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When she was recruited for a landmark lawsuit to desegregate public housing in Minneapolis, Lucy Mae Hollman was an unmarried mother of four living in the North Side projects who wanted a bigger unit in a safer neighborhood.
Thanks to her willingness to sign on to the lawsuit, filed 20 years ago this month, Hollman's name ended up a household word on the North Side. The Hollman litigation resulted in the demolition of 770 aging public housing units, construction of public housing in the suburbs and redevelopment of 73 acres of prime real estate near downtown Minneapolis now known as Heritage Park.
But unlike hundreds of other former Minneapolis public housing residents, Hollman has never achieved her housing dream. Instead, the Mississippi-born woman has bounced through at least nine addresses in north Minneapolis, still looking for housing stability despite repeated help from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
She's lived in scattered-site public housing in the Victory neighborhood, where she said hers was the first black family on the block, and drew complaints to the housing authority over noise and unauthorized visitors. She's used rental vouchers in several neighborhoods. She was briefly a homeowner, losing one house to a school expansion and the next one when she stopped making payments.
On the move
"I've been moving ever since I left the projects. I wish I was like Dorothy and could just click my heels and go back," Hollman said in a recent interview. "What I was searching for, basically I never found it."
At 53, Hollman calls herself retired. She once worked as a hotel maid and a day care worker, but she says she suffers from depression and a bad disc that prevent her from working. She said her name was so well known from the lawsuit that she sometimes lied to leery landlords that it was someone else.
Hollman's stormy relationship with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority began 30 years ago, when she put her name on a waiting list to get into one of the aging projects on Olson Highway. Four years later, in September 1986, Hollman moved into a public housing unit at 690 Emerson Av. N. She was living on $6,384 in welfare and, according to public housing files, paid $105 monthly for a three-bedroom rowhouse for herself and three children, plus $31 for utilities.
She almost didn't make it. An evaluator told Hollman she was being rejected for a poor rental history, including an extra adult not on her lease, a pet that violated the lease and too many visitors. Despite a follow-up visit that found poor housekeeping, the housing authority changed its mind.
Run-ins with housing agency
Records from her housing authority file, which she permitted the Star Tribune to review, show she continued to tussle with the agency over alleged lease violations, include a shoplifting charge and an unauthorized long-term guest. By the time she'd spent three years in the projects, the authority had filed five actions to evict her for failure to pay rent. In early 1990, the authority obtained a writ ordering her out, saying it wouldn't accept back rent, but it relented.
Legal Aid attorneys entered Hollman's life around this time, demanding improvements in her living conditions. There were roaches in her unit, and Legal Aid insisted that new sod be laid over dirt in a yard where her attempts to grow grass were foiled by removal of spigots. "This dirt is so old God walked on it," Hollman told Susan Carroll, who represented Hollman at Legal Aid. Hollman also got new screens and shades and new paint.
Surviving the projects
Back then, the projects were the first step on the public housing ladder. A tenant did time in the crime-ridden projects, then hoped for a transfer to scattered-site housing the authority owned in other neighborhoods, and maybe eventually to private housing using federal rent subsidies.
Legal Aid was digging into the condition of the projects, talking to friends of Hollman and other tenants at nearby playgrounds. Others were afraid to join a lawsuit, but Hollman agreed to lend her name to it. The goal was to break up the concentration of poor, minority public housing tenants in the projects and the concentration of people using rental subsidies.
In 1994, as the lawsuit moved through the court, Hollman abruptly moved out of her unit. After she was subpoenaed to be a witness in a nearby shooting, someone left a dead rat at her door as a warning, along with an ace of spades, and the word "snitch" and an epithet were spray-painted on her unit. Legal Aid urged an immediate transfer, and she moved out two days after a relative of the suspected gunman threatened her.
For the first time in years, Hollman was far from the projects, in a scattered-site home on Washburn Avenue N. She got on fine with some neighbors; others called the authority to complain of large numbers of residents or visitors, loud music and loud voices.
"Anything that happened, it was 'those black folks,' she said. She left that home and moved into a four-bedroom house in the Camden area, with the help of a federal Section 8 rent subsidy. But public housing officials were looking into her work history, discovering several thousand dollars in undisclosed income. They billed her $2,812 for back rent, but backed off after when Legal Aid filed a grievance.
Hollman's new rent was $900 a month, $390 of that paid by her voucher. She lived there just over a year until the owner sold the house. They billed her $2,125 for damages.
At that time, Hollman's Section 8 money could be used to help buy her own house. She paid $80,000 for a home at 2605 Aldrich Av. N. The price was far more than what the seller had paid, making the transaction appear to be a property-flipping scam. There was another problem. The school district wanted her house and others for a new school. It bought her out and she was on the move again.
She used the money she'd cleared after paying off her mortgage to buy a house a block off Broadway Avenue. But she did so on a contract for deed, meaning she'd lose the house and her payments if she didn't keep them up. A year later, she was behind, having stopped making payments because her "landlord" hadn't made repairs. The seller canceled the contract in 2001 and took back the house.
Hollman was forced to live in a shelter until Legal Aid helped her obtain another voucher. That got her into an apartment just seven blocks from Heritage Park. The rented duplex had peeling paint outside, and roaches and leaks inside her upstairs unit.
Wants back in project
Galen Robinson, a Legal Aid litigation director, inherited the Hollman lawsuit file. He said that Hollman's odyssey is not unlike that of many poor people who cycle through apartments as their economic situations and relations with a landlord fluctuate.
"It's sad that she hasn't yet found what she was looking for, but I don't know what the reasons are," he said.
Hollman lives upstairs in another nondescript duplex these days, a few doors from North Regional Library. She likes the place but said the stairs are hard on her. Where she wants to go is the place she started -- the redeveloped projects where 200 units reserved for people eligible for public housing are mixed into 440 apartments for all incomes. Legal Aid Society years ago negotiated a right of return there for Hollman -- but only after all others displaced from the projects who wanted to return could be accommodated. That was projected to happen in 2004. Hollman is still waiting.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438