A year after neighborhood groups and affordable housing advocates filed federal complaints saying Minneapolis and St. Paul contributed to racial and ethnic segregation, community members said they are cautiously optimistic that change is on the way.

The complaints by the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), lodged with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the Twin Cities concentrated affordable housing in “low-opportunity, high-poverty communities” — allegations the cities deny.

But instead of having HUD investigate the claims, the cities opted to negotiate voluntary compliance agreements. The agreements require that they include more community members as they analyze and address regional affordable housing issues.

“The complaint is, we believe, unfounded,” said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, St. Paul planning and economic development director. “But what came out of those discussions is an agreement from all parties … that a robust analysis of impediments would be good for the region.”

The St. Paul City Council is expected to approve its agreement Wednesday. The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to authorize the city attorney’s office to negotiate and complete documents needed to resolve the complaint. The agreement will essentially be the same as St. Paul’s, said Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal.

MICAH has filed several complaints with HUD in recent years. A 2014 complaint about the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency is still under negotiation and HUD is investigating the situation, said Sue Watlov Phillips, MICAH executive director.

The complaints that MICAH filed last year, which are now being resolved, focused on Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Housing Finance Board. They said that the cities adopted and enforced policies that limited the development of affordable housing in “high-opportunity, majority-white communities.”

MICAH’s goal was “to put pressure on folks to move ahead with implementing fair housing rules,” Watlov Phillips said.

Community involvement

Minneapolis and St. Paul staff said they, along with other members of the metro-area Fair Housing Implementation Council, were already planning to revise an analysis of barriers to fair housing that they had completed last year.

“We’re not being forced to do this. We absolutely have been planning on doing this work for over a year,” said Andrea Brennan, housing policy and development director for Minneapolis.

In its previous analysis, the council did not use the data and mapping tools that HUD rolled out last summer to help governments evaluate and identify problems. Over the next year, the local governments need to use those tools to review issues including segregation, racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty and the distribution of affordable housing in the region, according to a letter from HUD Regional Director Maurice McGough.

The agreement St. Paul is expected to approve says an advisory committee that includes community stakeholders and a representative from MICAH must be involved in the analysis and provide recommendations throughout the process.

HUD agreed to provide $100,000 to cover the cost of involving community stakeholders in the process. That level of community engagement is unique and will be a pilot program for HUD, Sage-Martinson said.

The agreements with the cities are just the beginning of a long process to address discrimination in housing, said Ricardo McCurley, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, one of three neighborhood groups that partnered with MICAH to file the complaint against Minneapolis.

Systemic issues are hard to change, McCurley said, but “the first step is bringing them to the surface and acknowledging them — and that is what this is.”