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Met Council Chair Susan Haigh

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

An activist Met Council is mixed up on poverty

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • November 16, 2013 - 4:21 PM

In terms of race and ethnicity, the Twin Cities region is one of the most rapidly diversifying metro areas in the nation. For 15 years, Hispanic, black and Asian residents — now almost a quarter of the population — have been flooding into the suburbs.

This is the American dream in action: people eager for a better life start in the cities, work hard and save, then find a house and yard to call their own. But an elite group of unelected officials — the Metropolitan Council, our regional government — wants to replace this dream with its own top-down vision.

The council was founded in the 1960s to oversee efficient regional use of sewers and roads. But under Gov. Mark Dayton, it is taking on a grandiose social mission. It plans to use “Thrive MSP 2040” — its 30-year development plan for the seven-county region, due out in early 2014 — to remake neighborhoods and impose planners’ vision of the ideal mix of race, ethnicity and income on every municipality.

It laid the foundation with its “Fair Housing and Equity Assessment,” a draft of which was released in June and which analyzed every census tract in the metro area to identify “Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty” and “Opportunity Clusters.” High-opportunity areas are essentially those with high-performing schools and low crime rates.

Using these data, the council will lay out what the region’s 187 municipalities must do to disperse poverty.

As yet, the council has provided few details. But the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development — the source of the $5 million planning grant the council used to fund its racial mapping — has made the project’s transformational nature clear. According to HUD, the mapping is intended to identify suburban land use and zoning practices that allegedly deny opportunity and create “barriers” for low-income and minority people. Regional plans, declares HUD, must ensure that suburbs change those practices to meet ratios consistent with racial and income quotas.

A look out east may signal what’s on the horizon. Westchester County is New York’s fourth most racially diverse. Nevertheless, HUD is requiring it to build 750 new units of low-income housing, with thousands more to follow. Most must be in neighborhoods that are less than 3 percent African-­American and 7 percent Hispanic.

Repeated reviews of Westchester’s 853 zoning districts have found no evidence of discriminatory zoning or land use. But HUD claims that racial or ethnic clustering in a municipality is, in and of itself, a violation of fair housing. It insists that typical zoning limits on the density, size, height or type of buildings are impermissible “restrictive practices,” and has ordered the county to sue its municipalities.

For HUD, it’s “not about 750 units,” Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has said, “it’s about changing the world.”

“If HUD can define what constitutes exclusionary practices, then local zoning as it is known today disappears,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Apartments, high rises or whatever else the federal government or a developer wants can be built on any block in America.”

Here in Minnesota, we can expect the Met Council’s housing and transit plans to reinforce its crusade to compel “economic integration.” Its “Transit-Oriented Development Strategic Action Plan,” released in June, strongly suggests that cities that want transportation money will have to meet “social equity” goals, including low-income housing and likely the zoning and other land-use regulation changes required to accommodate it.

Helping low-income and minority residents achieve success should be one of our most important goals. Yet the council’s approach is almost certain to fail.

Why? Its own race-and-income assessment provides a clue. It ranked neighborhoods on the five factors it considers the most important contributors to poverty: access to jobs; safe streets; good schools; social services and basic amenities, and distance from environmental hazards. Yet the analysis revealed that, overall, residents of “racially concentrated areas of poverty” actually have better access to jobs, services and amenities than do residents of “opportunity clusters.” How can we explain this?

The council’s ideology blinds it to a primary cause of entrenched poverty, which it never considers: self-destructive behavior. In Hennepin County, for example, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for U.S.-born blacks is 84 percent, while the white rate is 18 percent. Until we tackle barriers to opportunity like this, we will fail to make the progress against poverty we all desire.

 

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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