When Habitat for Humanity does the displacing

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2011 - 7:37 PM

On a recent sunny morning Biftu Merdassa stood by the plate glass window of Global Braids, a business she scrimped and saved to start six years ago in a space just off University Avenue in St. Paul.

While her 4-year-old daughter, Mercy, danced to a Muppet movie on the television, Merdassa waited for customers. Out the window, she could see construction workers building the new rail line. She could see her neighbor, the printer, moving his equipment out. She could see the cars pass by, with nowhere to park. What she couldn't see was her future.

At the end of the month, Merdassa will be out of business, displaced indirectly by light rail, but more directly by a non-profit agency known for helping, well, displaced people: Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

The Zimmerman Building, at University and Prior, is unique in the area because all of the tenants -- small, tax-paying businesses -- have been there for years, including a barber whose father first leased a space in 1956. They have been there long enough to collect scores of clients, lots of neighborhood goodwill, and in the case of barber Gib Peppin, stacks of old Playboy magazines he keeps in a back room.

Susan Haigh, CEO of Habitat said Habitat has not yet closed on the building that will become its local headquarters but hopes to soon. All the businesses had monthly leases, but she said the agency encouraged the current owners to give them more time to move. They got three months, not long to move 50 years of history.

"I don't know where I'll go," said Merdassa, a tenant for six years. "I've spent the last year trying to survive with all the construction, and it's very hard to find something now on University."

While most of the tenants agree Habitat does good work, some are miffed they were forced to move so quickly. "They never thought about the businesses," said Merdassa. "They never talked to us. I don't think they care."

The previous owners of the building had warned tenants they were actively trying to sell, so they likely would have all had to leave regardless of who bought the Zimmerman. Because the light rail promises to bring new traffic and newer, shinier businesses, rents in the area are rising.

Merdassa, known for teaching parents who adopt African babies how to braid hair for free, said she would be eligible for a forgivable loan if she can stay on University, but landlords are asking at least double the rent she's now paying.

"They don't want independent renters like me," she said. "They want Great Clips."

Habitat's Haigh also happens to be the chair of the Metropolitan Council, which also happens to control the money for the rail line that will link Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"Ironic," said Peppin, who is not terribly pleased that a "liberal" non-taxpaying agency is replacing several longtime businesses. Peppin and barber Lynn Kallenbach have found jobs, but are sad to be leaving their five-decade "man cave," which features photos of Peppin in his body-building days and pictures of Elvis and a scantily clad woman next to a Harley Davidson.

"My stomach sunk that day I got the notice [to leave]," said Peppin. "I got a little sweaty on my forehead. It was hairy."

He laughed uneasily at his pun, then wondered aloud if Haigh's office would overlook the light rail.

"Like I said, ironic."

Haigh said her roles at the nonprofit and as a public official are "completely separate" and that they chose this location because it would allow easy access to clients who may not have cars.

"I certainly understand the difficulties this will create," she said. The area is zoned for nonprofits, and a new building will be an asset, she said.

Not everyone is upset. Next door to the barber shop, Dave and Elaine Liss were waiting for a customer to bring a bottle of champagne to their print shop. Dave is retiring.

"I'm glad a good organization is going to be here," said Elaine Liss. "They do a lot of good work. Could we have gotten a little more notice? Yes."

On Friday, Merdassa was planning to visit more potential locations. Meanwhile, she was planning to store her beauty chairs and equipment until she could open a new business.

"If I were [Habitat], I'd build a new business building in the neighborhood," she said.

The agency's mission statement declares that "homes and families are the foundation of successful communities."

Merdassa and Peppin are reminders that so are small businesses.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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