When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

Originally published in CityLab on June 21, 2018.
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In late April, some residents of Normandale Lake Estates, an apartment complex in Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, received a letter informing them that their leases were being terminated and they’d have to move out by June 1. New owners had recently bought the building and planned to upgrade the units. Existing tenants were told they could prequalify to return, but many suspect the new rents will be higher than they can afford. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to find new places to live.

For some of the displaced Bloomington renters, this isn’t the first time they’ve been forced out of their homes. A little over two years ago, in the nearby suburb of Richfield, new owners purchased an apartment complex called Crossroads at Penn. They renamed it Concierge, renovated the units, and priced out hundreds of families. Some of those Crossroads tenants, like Lisa Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher for herself and her two grandchildren, and Linda Soderstrom, also on federal housing subsidy, moved from Richfield to the Normandale Lake Estates. Now they’ve been pushed out once more.

“The lack of humanity is deep,” Soderstrom told The Star-Tribune. “It’s really deep.”

After the Crossroads takeover in late 2015, housing activists and community groups across the metropolitan region began meeting regularly to strategize how they could confront the challenges of rising rents and displacement. Soon the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition was born—comprised of nearly two dozen community and faith-based groups. Their mission centered on the “the three P’s”—preservation of affordable housing, production of affordable housing, and protection of tenants.

Much of the attention around affordable housing in the U.S. has tended to focus on cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle—densely built urban areas where land for new housing is in short supply. But most Americans live in suburbs, many of which are seeing rapidly increasing poverty and racial diversityHere, the need for affordable housing can be just as acute, but the dynamics of the issue are distinct from the urban version—and, often, more complex.

On the outskirts of the Twin Cities, the housing crisis includes some familiar ingredients—anxieties about race and poverty, debates about density and “neighborhood character.” But here there are also deep divisions between various pro-housing advocacy organizations, as well as big differences between suburbs, depending on their relative affluence.

Hope Melton, a retired urban planner, has lived in the wealthy suburb of Edina for nearly 40 years. Last fall, she invited some neighbors to meet in her living room, to kickstart a conversation about steep local housing prices. They’ve been meeting and growing their group ever since.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the affordable housing crisis was mainly hitting poor people,” Melton told CityLab. “Now it’s affecting a much wider swath of people. We’ve really been attracting a lot of seniors in Edina, the older generation is really stepping up.”

Although the Twin Cities have historically been one of the nation’s most affordable places to live, the region has a markedly low rental vacancy rate, meaning there’s high demand for new units and steady pressure on rents. Activists fear that “flipping” affordable units into luxury market-rate apartments will become increasingly common prospects for investors, especially those from out-of-state.

Anne Mavity, the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, says the region is not building new affordable units at the rate at which presently affordable units are disappearing. Market-rate units that were constructed 35 years ago are generally reasonably priced today simply because they’re and older and not fancy. The term-of-art for these types of units is “NOAH” or “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

“We’re losing NOAH at a rapid pace,” Mavity said. “And every time a sale happens, the price of the unit is going to go up, the rents will go up. We are increasingly attractive to national investors, and that is not good for our residents.”

To combat some of these trends, the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition has been organizing around several key policy areas, namely to add new affordable housing stock, and help tenants fight displacement. In March, for example, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring new property owners to give low-income tenants 90 days notice to find a new place to live if they’re being priced out, and to pay for tenants’ moving expenses. A similar rule was just introduced to the Bloomington City Council this month, according to the city’s program manager, Bryan Hartman.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of the African Career Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), a group focused on organizing the African immigrant community in Minnesota and a member of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, says they’ve been pushing municipal leaders to no longer “view the landlord as the only stakeholder” in their cities. In her suburb of Brooklyn Park, activists recently succeeded in getting rental affordability requirements included in new multi-family housing developments.

Sitati-Munene says organizing around suburban governments has been both a challenge and opportunity. “The reality is this affordable housing crisis is a new phenomenon for a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of suburban city councilmembers are part-time. A lot of leaders have been really surprised to learn what’s going on, to hear people’s personal stories.”

Still, the fundamental tensions associated with affordable housing debates in other parts of the country persist here: Many suburbanites are vehemently opposed to changes in local development patterns, especially when the word “density” comes up.

“That’s a very polarizing issue,” said Ricardo Perez, a community developer at the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County, when I asked him about increasing housing density as a strategy to boost affordability. “I personally leave it to the policy experts to have those conversations amongst themselves. My main focus is on community and to serve those families who are being affected directly by these issues.”

Aaron Berc, a housing organizer with Jewish Community Action and another Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition leader, was similarly noncommittal on the question of density. “We’re not going to support a project because it’s dense. We’ll support a dense project because it’s affordable,” he said. “Certainly we need more housing—our city needs to go grow. But I would say we need housing that is affordable for the community more than we need more housing.”

These questions around development and density are hardly theoretical abstractions. In March, the city of Minneapolis released a draft comprehensive plan which included a new proposal to upzone neighborhoods so that single-family-homes could be more easily converted into fourplexes, an idea with the strong backing of Minneapolis’s new mayor, Jacob Frey. “Affordable housing is a right,” he tweeted in March. “Addressing our supply—and shortage—is going to be a key part of realizing that right.”

Some groups, like the Defend Glendale Public Housing Coalition, have already come out in strong opposition to the fourplex idea; they argue that relying on market-based solutions will inevitably make things worse for low-income people and increase displacement. The city is accepting public comment on the draft proposal through the end of July.

In Edina, efforts to add more housing have also met stiff resistance. The City Council recently rejected a proposal for a new seven-story building, which would have included 20 percent of its 135 units as affordable. In October the Edina City Council rejected another proposed high-rise condo buildingthis one of 173 new units, with twenty percent of them designated as affordable.

There’s no doubt that height and density are the two issues that have focused people’s minds as we address development, redevelopment and affordable housing,” says Melton. “How would I characterize the conversation? Chaotic, emotional, uninformed.”

The dynamics get more complicated, Melton says, as residents wrestle with complex issues of race and class through the politics of Midwestern cultural norms. “‘Minnesota Nice’ plays into this very much,” she said. “People don’t raise their voice, nobody wants to talk about race, nobody wants to talk about their responsibility historically for what’s happened to people that they don’t want to have in their community.”

Instead, Melton says, her neighbors will “say they don’t want ‘urban’ things, that they don’t want all the noise and diversity and crowding and traffic and all that,” she says. “Those things they regard as negative, and they moved to Edina to escape it.”

Bruce McCarthy, the president of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association in Edina, has said he is “very pro-development” but that “we just want to see it a certain kind of way.” He’s urged his city council to focus on its new comprehensive plan before it approves any new project that requires amending building size requirements.

Yet even among housing activists who might otherwise be on the same side, the issue of racial integration and fair housing can be charged. In 2014, two of the Twin City’s most racially diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, filed a federal fair housing complaint against the state, alleging that policymakers had illegally concentrated subsidized housing and poverty in their cities, in defiance of a state law that requires affluent communities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The re-adoption of a “fair system” is a way of ensuring that more subsidized units end up in higher-income areas. The Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), a faith-based housing organization, partnered with the cities on the complaint.

Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of MICAH, says the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency charged with enforcing the “fair share” law (among many other municipal duties) has been resistant to their complaint, though HUD is continuing to investigate their grievances.

“We’re not saying anyone needs to move or be forced to move, but we’re saying we want to make sure if you want to move out to another place, you should have affordable housing and opportunity in every community,” she said. “We went from being one of the most integrated metros in the country to one of the most segregated, and a lot of it was because we have designated our resources and policies so housing could only be developed in certain areas.”

But Sitati-Munene of Brooklyn Park’s ACER opposes the fair housing complaint: Her group insists that the working-class suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center need much more subsidized housing construction, not less.

Despite disagreements over strategy, placement, and scale, the fact that groups in in the Twin Cities metro are even wrestling with these issues puts them ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to organizing the suburbs. And activists acknowledge that the housing issues they’re confronting are not unique to their region.

“After the foreclosure crisis people lost their homes and more people have started to rent,” says Sitati-Munene“Rental markets are flooded, and prices are going up. If other suburbs aren’t dealing with affordable housing issues now, it’s coming.”

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