Every four years, the Minneapolis city election gives us an opportunity to set the direction for our city. Policing, development, racial equity, affordable housing, basic city services and other very important issues will be dictated by whom we elect this fall.
Unfortunately, one issue of critical importance to our city’s future and to the future of our most vulnerable citizens is absent from discussion this year. There has been almost no serious discussion about the future of the city’s 6,000 public housing units and the residents who live there. Public housing accounts for 4 percent of all housing units in the city. In the aggregate, these properties are worth $1 billion.
Public housing units are primarily concentrated in the inner core of the city and are a huge asset to our community. Many residents are elderly, disabled, children, single mothers or immigrants. They are easily ignored because they do not have the economic power or political connections to command the media’s attention.
All people need housing. It is a basic human right. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) controls these units. But, ultimately, the mayor and the City Council have the responsibility for the MPHA, its governance, the properties and the residents’ lives.
The MPHA recently hired Gregory Russ as executive director. Russ is a national expert in “public/private” partnerships. He has an ambition to sell or lease these 6,000 units (but not the land) to nongovernmental entities as a means to raise capital to rehabilitate the properties.
Inside City Hall, there is an intense debate about how this type of policy will affect the people who live in public housing. But in my view, the rest of the city is unaware, unengaged and unmindful of what this means. This issue needs to be front and center in this fall’s city election.
A good example of what the future could hold for many public housing units is Glendale Townhomes. Glendale Townhomes is a 184-unit public housing project in southeast Minneapolis, just within the shadow of the Prospect Park water tower, an area that I represented in the Legislature for 44 years. In fact, the first house my husband and I owned was right next to Glendale.
Built in 1952 for World War II veterans, Glendale has been a home for thousands over the last seven decades. Neighbors look after each other. Children can access Luxton Park and after-school programs. Residents rely on public transit to reach health care providers, schools and jobs. Children walk to their local elementary school. Glendale also is near the University of Minnesota and is within two blocks of the light-rail Green Line. It is a hot neighborhood for development.
Since the Green Line opened, the land Glendale sits on has become extremely valuable. Developers no doubt covet the location.
As recently as six years ago, the city had a $1 million-a-year levy devoted to public housing. These funds were eliminated under Mayor R.T. Rybak. MPHA officials now say they do not have funds to address basic wear and tear and necessary rehabilitation work.
This same story could be written about the thousands of other public housing units that are an important part of the fabric of our neighborhoods.
The city now has a 20-year plan to fund streets and parks. Where is the plan to fund public housing? There is a desperate need for public money to reinvest in this precious public housing asset. City elected officials need to get serious about this if we truly are going to be a city that takes care of its most vulnerable population.
No amount of creative financing will solve this problem. We certainly do not want public housing privatized and monetized, which is the deep fear of many current public housing residents.
The next mayor and City Council have a major public housing issue to deal with that will affect what our city looks like for the next generation. It’s time everyone in the city engages on this issue. I am hoping that this city election will result in a real plan for those among us most in need.
Phyllis Kahn, a DFLer, represented Minneapolis in the Minnesota House from 1972 to 2016.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the number of residents in public housing units.