What if it does happen in your back yard?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2013 - 4:55 PM

Revisiting the site of a controversial supportive housing initiative in Minneapolis, we find that things didn’t turn out so badly.

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The building that was at the center of the Lydia House controversy in south Minneapolis a decade ago.

Photo: Duane Braley • Star Tribune 2001,

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No pickets were in sight when a small group gathered recently in the senior pastor’s office at Plymouth Congregational Church to talk about Lydia Apartments, a supportive housing facility that the church helped launch 10 years ago last month amid a storm of local opposition.

I missed them. Unhappy neighbors were a big part of the rebirth story of what had been an abandoned pink wreck of a nursing home across LaSalle Avenue from the Minneapolis church. I wanted to know how the picketers view the unobtrusive beige building today, now that its positive contribution to both its residents and the neighborhood are clear.

“Please don’t demonize the opposition,” urged the Rev. James Gertmenian. “They are people who live in this community and care about the community just as we do. We had different perspectives about what would work” to improve the neighborhood that surrounds Franklin and Nicollet Avenues.

That wasn’t just a professional preacher of forgiveness talking, though Gertmenian is a local leader in that role. It’s also learned wisdom about how to handle NIMBYism, the Not In My Back Yard resistance that predictably arises when all manner of urban change is proposed. Minneapolis is growing again, and urban growth is to NIMBYism as global warming is to extreme weather. Gertmenian’s counsel wasn’t just for this journalist, but also for all the newly elected officeholders at City Hall.

Beginning 12 years ago — just as Minneapolis was electing a new mayor — proponents of Lydia Apartments confronted a NIMBY strain that’s particular to facilities that aim to help people troubled by homelessness, poverty, mental illness, chemical dependency and/or a criminal past. Lydia’s opponents argued that such facilities were too densely concentrated in the Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhoods, and that this one ought to go to the suburbs instead. They further predicted that Lydia would bring more behavioral nuisances to a neighborhood that was already plagued with too many.

That argument might have carried the day if Lydia’s proponents had not borne the good name and resources of one of the city’s oldest and largest churches. And if they had not won over both then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, her challenger (and successor) R.T. Rybak, and City Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose ward’s decennially changeable boundaries have both included and excluded the LaSalle/Franklin corner through the years. It’s back in her ward starting in January.

“The thing the opposition didn’t get is that the people who were going to live in Lydia House [now Apartments] lived in our neighborhood already,” Goodman said. “They just didn’t have homes.”

They also misunderstood the Lydia proposal. It isn’t a group home or halfway house. It’s supportive housing. Lydia offers permanent, independent living in self-contained efficiency apartments to people who have experienced both chronic homelessness and mental or physical disability, including chemical dependency and HIV/AIDS. What makes it “supportive” is the on-site presence of professional social workers and 24/7 staff who assist tenants in a variety of ways — mediating disputes, counseling about finances, convening support groups. They also enforce Lydia’s no-alcohol and no-drugs policy.

Neighborhood opponents picketed Plymouth Church’s Sunday services for a year. They took their case against Lydia all the way to the state Court of Appeals, and lost. Lydia opened on Nov. 3, 2003.

Marion Biehn was then a member of the governing board of Whittier Alliance, a locus of opposition. Today she’s the Alliance’s executive director. Biehn acknowledges that Lydia has been a good neighbor, but says the Alliance would still resist it today.

“We would still have preferred not to have it in that location, because we still have a concentration of services of that nature. The addition of another one didn’t and doesn’t give the neighborhood an ability to diversify,” she said.

Yet since Lydia opened, its neighborhood has changed — for the better. Crime is down. New retail-plus-residential buildings are up. The Semple Mansion next door, used as a bank for decades, is looking grand again as a mansion-for-hire event center.

The improvement is in spite of Lydia, not because of it, argued Barbara Lickness, a project foe who moved out of the neighborhood in 2010. But she, too, is charitable: “Lydia seems to be working well. Maybe they are managing it well because they know the neighborhood is paying attention. I have nothing bad to say about it.”

Neither does Steve Gallagher, executive director of Stephens Square Community Organization. Lydia is “absolutely a good neighbor,” and the very thing that made it controversial — its supportive services — is the reason, he said. “It’s very well managed. Its front-desk person is always there with eyes on the residents and eyes on the street.”

Lydia is now in the hands of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, the St. Paul-based successor to Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation that draws support from 50 congregations. It provides a variety of services aimed at ending homelessness and operates 16 facilities, offering a mix of affordable and supportive housing.

None of them have run a NIMBY gauntlet as challenging as Lydia faced. That may be because the Lydia experience taught Beacon’s backers valuable lessons — ones that have wider application in a growing city.

“We learned that the neighborhoods can be incredible partners if you invite them into the process early,” Gertmenian said. “That’s not to say we’ll all agree on what should happen. There’s going to be controversy. But when given an opportunity to play a role in the development process, neighbors become not only supporters but sometimes advocates.”

Connecting Beacon’s residents and their neighbors has been important, said Beacon executive director Lee Blons. Beacon recruits supporters willing to share positive stories with their neighbors. A fundraiser for Beacon’s youth housing was conducted last year in the same gymnasium where hostilities erupted over Lydia a dozen years ago. Some neighbors have knitted hats for needy young people.

“We’ve changed the thinking about who is our neighbor,” Blons said.

One more idea needs selling, City Council Member Goodman says: “There shouldn’t be an expectation that the city is static. For the city to do better, we need to grow, and growth has to go somewhere. If you want to live somewhere where there’s no change, you ought to be in suburbia surrounded by people just like you. If you are in a living, breathing city, you have to expect change.”

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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