The nation’s top housing official heard firsthand Friday some of the simmering tensions among Twin Cities affordable housing advocates, who are trying to balance inner-city housing needs with a growing desire to integrate affluent suburbs.
Hundreds of people attended the meeting with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro hosted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., at a south Minneapolis church. It was Castro’s third visit to the city in three months, and he used his opening remarks to acknowledge the difficulties that come with choosing places to build affordable housing.
“We’re trying to make a great difference in older, distressed areas for the benefit of folks who’ve been living there, who call those places home. At the same time, we know that mobility is important,” Castro said. “Some folks do want to move to other areas. They want other opportunities or a different opportunity for their family.”
In July, HUD put new requirements on cities to analyze and actively combat housing segregation. Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities metro, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Richfield have filed a complaint with HUD alleging that state agencies are improperly allowing affluent, largely white suburbs to avoid building affordable housing — concentrating poverty elsewhere.
A panel of housing experts at the meeting Friday mostly agreed that the Twin Cities needs more subsidized affordable housing. Some were more insistent it should be in affluent suburbs, while others observed that many low-income people would rather stay in their existing neighborhoods.
“It’s harder to produce units in affluent communities,” said Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel. “It costs more, they complain, they protest, they threaten lawsuits. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
Goettel said those cities would be motivated to build more affordable housing if they otherwise risked losing state and federal dollars. She also criticized large affordable housing companies for building low-income units in areas that already have higher levels of poverty.
But Paul Williams, executive director of Project for Pride in Living, a company that has built such complexes, countered that their projects and other investments have improved inner-city neighborhoods like Phillips and Frogtown. He said the new HUD rule, since it requires cities to assess housing patterns, will help fight suburban land-use policies that have made affordable housing difficult to build in the past.
“Let’s really focus on what is excluding people from those communities, as opposed to focusing on what we’ve done wrong,” Williams said.
Community organizer Nelima Sitati, also on the panel, said the conversation should focus more on the root causes of poverty.
Sitati said she had to fight Brooklyn Park’s plan more than a decade ago to demolish her apartment building. There was nothing wrong with the property, she said, but the city was not investing in that area and tenants of the building could not get better jobs. “What was wrong was all the continued private investment that was happening in corporations in terms of tax abatement, etc., with nobody holding them accountable for providing opportunities for people who were capable of accessing those opportunities,” Sitati added.
One audience member, Ethrophic Burnett, moved to an outer-ring suburb more than a decade ago after a landmark federal lawsuit prompted the dispersal of public housing units and rent subsidies far outside the city core. The cultural divide was great enough that she ultimately moved back to Minneapolis to buy a home.
“I was the first black African-American family in an all-white neighborhood,” said Burnett, who works for Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit developer. “For me and my children, that tore us away from our social capital.”
Some in the audience said criminal records and evictions are a barrier to people finding stable housing, in part because they often disqualify people from federally subsidized rental housing. Castro said HUD hopes to address that amid the growing criminal justice reform debate.
“I very firmly believe that HUD has a role to play, that housing has a role to play in ensuring that we effectively give folks a second chance in life,” Castro said.