Controversy surrounds housing project

by Max Rust

Hoping to spotlight what they consider to be faulty housing policies, 20 people demonstrated Wednesday in front of a condemned building on Minneapolis’ south side.
The group, mostly area landlords and housing-rights activists, were trying to prevent the dilapidated 10-unit brick apartment building from being replaced with more modern, single-family housing.
Demonstrators blame city officials for amplifying the Minneapolis housing crisis since the city is facilitating the building’s destruction. They also criticize the city with attempting to force low-income residents out of the Phillips neighborhood, the city’s largest and poorest district.
The city is involved with the project through the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which acquired the property via eminent domain, a process that lets the city acquire properties from private owners if officials can prove that the property is blighted and there is a better public use for it.
Local nonprofit housing organization Project for Pride in Living then acquired the building from the MCDA and decided to raze instead of restore it because it would be cheaper to do so, said PPL project manager Chris Wilson. Wilson also said the units are too small.
The nonprofit group has been working on another large community revitalization project in Phillips called “Portland Place.” With help from nearby Honeywell, the project focuses on replacing larger, high-density apartment buildings with single-family condominiums.
Activists charge that these efforts are gentrifying the city: moving the poorer, minority communities out of the way for wealthier residents to increase the city’s tax base.
“This is a swindle for the nonprofit organizations to front for the gentrification of the city, while claiming to represent low-income renters,” said Kirk Hill, the director of the Minnesota Tenants Union.
Wednesday’s demonstrators said by demolishing the condemned building, the city is pushing poor people out of the central city and far away from Honeywell, one of the state’s largest, most prominent corporations, much like what they say happened with Portland Place.
Some housing stalwarts agreed. At the demonstration, they presented photos of the building’s interior, explaining how easy it would be to revamp the property.
“I know what it would cost to do this place,” said Steve Meldahl, a contractor who has rehabilitated houses for the past 27 years. “I could rehab it — and really doll it up — for $20,000.”
Charles Disney, the executive director for the landlord group Minneapolis Property Rights Action, took a similar stance.
“Take a look at the foundation,” Disney said, motioning to the building. “Take a look at how well it’s built. It’s made out of bricks; it’s hardwood floors. This building was serving the community very well. If we just could get the cooperation of the city to stop tearing down buildings, we wouldn’t have an affordable-housing crisis, would we?”
But instead of renovating, PPL plans to replace the building with six, two-bedroom apartment units to rent out for $520 a month. The replacement is part of a larger project aimed at rehabilitating blighted buildings on the south side.
City Council member Brian Herron supports the plan, saying that it will create higher-quality, affordable housing for residents in his ward.
“While we want affordable housing, people don’t have to settle for anything just because they don’t have a lot of money,” Herron said, noting that he will keep his eye on PPL during the project.
“(The project) should be done in a way that doesn’t really displace people and that really kind of respects the community but brings the community standards up,” he said.
Furthermore, Herron debunked the idea of gentrification on the south side, describing the residents of Portland Place.
“If you look at the makeup of the people who have moved into the area, certainly they are not people who seem to have a whole lot of money,” he said. “You have a couple of Somalian families, and you have a few other families, plus there are Habitat for Humanity units on both ends of the project.”
Herron estimated that 99 percent of the people displaced by the project were relocated to housing better than what they had before.
Wilson said improving the standard of living is the goal of the project and has made the Portland Place project safer, evidenced by lower crime rates.
“This used to be a ghetto until PPL came. Now there’s no gang-banging or nothing,” said Alvin Fleander, who lives next door to the condemned building. “That building used to be a crack-infested building.”
Fleander said PPL plans to destroy the house he is living in, forcing him to relocate.
During the demonstration, Fleander blasted music from his house, causing the meeting to temporarily halt.
Marie Hollins lives across the street from the demonstration site and didn’t allow the MCDA to raze her house.
Last year, MCDA told Hollins her huge house was slated to be destroyed as part of a rebuilding effort in the area. Through pressure from a letter-writing campaign and media attention, the agency decided not to demolish the house.
But things are not looking so great for Kevin Johnson, a local artists who works in his studio on Bloomington Avenue.
The MCDA recently informed him that his building is on a list of homes along Bloomington Avenue South targeted by the agency for possible demolition.
In a meeting Tuesday night, Johnson said the MCDA was just looking at options but will probably include his building in a lot that includes some high-density housing.
If they do remove him, Johnson said he will get some reimbursement from the MCDA, but he’s already settled in his building.
“I’ve been there for 10 years and have put a lot into it for my needs,” he said. “I don’t want to move.”
— Staff Reporter Sascha Matuzak contributed to this article.

Max Rust welcomes comments at rus[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3227.