 600 low-income people, many of whom are kids attending Pratt Elementary School.

Glendale currently houses about 600 low-income people, many of whom are kids attending Pratt Elementary School.

Glendale wasn't getting any younger, execs argued. And they couldn't maintain it at a respectful level for much longer.

Nor could the authority afford to redevelop Glendale on its own. It would need to sell the project to private interests while striking a deal to preserve the same number of low-income units.

Yet there were no assurances that the people now living there would be allowed to return once the dust settled. 

"We see that if Glendale goes, it will change our community dramatically," says Joe Ring, a Prospect Park resident since 1976 who works for the neighborhood association's historic preservation committee. "They have a large presence in our community school. They bring balance and create a point of awareness of other people in the world, and other economic backgrounds. It's a wonderful thing to be able to have that racial, religious, economic mix, and Glendale has proven to be a very, very successful undertaking."

A blindside hit

Ladan Yusuf is hard to miss. The diminutive single mother is known as a force for unifying Glendale's Babel of residents. In crowded gatherings in Luxton Park, she relays the Housing Authority's plans in Oromo, English, and Somali. When the Hmong aunties drop in, she slows her lightning cadence to help them understand.

Half her work is listening, collecting a mental tally of the difficulties in residents' lives. Every winter since 2010, when the housing authority fixed thermostats so that they can't be turned above 72 degrees, tenants have been freezing. They swaddle themselves in comforters at the dinner table. Their children catch colds shivering in frosty bedrooms that never seem to fill with warmth.

Calls for maintenance often end with curt confirmation: Because the thermostats indisputably read 72, residents are probably just too sensitive to Minnesota's winters.

The first families to settle in Glendale were G.I.s. Then came African American migrant workers from the South, followed by Southeast Asian and East African refugees.

The first families to settle in Glendale were G.I.s. Then came African American migrant workers from the South, followed by Southeast Asian and East African refugees.

The real problem is insulation. Tenants use duct tape in place of broken weather stripping and to seal antiquated peepholes in their doors. Many use space heaters, paying a surcharge for the extra electricity usage.

Last winter, university researchers collected data from two units over a two-week period. One home averaged 65 degrees, the other 59.

The family in the latter unit kept open pots of water boiling on the stove in order to keep warm. When temps dipped below freezing, the children were sent to stay with relatives.

City law says landlords must keep apartments above 68 degrees in the winter. The city, however, has no jurisdiction over the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.

Yusuf takes these stories personally. She's among the leaders of Defend Glendale, a residents group organized against the redevelopment. An unexpected tenacity in dealing with their landlords has marked her as a first-rate nuisance in their eyes.

The dislike is mutual. Yusuf regards the housing authority as a shroud of stunts and schemes, bent on selling out Glendale for profit. She points to a contract with the development firm Sherman Associates to underwrite Glendale's demolition. Housing board chair F. Clayton Tyler is married to Sherman lobbyist Jackie Cherryhomes.

The roots of distrust run deep. In the spring of 2014, Yusuf was working as an advocate for Somali students in Minneapolis Public Schools, helping them enroll in advanced courses and ask for support from teachers. She was blissfully detached from Glendale politics.

While the housing authority wants to redevelop Glendale to preserve it for the future, there is no promise that all the current tenants would get to stay.

While the housing authority wants to redevelop Glendale to preserve it for the future, there is no promise that all the current tenants would get to stay.

While canvassing with an armful of flyers in Prospect Park one day, she was drawn into conversation with a woman who'd heard about the proposal to demolish Glendale. They're going to tear it down and build new homes, the woman said. They won't say where they're taking the people.

Yusuf was dumbfounded, certain that nobody at Glendale had heard.

The housing authority's Carlson denies leaving residents in the dark. In 2013, when he initially brought the idea of redevelopment to the Prospect Park Association, representatives from the townhomes were present as well.

At the time, Glendale had an active resident council, funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to encourage tenant engagement. The then-president of the council supported the plan, Carlson says. It was his responsibility to share this knowledge with neighbors.

But the council dissolved, Carlson says. The lapse contributed to misunderstandings.

Ring remembers it differently. He believes that the council president was evicted before redevelopment talks began. "It would be very safe to say that it was pretty much a shock for Glendale. They got blindsided, in my opinion."

Roosevelt's grace is dead

The idea was to sell Glendale through a polarizing federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration.

Since the 1970s, HUD has nervously watched Congressional funding for public housing decline. The big thinking and big spending on social welfare sparked by Franklin Roosevelt had all but vanished by the 1990s.

Housing projects across the country began to crumble. Minneapolis felt the strain. In 2014, the housing authority hired Miller Hanson Partners as a building inspection consultant, to check Glendale's physical health. Miller Hanson came back with bleak news: The townhomes faced a grim $15 million in needed repairs. Boilers need to be replaced, pipes mended, antiquated ventilation systems exhumed.

The tab could grow to $27 million over 20 years if the problems weren't addressed.

At the same time, Minneapolis' allowance from the feds has stagnated at about $10 million, spread across an aging stock of 42 high rises and 753 scattered sites. That's left a roughly $100 million shortfall for adequate upkeep.

Flirting with privatization was a difficult, desperate decision, says project manager Tim Gaetz. But it comes with the encouragement of HUD.

The plan called for private developers to raze the 184 townhomes and construct up to 550 new apartments. A number of units would be reserved for tenants with Section 8 low-income vouchers.

Section 8 residents pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, the same as public housing. But instead of families all of the same economic stripe, these apartments would be filled with tenants across a spectrum of wealth.

Glendale was especially ripe for sale because its repairs are the costliest, Gaetz says. And because of its low density, it's the only site with the potential to expand the number of affordable units — giving more families on Minneapolis' 6,000-strong waiting list a better shot at a home.

In April 2015, the housing authority tried to make its case before an audience of residents. Their reaction was emphatic revulsion. Redevelopment meant that residents would have to vacate.

The authority offered them Section 8 vouchers to seek places elsewhere during construction. Residents countered that few Minneapolis landlords accept Section 8. Once displaced from Glendale, they would be forced to far-flung suburbs, leagues away from jobs and their children's schools.

Convinced the housing authority had not fully considered this disruption, Councilman Cam Gordon, whose ward includes Glendale, pushed to place a one-year moratorium on the idea.

Residents had made themselves clear.

A vain exercise in noncooperation

Cowed, the housing authority scrapped its plans and returned in January with four new options. Three envisioned the transformation of the townhomes into dense, mixed-income housing. A final one spared the bulldozers by repairing the homes.

None included a sale to private developers, the housing authority insisted. Construction would be done in phases so residents could stay onsite. Rents would remain the same.

In theory, much of the funding would come from low-income housing tax credits. By investing in Glendale, companies like US Bank could earn tax deductions. Glendale would remain publicly owned, Boyd promised.

"The tax credits would go to an investor. That has nothing to do with ownership," he said.

But there's more public money available for new buildings than there is for rehab, making this plan the most expensive.

"It may be the most comfortable option for the people who are currently living there," Boyd says, "but we've had people live there since 1952, thousands of people who have cycled through. I can appreciate that Glendale residents are looking at their most immediate need, but the agency has a responsibility to make sure there's subsidized housing for families well into the future."

The housing authority asked Yusuf and Montbriand to coordinate information sessions at Luxton Park. It turned out to be a vain exercise in noncooperation.

Yusuf and Montbriand laid out a list of urgent maintenance needs — things they'd repeated ad nauseum for two years. They were not interested in discussing grand visions while so little was being done to alleviate residents' mounting discomfort.

Yusuf translated for Said Ali as he described the exposed circuitry peeking out of a broken electrical socket in his townhouse. It isn't safe for his children, Ali said. That hole in the wall was there when he moved in, six years ago, and maintenance hasn't done anything about it.

The other night, there was no heat, Ali went on. The furnace hummed for only a few minutes. The heat never reaches up the stairs. The vents kick out a stale, dusty odor. His six-year-old autistic son has pneumonia.

Montbriand spoke of an ominous column of heat running from floor to ceiling above her furnace, which forbade her from touching the wall.

Boler instantly piped up. "Oh Michelle, that was your unit?" she asked, wide-eyed. "I didn't realize you were talking about your unit." Boler promised to personally ensure that someone was sent to take care of it.

She had no promises of instant maintenance for Ali. The significance wasn't lost on the Glendale side. Montbriand is a confrontational white woman. Ali is Somali and communicates in halting sentences that must be translated.

While residents railed on about neglect, accusing the authority of exploiting east African residents by telling them that they needed to pay for lightbulbs and paint jobs that the white residents received for free, housing executives sent Gordon sidelong glances that seemed to say: Do you see now how difficult they are?

Nothing was accomplished.

"We had ensured that there would be public ownership. We had ensured that there would be no relocation off-site. We had ensured that MPHA would manage," Boyd later reflected. "It seemed to me that we addressed virtually all the concerns except one, and that was there was an increase in density in three of the four options. At least a couple folks from the Glendale side said we don't wanna consider higher density, we just want rehab, and that's all we want."

Nor is there some plot to line the purse of Sherman Associates, Boyd insists. HUD spokeswoman Gina Rodriguez confirms that the contracts are above-board because they weren't funded by public-housing dollars.

"There's nothing shady about this at all," Boyd says.

Life isn't always grander in Chaska

Key to Glendale's distrust: Residents don't believe the agency will follow through on promises laid out in a bullet-point PowerPoint presentation.

They requested financial details in January. Five months later, after assurances that the reports will be done one week, then the next, the housing authority had nothing to show.

Without protections written in stone, residents believe there's always a chance they'll be jettisoned. That's what happened at Heritage Park.

In 1992, the NAACP and 14 families sued the housing authority, accusing it of perpetuating segregation. Prevailing wisdom of the era said that concentrated poverty trapped the poor in a mindset where they could never succeed. The housing authority eventually agreed to break up Heritage, a project in north Minneapolis, and sprinkle low-income families around more evenly, including sending some to the suburbs.

The housing authority would go on to demolish the Sumner Field, Glenwood, Lyndale, and Olson projects, a total of 770 units. Families were given Section 8 vouchers.

In 1997, Ethrophic Burnett was 26 years old, recently evicted from the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago when the two-mile constellation of 28 high rises was demolished to rubble. She evacuated to Minneapolis.

The single mother discovered the leap from poverty wasn't easy. She was unable to afford rent here, so she applied for a home at Heritage. After years on the waiting list, she was approved just as Heritage was about to be demolished. The housing authority offered her a place in Chaska instead.

The mayor sent a welcoming committee. Burnett and her children were among the first African American families to settle in Chaska. Her son was thought to be the first black baby delivered at Ridgeview Medical Center.

For the next year, the family couch-surfed with friends and family in the city during the week, then returned to Chaska on weekends. Burnett's eldest daughter still attended school in Minneapolis. Burnett couldn't afford the gas for the daily drive to her job at Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit that reconstructs foreclosed and condemned properties. Their church and their community remained in north Minneapolis.

They stayed in Chaska for 12 years, proof that planting poor people of color in white, affluent suburbs could actually increase their burden.

"They tried to say we did good by living in an all-white neighborhood, but they don't understand the struggle that I went through," she reflects.

For years Burnett yearned for a return to Minneapolis. When reconstruction was completed at Heritage, transforming it into a modern, open-air neighborhood of duplexes, townhomes, and garden apartments, she asked to transfer back to the city. The housing agency declined. Burnett already had a stable apartment that suited her fine.

Eventually, she saved up enough money to buy a house in north Minneapolis.

"You're put in this place you know nothing about. You know nothing about the school system. You know nothing about the transportation system. You know nothing about the community. The food and the culture's totally different. I was constantly being pulled over. If something came up at school my daughter's locker was always the first locker they searched. I went through all that. I look at it as just life."

Needy v. greedy

On March 30, residents protested in City Hall, chanting "Glendale is for the needy, not for the greedy." They marched into the council chambers to speak their piece.

Across the street, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was announcing that he would not press charges in the Jamar Clark case. Protests followed the remainder of the day. Glendale was drowned out.

Rep. Kahn and her counterpart in the Senate, Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Minneapolis), introduced a bill to allocate a $5 million slice of Minnesota's surplus for Glendale repairs. Like a lot of other bills, it did not budge.

In June, after months of silence, the housing authority finally produced details on its four options for renovating Glendale. Funding would come from low income housing tax credits and the conversion of Glendale's 184 public housing units to Section 8, which comes with larger subsidies from the feds. Also built would be hundreds of new market-rate apartments, rented at a steep $1,500 a month to bring fresh revenue to the entire complex.

The plans are a long shot. The Minneapolis housing authority has never tried to own and manage a mixture of Section 8 and market-rate apartments before, and examples from elsewhere in the country are extremely rare.

Glendale would also have to be accepted into an experimental HUD program that converts public housing to Section 8. The program is competitive, and Glendale would need to prove it could attract wealthy enough renters to subsidize the rest.

If tax credits are used to raise construction money, that means private, for-profit investors will own most of Glendale, says Jack Caan of the Housing Justice Center. The housing authority could still maintain control, but this might not be enough to appease residents, whose misgivings bubble readily.

"I know that Glendale residents are concerned about privatization," Caan says. "But it could be a virtually meaningless change, because if you have the same entity controlling the building and managing the units, what's the difference?"

Still, breaking ground could take years. Nothing is certain.

Meanwhile, living conditions continue to worsen, though the dilapidation isn't so obvious now that it's summer. At the height of Ramadan in mid-June, the river of life flowing through the neighborhood slowed to a reflective trickle.

The threat of redevelopment still lingers in Said Ali's mind. Glendale's rolling green laws gleam under the late afternoon sun. This is what he likes, having a house on the ground and a porch where he can greet his neighbors.

Ali has lived in public high rises before, with neighbors he never saw, only heard, throwing parties behind closed doors. His worst memories are of the nights when unexplained alarms would wake the children. Everyone would pour down emergency stairs because the elevators were closed, only to stand outside until they were told to go back.

There were people who drank a lot, strangers who lurked outside. It's not a safe environment for kids, Ali says. For his autistic son, cramped spaces are torture, not like the spacious townhomes of Glendale.

"Here, the families support each other and they're here for each other," Ali says.

Those with cars help those without run errands and buy groceries. Parents who work find willing babysitters across the street. "We want them to repair our homes, and that's all we want them to do."