Citizens must participate to revitalize neighborhood

Ten years after its conception, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program has received mixed reactions. The twenty-year, $400 million program aims to revitalize Minneapolis neighborhoods by allowing neighborhood residents — rather than the government — to decide how to spend funding. Each participating neighborhood elects a steering committee, which then drafts a plan to present to government officials.
The officials with the Minneapolis pilot project hired an independent consulting company to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of the process. After two years of research, consultants with the firm reported that the revitalization program is often effective and appreciated by many residents. But there are some fundamental flaws in the grassroots approach. The important question is not whether the NRP is capable of accomplishing its goals, but whether people can govern responsibly.
The program has had a “statistically meaningful and discernible impact” as well as “an important effect on stabilization,” said Renee Berger, president of TEAMWORKS, the firm that performed the study. Before the report was published, some critics had argued the neighborhood program failed to provide reasonable support for low-income residents. The research, however, clearly indicates poor and minority neighborhoods receive the greatest share of the NRP funding.
But just last month, the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association, one of the NRP’s committees, was racked by internal turmoil. Some of the trouble was allegedly based on racial politics and disputes over neighborhood priorities. The problem — and possibly the solution — lies in the fine print.
While neighborhoods in need of affordable housing do receive adequate funding, some poor and minority residents still claim they have not benefited from the program. In fact, the report stated that “home improvement assistance was distributed, roughly speaking, to the average Minneapolis resident, rather than targeted to those with more significant difficulty affording housing.”
When TEAMWORKS presented their report at the Minneapolis Public Library on June 20, roughly 20 people attended — mostly white urbanites. Whenever the consultants stopped and asked for questions, a black, male attendee voiced the same concern: Minorities and renters are not seeing any changes.
The problem is while the NRP targets specific neighborhoods for financial assistance, the actual beneficiaries of the money are determined by the neighborhood steering committee. In some cases, the money for improving low-income housing has been redirected to benefit homeowners — who are too often the controlling majority.
One cannot place all of the blame on the homeowner-dominated neighborhood committees, however. The report showed — and some residents agreed — homeowners and affluent citizens are more involved in the decision-making process, and more frequently serve on the committees.
Clearly, low-income residents in need of housing assistance must be present to claim their share of the appropriated funds. The democratically elected committees are perpetuating an unfair distribution of housing assistance partly because renters and low-income residents are not as outspoken as their wealthier neighbors.
Among many recommendations, TEAMWORKS advised the NRP to establish more rigid guidelines governing how neighborhoods spend their money. Indeed, while the idea of self-government is appealing, citizens simply might not be ready. When more low-income residents become active on their neighborhood committees, and when those committees begin to address the needs of the greater community, self-government will be feasible. But when affluent homeowners gobble up funds meant for building affordable housing, one must question whether people are truly ready to govern themselves. Doing so will require stronger citizen participation on the part of neglected low-income residents.
David Gustafson is an Editorial Writer. He welcomes comments at [email protected]